My Bersih story
JULY 16 — I marched at the first Bersih rally in November 2007, but Bersih 2.0 was a whole different experience.
First, the level of BN paranoia and intimidation was way more intense than what it was in the first gathering. Secondly, there were more “newbies” — particularly the young and the middle class. The crowd was also more multi-racial.
I will be frank. Like many Malaysians I too was anxious and a little scared a few weeks beforehand as the atmosphere become more charged as the Umno-BN elite got more agitated. It reached such ridiculous heights that when Wardina Safiyyah came to an event in my constituency and spoke about (physical) cleanliness and someone in a Bersih T-shirt was spotted, she was vilified by Umno cybertroopers.
But as it became more Orwellian, absurd and idiotic — my mind reached a tipping point when the fear, while still there, was overwhelmed by a determination to stand up to all this. Maybe it’s just the adrenaline, but I felt that it was God’s way of giving us the strength to face all this.
I spent Friday night in Kuala Lumpur — dropping by Nurul Izzah Anwar’s aqiqah for her son in Segambut (where everyone chatted anxiously about what would happen the following day) — before retiring to a hotel quietly to ensure that I would be able to take part in Bersih the next day. While the city’s access points were choked due to unnecessary roadblocks by the police, the city centre’s streets were eerily empty.
As I woke up the next day and went down for breakfast, journalists and Bersih activists dominated the coffee house. We traded the latest gossip — one shocking piece of information from a journalist was that the city’s mortuaries were being emptied in case there were casualties on July 9.
I would not have taken it so seriously had I not been told by a policeman a few days before that their instructions were clear if the people stood their ground: they were to use tear gas, followed by rubber bullets, with the third and final option being “live” bullets.
In retrospect, after what happened to Baharuddin Ahmad who died and what the police did to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his security team, Khalid Samad, Mohamad Sabu and many others, this does not sound so far-fetched.
Still, the stories of courage from the day abound. A few friends — from non-political backgrounds — texted me asking how they could participate. A doctor at a government hospital who was on call on Friday night was nervous but wanted to join: “Even if it’s just me, I’m adding one more Malaysian to the cause.”
Another MCKK senior, working at a government agency, was supposed to join me at my hotel to go together but due to the road closures decided to pray elsewhere and join the crowd there.
A college friend — who is now a banker — was not sure about joining as he had not been in any demonstrations before and did not know anybody there. When I suggested that he to come to the city by LRT and accompany me, he immediately did so.
One of my Keadilan Kelana Jaya members warned me that the Special Branch was moving into the hotel in large numbers to monitor the guests. As we tried to gather bits of information through our handphones and the Internet, we concluded it would be best not to join the senior leaders at KL Sentral as the police would be in full force there and instead go to Jalan Hang Tuah.
We left at 1pm. Forgetting that Khairy Jamaluddin’s red shirts were gathered at Bukit Bintang, we drove straight into the police cordon and had to use another route. Zigzagging through the city, we found ourselves in Jalan Hang Tuah but saw a huge contingent of police at Masjid al-Bukhary, where we planned to pray.
It was then we saw Dr Yaacob Sapari, the Selangor state exco who told us it would be safer for us to pray at the fire station’s surau instead. Having completed our prayers, we walked into the rain towards Pudu station. It was hujan rahmat, I thought to myself as rain would make the tear gas and water cannons less potent.
A small crowd of Bersih supporters was gathered near the Bukit Bintang-Pudu junction. Many were PAS members from the east coast with a smattering of city dwellers who decided to join the fun. We were amused at the curious sight of a small number of red shirts with Malaysian flags. Some of the Bersih supporters were even given red shirts as Umno Youth tried hard to boost their small numbers!
At the head of the crowd, I saw Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa. Realising that no other Pakatan leader was there I decided to go to the front as well, although I had little experience in leading demonstrations (being at the front and being a follower are two different things). After being informed that the back lanes behind Pudu were clear, we decided to walk through the back lanes.
