It was around 8pm on a Friday night as Julian and I sat down for dinner at a roadside stall in the heart of Petaling Street. As we helped ourselves to a steaming claypot of chicken rice, we heard loud commotion from across the street. Outside a restaurant, some people clad in yellow T-shirts were shouting “Bersih, Bersih”! They were also carrying Bersih banners.
So it began.
The Bersih supporters were urging motorists to horn as a sign of support. Many vehicles, including some lorries and taxis, did. There was an festive air in the street; everyone was smiling and cheerful. I am not sure they would not give a damn if non-uniformed policemen were present.
It was so different compared to Bersih 2.0. Back then, a lot of us were gripped by fear. The situation was tense. Arrangements to attend and meet up were done hush-hush. Threats of imprisonment and injury seemed more real at that time. On the eve of Bersih 2.0, I had dinner with my mom, and she urged me not to go. I almost didn’t. The truth is I was afraid of getting caught, of losing my job and of losing a limb or two. We took every precaution, including minimising our contacts with each other, to the extent that I had no idea exactly how many of my friends would be there until we bumped into each other while running away from the red helmets.
Bersih 2.0 succeeded not only in raising global and national awareness on the need for electoral reforms, it also dissipated the heavy mist of fear (not tear gas, though) among many Malaysians. Now with Bersih 3.0, the rakyat are no longer afraid of doing the right thing, especially if it is against unjust and oppressive laws.
In the run-up to April 28, social medias like Tweeter and Facebook were abuzzed with it. My friends and acquittances declared their support openly, and many decided to be there on that day. Yellow shirts were worn with pride. Jamie, a friend who regularly participates in KL city marathons, estimated the crowd at 100,000. Fear, it seemed, is no longer a factor.
Before I go further, let me clarify my stand. I am truly encouraged by the rising awareness of a deeply-flawed electoral system, as shown by the participants from all walks of life. I am proud of my fellow Malaysians for finding the courage to speak up and take action. I believe all of us Malaysians have the right to peacefully assemble.
Unfortunately, I feel that this lack of fear had led to the involvement of a minority group of people with questionable intentions. When my friend Jeremy asked me what to wear since he had no yellow T-shirt, I told him anything would do. Our presence on the street was for a bigger cause, and not for individual glory or bragging rights.
So imagine my surprise when I saw an individual showing up as a fully-costumed Power Ranger. Yes, he was clad in yellow from head to toe, but surely that kind of dressing is more suitable for a play than a street protest? So is it not unreasonable for us to question the individual’s motive for attending the rally? And if you heard those cheers he received, you would have thought S Ambiga herself has just arrived at the scene.
Worse, there were people who actually rushed over to take photographs with the Yellow Ranger! Oh, my friend Nyam spotted a delegation of Angry Birds balloons on the street too. Some readers may probably wonder why I am fussing over certain attention-seeking individuals. I am not. I am fussing over the potential dilution of the cause. During Bersih 2.0, I was sure those who were there went for the sake of the cause, and not for personal glory. There were no time or thoughts for fancy costumes or eye-catching gears.
In Bersih 3.0, I am not so certain anymore. Some seemed to be more interested to be seen and photographed at the event than for the cause itself. What if more people decided to turn up in their creative yellow costumes in future rallies? Would it turn a rally for serious causes into a farcical parade of yellow costumes?
There was an incident during Bersih 2.0 which is forever stuck in my mind. I was at the carpark of Tung Shin Hospital when the police began to move in. The crowd watched, first in disbelief, then in horror, as teargas canisters were fired into the compound of the hospital. Many shouted “hospital!” at the police, hoping for them to stop. One young lad, probably incensed by the police’s action, picked up a stone and aimed it at the advancing policemen. Almost immediately, the crowd around him held him back. “Don’t fight back! Don’t provoke them!” they shouted at the lad.
And then there were two young chaps who performed prayer under the rain, and refused to budge despite the advancing policemen. The kind of fearlessness I witnessed was about holding our ground against injustice and fascism.
Unfortunately, the situation in Bersih 3.0 was quite different. When we were at a road junction near Jalan Sultan, a police truck showed up along with an outrider. The truck wanted to make a turn into Jalan Sultan, but the road was packed with rowdy Bersih supporters. I have half-expected the police outrider to blaze its siren and demands the road to be cleared off for the truck to pass through.
Things could have got ugly then. To the credit of the policeman, he made the sensible decision not to, and told the truck to back off. To my surprise, however, a portion of the crowd began to jeer and taunt the policemen as they were backing off. The provocation was totally unnecessary, and against the spirit of the rally. Fearlessness is not the same as reckless bravados, but I suspect some people got confused between the both during the rally. This includes certain political leaders, if the reports were true.
It saddened me to see the videos of protesters throwing stones and other objects at the police. They seemed to have forgotten that this was supposed to be a peaceful protest. Yes, emotions were running high but we should not resort to violence. After all, Bersih 2.0 was an unqualified success because of the restraints shown by the participants against extreme provocation and brutality of the men in blue.
The bombardment of water cannons and tear gas was worse during Bersih 2.0, yet there were minimal violence from the protesters. Everyone remembers Auntie Bersih not for her retaliation towards the aggressors, but the lack of it. Hers was an example of civil disobedience, and true fearlessness.
This is written not to absolve the policemen of their conduct. I agree with Ambiga’s opinion that one or two canisters of tear gas would have been enough to disperse the crowd that were trying to get into Dataran Merdeka. As it were, tear gas was used excessively on those who were not even trying to get into the square. The brutality of the force used during the arrests was shocking, as was the police treatment of certain journalists.
My point is, some of those who attended the rally have to take a hard look at themselves. We want as many people to be there as possible, but only for the right reasons. Although my complaint is against a minority of those who attended the rally, it needs to be voiced out because every single one of us would create an impact, both positive and negative. These people need to understand that Bersih 3.0 was never meant to be a glamourous parade. It was never meant to be a violent and provocative rally. And to that lady who almost poked my eye out with her umbrella as we jostled along the crowded street, please understand this is not a picnic. If you can’t stand the heat, please stay at home next time.