by Elaine F.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but lies instead in acting in spite of fear.”
I’ve heard numerous variations of that quote, but never have I seen it put so plainly into action with my very own eyes.
8th of July, I was still weighing whether or not to risk attending the rally the next day. I have “so much” to lose. Possible blemished record making my chances of scholarships or even university placements overseas shrink to nil. My life? The possibility – while far-fetched – still existed.
It wasn’t until meeting up with a like-minded friend that night that it hit me: what was the use of all the talk, if I was too chicken to walk?
A mutual friend tried to dissuade us – it’s too dangerous, he said. What if something happens to you? What then?
It was at this point that I knew I was going. His words struck fear in me, no doubt – why wouldn’t they?
But I realized then that this was exactly the reaction all the scare tactics were trying to elicit. My resolve strengthened. There was no way I wasn’t going now.
I woke up early on the morning of 9th July. I couldn’t sleep much: most likely the adrenaline. My cousin and I quickly packed all the essentials and made our way to Bangsar where we met up with a group of young professionals. We looked like we were about to go hiking, not exactly the kind of outfits you’d expect a group of yuppies to wear into KL!
I tried not to think of the possibility that we’d get arrested upon stepping off the train.
Arriving at Pasar Seni at 10am, the atmosphere was the first thing I noticed. There was an eerie silence. Huge police trucks were parked outside Central Market. The tension in the air was palpable – everyone was on edge, wary of each other, but secretly hoping we were on the same “side”.
Walking through Chinatown to find somewhere to eat brunch and wait, we passed by Aunty Annie Ooi and I remember thinking: “Wow, she’s so brave!” and feeling mildly ashamed of my own cowardice in not bringing along anything yellow.
And So It Begins
At 12.00pm, went back out onto the street to see if anything had started. In the distance, I saw the FRU start to move, and just beyond them, I could see a large group of people already marching.
My heart started to beat faster. There was no need to find something to do til 2.00pm. It had started. This was really happening!
Our group decided to join the crowd gathered at Petaling Street as no one had a clue as to how to begin marching, or even if we should. Other people there seemed similarly lost, but there was a buzz building in the air that was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time.
And then we heard it.
Chanting, faint at first, but growing louder by the minute. Around the corner from Kota Raya marched a group of people chanting “Hidup Bersih!” and “Hidup Rakyat”. They were greeted with roaring cheers from the people lining the sidewalks, and as if on cue, people started walking with the group.
By the time we reached the first police blockade, the group, which had previously been a few hundred strong, now filled the entire street from end to end. Jumping up (I was too short!), all I could see was a sea of people, all chanting, cheering in high spirits.
Around me I saw everything that made Malaysia Malaysia: Malays, Indians, Chinese, Punjabis, Orang Asli (West and East Malaysian), Unidentifiables (like myself!) and even some foreigners. Young, middle-aged and old, we were all represented, even in the small cross-section of the crowd that I could clearly see. Young men were exchanging jokes, old makciks in tudungs were urging observers to join the throng… the atmosphere was nothing short of a carnival, and it very much depicted what I’ve come to recognize as being very Malaysian in spirit: carefree, fun-loving and open.
The decision to turn back and head to Pudu was met with no fuss from the large crowd, and the throng moved in an orderly fashion towards Dataran Maybank.
The Plot (and Air!) Thickens
I couldn’t believe my eyes when Dataran Maybank came into view. I had thought our group was big: here, it seemed, the crowd had multiplied tenfold!
Some in the crowd must have had memories of the first Bersih in 2007, though, and word was soon going around to prepare for tear gas. Not long after, the crowd was abuzz with the news that the water cannon trucks were in place. We all knew what this meant: we were about to be attacked by our very own police force.
When the first sprays of the water cannons filled the street, people still cheered. Some even called out good naturedly “Mandi Bersih!” in response to the police’s unprovoked use of the chemical-laced water.
Seconds later, though, we heard cracks, like gunshots, and suddenly the air seemed to disappear. My lungs burned and all around me I could hear people, choking and gasping – no one had the lung power to scream.
For a moment, as we were being crushed against the wall by a sea of people blinded by tear gas, I thought: this is it. This is how it ends.
But a desperate scan around me (the goggles were a godsend!) revealed an almost empty street. I dashed across to Puduraya, half-sliding, half-jumping down the slope to the basement of the city’s main bus station. My cousin found me there, and we shared our baking soda solution with a Malay uncle who begged me for water to wash his face.
We barely stopped to catch a breath when a shout of “Lari! FRU datang!” came, without stopping to think – we ran back up the slope onto Jalan Pudu. All around me, people – regardless of race – were passing around water, salt, calming each other down, fanning those who’d fainted from the gas…
Was this the vicious mob that the Powers-that-Be had been painting all week long? It certainly didn’t fit the description.
Caught in the Middle
The police and FRU kept advancing, pushing the crowd deeper into Jalan Pudu. Another round of tear gas was fired, we were forced further down the road.
As we attempted to recover from the second volley of gas, the call went around to sit down – a universal sign of a peaceful protest. The huge crowd of over a thousand people, sat down accordingly, because we had come in peace and no matter what, we would remain peaceful.
