In the end, I wore yellow for Maria Chin Abdullah. I wore yellow for Ronnie Liu, Tian Khiew, Mandeep Singh Karpall Singh, Muhamad Luqman Nul Haqim Zul Razali, Arutchelvan Subramaniam, Wong Chee Wai @ Jimmy Wong, Lee Khai Meng, Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof, Hairol Nizam Md Nor, Razali Zakaria Muhamad Safwan Anang @ Talib, Howard Lee Chuan How and of course, one of the activists I admire the most, Hishamuddin Rais, who had asked when I last met him, “When are you going to be arrested?’
Soon, I guess, soon. I wore yellow for all those people who were locked up under the Internal Security Act in years past. I wore yellow for the Red-Shirts, the Police, the journalists and every citizen no matter if they support BERSIH 5 or not. I wore yellow because this was part of what Malaysiakini writer Hazlan Zakaria means by making our democracy great again.
For a couple of BERSIHSs now, I have written these snapshots of what it was like being there. I have attended most of the public protests, even the last one organised by PAS. To me, democracy means more than just making a mark on a ballot paper. It means standing in solidarity with people whose agendas sometimes do not mesh with mine, but the commonality of traveling on the same road means giving a damn about your fellow citizens.
This piece is not about the numbers game. I make no claims as to how many people were on the streets. My articles on “being there”, is about talking to people, attempting to understand their motivations and walking around with my fellow citizens. Threats from the UMNO establishment always seem a feature of BERSIH rallies.
This time the threat seemed more odious. The Red-Shirts had stalked Bersih for months and I was extremely pissed off by how they were mollycoddled by the UMNO state while engaging in criminal behaviour.
To be honest I thought I would sit this one out, but ultimately I decided that I should not back down from these bullies and make a stand even if it meant displeasing comrades from my past.
I did not start off wearing yellow. That came later. No point being banned from the party before you had a chance to dance. However, three college-aged women on the train to the city thought otherwise. The two Malay and Chinese women were chatting among themselves decked out in their yellow BERSIH finest, pondering which entry to take to the big show.
To be honest I was a bit worried for them. I did not like the idea that these young people made such obvious targets for Jamal’s hungry Red-Shirts. However, other young people soon joined them and I got down to the business of taking care of this old man who was finding it difficult to muster up the required enthusiasm for the long day ahead.
The atmosphere was gloomy in the early morning at Pasar Seni. I had expected a large crowd, but it was quiet and slightly chilly. I was making my way to the nearby temple, when a group of men shouted out to me to join them. They were holding up a banner supporting Bersih and they seemed in an excitable mood. They asked me to pose with them as they took photographs and I obliged.
I soon discovered they were taxi drivers taking it to the streets like everyone else. When they discovered that I wrote for Malaysiakini, they asked me to write about their problems. They were upset by the negative stereotype the public had of them.
They did not mind competing with other “non-professional taxi drivers” but they needed to have their own licences to do it. They did not want to be beholden to companies owned by the political elites and they were hoping that with free and fair elections and a new government, that their grievances would be addressed.
I made some notes and promised that I would mention them in my BERSIH article. Listening to some of their stories – and to be honest unlike some people, most of my interactions with taxi drivers have always been positive – the theme that emerged was that they wanted to be independent. They wanted to work for themselves and not kowtow to greedy politicians or their proxies.
Enlightening chat with cops
I bade them farewell and headed to the temple. Going to the temple before a protest march is a ritual for me. We all like to believe that god is on our side. The past few weeks were rough. The red-shirts did not bother me, but what really bothered me was the manner in which the state chose to deal with these outsourced thugs.
As a former member of the state security apparatus, the words and deeds of the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) had left me deeply distressed. When he said why people who do not follow the law shouldask for protection, this is the kind of question that makes it obvious that he is unfit for the job. The question is when I say this, am I being seditious, obscene, offensive, and false or merely speaking the truth?
On my way out of the temple, I noticed two young Police officers going in. I decided to wait for them to finish and speak to them on their way out. When I hailed them while they were getting on their motorbikes, I discovered that they were of inspector rank and did not mind chatting with a former naval officer.
I asked them why them they were at the temple so early and they replied that they were praying that the rally would go peacefully. I told them I prayed the same thing. I also told them that I understood that they had a job to do, and that at one time I was in the same position. We talked a bit about the situation in the country.
They told me that they were worried there might be some “provocation” and they were worried that the BERSIH people might react. I assured them that there would always be provocations. The Red-Shirts were one big provocation but if there were any incidents, it would be because they, the Red-Shirts, were on the wrong side of history and this fact probably bothered them.
Both the officers laughed and wondered if I had a yellow T-shirt that I was going to slip into at a more appropriate time. They advised me to be careful and ensure that I did not walk in the middle of crowds. They seemed genuinely concerned for all the senior citizens who participate in rallies such as these.
I assured them that I would be safe. In another life, I had learned enough trade craft to ensure my safety in situations like these. Besides, in my time I knew a few practitioners of the dark arts from various countries, who filled me in on how one disrupts peaceful protests. I knew the signs to look for, but I always go to these protest marches with a positive attitude.
Some people may object to the carnival-like atmosphere of these marches, but as someone who has seen the ugly side of protest marches in various parts of the world and who had felt some of it during the dark Hindraf March of 2007, I have no problem with people enjoying themselves in these protest marches.
After breakfast at Madras Lane, I was milling about Masjid Jamek looking at a scattering of BERSIH participants looking slightly anxious, as if wondering where everyone was. I was afraid that the red scare had worked and that folks would just prefer to stay at home and catch up on their Netflix.
I then got into a conversation with a member of the maintenance crew, and was so engrossed in the conversation that I did not realise what was happening around me.