Most were in normal shirts to avoid being stopped and harassed by the police. But we marched with gusto in the rain, chanting “Bersih”, “Daulat Tuanku”, “Hidup Rakyat”, “Reformasi” and “Allahu Akbar.” Tourists and Malaysians in the nearby eateries cheered us on while we asked them to come and join us. I decided to don the Bersih T-shirt that I had kept in my bag.
We twisted and turned through the roads and back lanes of downtown Kuala Lumpur as we marched, while the group grew steadily. Other groups from different gathering spots merged seamlessly with ours. The group was incredibly diverse, urban young Malays rubbing shoulders with non-Malays from different age groups.
Veteran demonstrators mixed with first-timers. My subsequent conversations with friends confirmed what I saw — middle-class families including those with children in private schools and students of private colleges, GLC managers and government officers came out in large numbers for Bersih 2.0. The class divide, at least in the urban areas, appears to have been breached.
This was Middle Malaysia. It is difficult to imagine this multiracial and diverse crowd engaging in violence or being a threat to national security. But they cared for clean and fair elections, as well as the freedom of assembly and standing up to the authoritarian tactics of BN and the police. This was also the Facebook generation, as many took photos as a memorabilia from history, legacies for their children and grandchildren in a better Malaysia hopefully.
Finally, as news of police violence in KL Sentral and barricades in other parts of the city filtered in, the crowd decided to head towards KLCC. The crowd — now numbering at least 15,000 to 20,000 in my group alone — turned around to head towards KLCC on Jalan Ampang.
We wound up at the back of another group that had got there earlier, so I ran to the front to help marshal the crowd forward. Some wanted me to hang back in the rear for my own safety, but I answered: “If a YB is scared to lead by example, he does not deserve to be called one.” I said this not out of pride or recklessness but rather a determination to not let fear control me and hopefully motivate the rest in a small way.
As we marched towards Dr Mahathir’s towering monument, we realised that the police personnel nearby could not do anything due to the size of the crowd. Helicopters hovered above us as more police were watching from a distance. I waved at them, to show them that in spite of the massive arrests, brutality and roadblocks, the rakyat was not cowered.
We had a sit-in at the Jalan Ampang–Jalan Yap Kwan Seng–Jalan P. Ramlee junction in the shadow of the Petronas Twin Towers. Without the stadium that we agreed to assemble in, we had to opt for such a place as it would give the people room to retreat if the authorities reacted with force.
Without a PA system or a stage, we made do with what we had to help the leaders — Bersih 1 chairperson Syed Shahir Mohamud, Pakatan leaders Dr Hatta Ramli and Datuk Seri Chua Jui Meng and Nasruddin Tantawi — speak, with Badrul Hisham Shaharin (Che’ Gu Bard) acting as the moderator. I stood beneath the makeshift stage, waving a copy of the Federal Constitution that was handed to me by a fellow demonstrator.
After nearly half an hour of the sit-in, the FRU was making its way on Jalan Ampang, coming from Jalan Sultan Ismail. We dispersed. I thought of going into Suria KLCC but the police were already there.
Finally, I decided to go through the KLCC Park with a few of my local Keadilan members that I met during the march. I was still wearing my yellow Bersih T-shirt, feeling motivated after our impromptu KLCC rally. Heck, if the police wanted to arrest me now, please do so I thought. I was exhilarated but tired.
As we made our way back to my hotel, we bumped into other people. Some were still walking towards KLCC but I warned them that the FRU was out in full force. Others like me were heading back. I felt satisfied.
My thoughts were of my young family. I am fortunate to be blessed with a loving and supportive wife. Our first child has just been born, and more than anything else, my determination stemmed from a desire to fight for a better Malaysia for him. I played a part, no matter how small, in fighting for change.
Something important happened in Malaysia on July 9, 2011. For many ordinary Malaysians who had never bothered about politics, it was their first demonstration. The intimidation and brutality, rather than breaking them, actually extinguished their fear and strengthened their determination that things must not be the same again.
While the government’s 1 Malaysia campaign is floundering in spite of the millions of ringgit being paid to overseas consultants, the real Middle Malaysia showed that we could fight for a cause that is bigger than what divides us on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.