That’s when the police fired tear gas again. This time, into a crowd that was seated down!
The crowd moved back again, and many started marching away from the FRU blockade… only to realize that the end of the street – the only possible exit – was blocked off by another police blockade.
We were trapped!
The police’s sole intention of using the tear gas and water cannons seemed to be to make an example of us – there was no way we could disperse if we’d wanted to!
After more rounds of tear gas, many of us decided to walk around the shop lots, where we discovered a hospital situated on a slope – the now infamous Tung Shin.
Suddenly, we saw a large portion of the crowd running up behind us, we ran up the slope into the Tung Shin compound. It has to be noted here that men were letting women and children go first, and many were helping people climb up the steeper bits of the slope.
Just as everyone had gotten to safety, a group of FRU officers marched into the area below the hospital compound. And then, with no warning, a canister of tear gas landed not 10 feet away from where I was standing.
The fury of the people was almost a tangible thing: “How can you tear gas a HOSPITAL?” The police lost even more credibility in that moment.
A flurry of tweets, texts and phone calls flew around the compound. All around me, I could hear people exclaiming indignantly to friends/family over the phone that the police had been stupid and cruel enough to tear gas a hospital.
Til now I wonder how the government can explain the number of almost instantaneous eye-witness reports from so many sources on the ground, who have little or no connection to one another.
The Trap and the “Great Escape”
40 minutes passed, and it seemed we’d been granted a respite. Word from the street came up to the crowd waiting patiently outside Tung Shin’s traditional medicine wing: the police were willing to negotiate a dispersal and had agreed not to attack us.
A collective cheer went up as people moved back out onto the street, where we saw others already waiting on the street. In our joy, we urged all those who were still in the hospital compound to join us.
Boy, was that a mistake.
10 minutes later – after the crowd had cheerfully sung a round of “Negaraku” and had playfully chanted “Buka jalan!” at the police, a shout came from the front:
By then, we knew that when we heard “Lari!”, we should act first, ask questions later.
So, back into the Tung Shin grounds we ran, and looking over my shoulder, to my utmost disgust and dismay, the people who had been closest to the police were being sprayed by the water cannons.
It looked very much like we’d been lured back onto the street just so they could subject us to their “dispersal techniques” yet again. I felt sick, even as I ran with the crowd to the hilly slopes behind the hospital. How could they be so despicable?
The escape up the slopes behind Tung Shin will remain in my mind forever: young Malay men (some were just boys!) stood aside, allowing the elderly, women and children to climb up first. I saw three young Malay men help an older Indian man who was struggling to climb up the steep, muddy slope. People were pulling each other up, and at the top, more young men used their towels as leverage to haul people up to the top.
The way we were forced to escape shook me. It was like we were fugitives, in our own country. The country we loved enough to come out to fight for.
Looking down into the compound, I saw those who had allowed others to climb up first out of the goodness and nobility of their hearts, get beaten and arrested by the police.
I had never experienced such a wave of gratitude and sadness in my life. Gratitude for the sacrifice those young men had made, and sadness because they had done what the police – the protectors of the people – had failed to do: protect us.
Walking back towards the main road, we soon discovered our small group of stragglers had been separated from the larger crowd. By then it was close to 4.00pm, the stipulated time for dispersal.
We made our way to Dang Wangi station to wait for our friends. We were exhausted, drenched, covered in the smell of vinegar, but over it all was a deep sense of peace.
In spite of being treated no better than animals, we, Malaysians had remained strong, remained together and clung to our purpose:
To march peacefully to create awareness amongst our people that to truly be a democratic country, a free, fair and transparent election process is paramount.
Bersih 2.0 had succeeded in doing in 4 hours, what the government had failed to do for 2 years: Malaysians of every race, religion and creed had stood united for a common purpose. Despite dire warnings of a May 13 repeat, we showed the world that we are truly one people, one nation and we are willing to fight for the land that we love.
As the buzz has died down a little over the past few days, people have been asking, “What’s Bersih’s next move?”
I believe the question we should be asking is: “What is our next move, as Malaysians?”
Two simple steps I believe anyone (regardless of political affiliations) can take:
1. If you haven’t already, register to vote! More so than in a street rally, votes can count towards concrete change taking place.
2. If you’re already a voter, or too young to vote, keep abreast of current issues and make sure that the people you know are, too.
For me, July 9th, 2011 should go down in history as the day Malaysians finally realized that we need no longer keep silent. The day that Malaysians of all walks of life stood up to be counted. The day where all the lies of racial discord were exposed and the people showed that we understand what it means to be MALAYSIAN, first and foremost.
We are not traitors. We love our country. And we will keep fighting for her, for her future, which is our future.
“Maka kami, rakyat Malaysia, berikrar akan menumpukan seluruh tenaga dan usaha kami untuk mencapai cita-cita tersebut, dan berdasarkan atas prinsip-prinsip yang berikut:
Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan
Kesetiaan kepada Raja dan Negara
Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan.”
We love you, Malaysia! – The Rocket