About 13 years ago I lost my protest virginity on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Like many other Malaysians of the Reformasi generation I was deflowered in a mass crowd under assault from Federal Reserve Unit troops in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
It was actually a two-for-one loss of innocence. I had been attending the Asia-Pacific Peoples’ Assembly (APPA) at the Federal Hotel, had my first taste of Special Branch officers, with their awkward moustaches and unfashionable leather jackets, as well as my first taste of Malaysian activism.
The week-long conference culminated in a protest for migrant worker’s rights outside KLCC, where many had died to build Dr Mahathir’s monument to his development ambitions.
Conveniently enough, a Reformasi protest was scheduled around the other side building. They seemed to be daily affairs back then.
Prior to the event, I remembered weighing up the merits of going to the APPA protest. Virginal jitters, no doubt. I asked an old schoolmate, now head of UMNO Youth, what he thought. He cautioned me that the government could be vicious and without mercy towards demonstrators. He gave me the impression that he feared the consequences of going and that it would be unwise for me to attend.
However, fear was precisely the reason that I did attend.
Like my schoolmate, I had lived much of my life outside of Malaysia, due to my father’s career. At the age of eight, I was belatedly informed (or reminded) by my parents that I was Malaysian and not British, as I thought, and that I had a national language to learn. Thus began my acquaintance with Sang Kancil books and Bahasa Malaysia.
So I entered a world of mouse deer and jungle capers whilst I went to school in a wintry land. I had very little conception of what Malaysia was like aside from the rare trip for family matters. One thing I did learn quickly when we moved back a year later was fear. Fear of the government.
Fear of the government such that when criticism was voiced – and that was frequent enough – my parents would drop their voices, even whilst in the four walls of our home.
Maybe they had good reason to do so, because when I was 10 our house in Jesselton Heights in Penang was raided by police one Friday evening on the pretext of investigating reports of “gambling and prostitution”. If you are at all familiar with Penang real estate, you will know that Jesselton Heights is not exactly the most wretched hive of scum and villainy on the West Coast.
Fifteen or so officers tore through our home, finding nothing, and left us bewildered and frightened in their wake. My father didn’t know why until sometime later. Those were Operasi Lalang days, and prior to the raid my dad had cheerfully agreed to fill in as chairman for a talk by Lim Kit Siang to a group of doctors. The previous chairman had seen the souring political trend and had decided that getting my father to take over was better than valour.
Operasi Lalang helped confirm my parents’ fears that the government was repressive, brutish, and intolerant of dissent and criticism.
I grew up with the belief that, aside from enthusiastic gastronomy and an overweening obsession with race, an integral part of being Malaysian was fear. Those that spoke up got locked up, the rest lived their lives in quiet fear and anxious expectation of the next mall opening.
Years later as a young adult, I found that I had little respect for what I thought of as the quiet desperation of the “Malaysian Way of Life”. Having studied overseas much of my life, my national loyalties were tenuous, and they were encouraged to be such. I felt little empathy for what I thought were a frightened, cowed people.
That all changed in 1998 when I protested outside of KLCC. Suddenly, at APPA and in Reformasi, I had foundthousands of other Malaysians who weren’t afraid to show their dissatisfaction, their anger, their outrage at injustices. These were Malaysians who weren’t content to lie down and let the politicians and their cronies walk all over them.
These were Malaysians I could respect, and more importantly, identify with. And with that, on the streets of KL, protesting against a cruel government, I found my nationality, my Malaysian-ness. I found courage, not just in myself, but in my countrymen and countrywomen.
To hell with finding a secure career in some ‘developed country’. My place was here. Though studies and work took me around the world, to more protests in London, New York, New Delhi, the Hague, Johannesburg, Bali, Porto Alegre, and beyond (yes, by now I was a protest slut), I never lost sight of my goal to return to Malaysia and work alongside those brave women and men who were committed to making this country, our country, better.
Am I going to next week’s BERSIH march? Hell, yes. Am I going to wear yellow? Absolutely. Am I scared? Some nervous anticipation, sure. But, one can’t be brave until one has tasted fear.
In a country famed for its melange of flavours, the taste of fear is the one flavour I like least in Malaysian life. The taste of freedom and fairness is too rare here, but it is one that I will chase until the end of my days. I am so proud and encouraged that there are so many who share the same hunger. Come join us.
Yin Shao Loong works as an environmental policy advisor with the Selangor Government.