This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 8 June 2012.
When a work engagement required me to be in Washington DC on April 28, I decided to meet some fellow Malaysians who were involved in Global Bersih 3.0: Washington DC for the purpose of writing this article. I wanted to bring their stories home with me.
Exhausted from a full day of an “unconference” and heavily deprived of sleep from an all-nighter of monitoring “live” tweets on the rally, I waited patiently for my company to arrive. They were going to end their march at the Malaysian Kopitiam, a tradition that started on July 9 last year.
I ordered a glass of “teh tarik” but when it arrived at my table, it was just regular hot tea with milk and sugar served on a small cup and saucer. Not the real thing naturally, but authentic Malaysian cuisine was not why I was there.
While waiting for nearly an hour, I kept myself alert by listening to other people’s conversations with my eyes closed, giving the illusion that I wasn’t eavesdropping. It wasn’t difficult at all since I was close to being brain dead.
Two waitresses, presumably Malaysians, were quizzing each other at the bar on what the rally was all about in Cantonese. Although they were speaking under their breath, I could identify the gossipy tones of a hush-hush conversation between two nosey neighbours across the fence.
They ended their conversation abruptly when a party of eight Americans walked in. One of them shrugged her shoulders and before she left hastily to welcome the party, she ended by sighing, “Haiyah. Who really knows? It has nothing to do with us, right?”
Once the loud conversations ensued at the table, I established that the Americans were probably members of a foodie club of some sort. Their leader began to introduce the dishes, which had been pre-ordered because they were all served shortly after they were seated.
The leader insisted that everyone must absolutely try the curry puff and “popiah.” To reinforce her authority, she continued to share her knowledge of Malaysian food culture and how she thought the food in Penang was one of the best she had ever tried in Asia. The rest nodded in sheer admiration of her worldly wisdom.
As soon as the tiny door to the basement of the building, where the modest restaurant is located, opened, a hyped-up small group of young Asians and two Caucasians in bright yellow T-shirts entered. Unmistakably, they were the company I had been expecting. I recognised Kean and Andrea whom I had met a few days ago and I was quickly introduced to the others.
I was happy to see Andrea again. Behind that quiet and shy demeanour, she’s fondly known as “the slayer” at The Hatchet, a student paper at the George Washington University, where she served as senior editor. We had met at a campus bar at the university where she’ll be finishing her journalism degree soon.
Having interned with an online news portal in Malaysia a few months back, she was fully apprised of the political situation in Malaysia. Coming from a country where a permit for peaceful assembly is often required only to provide the police sufficient time to implement regulatory measures aimed at minimising obstructions to public life, rather than to restrict the right to peaceful assembly per se, she said she was shocked that this should happen in Malaysia.
Like Andrea, Mike, also an American, shared the same sentiment that peaceful assembly is a universal right that should be supported. Before being married to the lovely Grace, he said that he was not aware of the political situation in Malaysia at all.
Now, he’s happy to share this cause with his Malaysian wife who looked radiant in an identical Bersih T-shirt, concealing her protruding belly. They’re expecting their first born soon. The couple had travelled more than one hour to be at the march that day.
Grace holds a green card but is unwilling to revoke her citizenship. She’s been catching up on Malaysian news through an online news portal and is obviously concerned about reports on electoral fraud.
She grew up in a politically savvy family in Malaysia and such events are not foreign to her. She certainly didn’t look as if the rally was such a big deal to her as she happily tucked into her fried noodles.
I turned to Lee who was sitting quietly across the table. From her silence, I could sense that she was not too eager to share her “Bersih stories.” This piqued my curiosity even more. After some gentle probing, she confessed that she didn’t want to be visibly seen to support Bersih.
“I just don’t want to get into trouble with the Malaysian embassy, you know. I still rely on them for diplomatic assistance,” she justified herself.
“But why are you here today?” I asked.
She said she attended the march because she was curious but that didn’t eliminate the fear factor for her.
Playing the devil’s advocate, I couldn’t resist asking, “How do you feel though when you see what’s happening today in Malaysia? Hundreds of thousands of people are abandoning their fear to fight for electoral reform. Isn’t that inspirational to you? If they can abandon that fear, why not you?”
She didn’t answer my question immediately. I could see she was weighing my question carefully, possibly not because she didn’t know the answer but how she could respond to me as calmly as possible. Perhaps my question sounded judgmental because when she did finally answer, I could sense tears brimming in her eyes.
I thought I detected a quivering voice when she said, “Malaysians living in Malaysia don’t have to be at the mercy of the government to go on with their livelihood. Not me. I need them to sort out my paperwork here.” A split second later, she quickly added, “I’m living here on my own. What happens if I need the embassy’s help one day? I attend embassy functions occasionally. I know some of the people working there. I, I just don’t want to get into trouble.”
Lee was right. I was being judgmental and as soon as I heard her, I realised that she was conflicted. I thought to myself what kind of a country am I living in when people are afraid of its government even when they are thousands of miles away from it?
“Would you be less fearful if there’s a change in government?” I ventured to ask.
“Yes, yes. I think it would be better,” Lee answered but for now she’s trying her luck to obtain a green card in America.
The conversation soon turned into the green card lottery system, a system that allows 50,000 eligible immigrants to obtain permanent residency annually. Lee then made an announcement that another Malaysian she knows had just recently won the lottery, much to the others’ envy.
Kean changed the conversation by sharing his horror story of the Malaysian consulate in Australia. Married to an Australian, he had gone through hell with the consulate while attempting to sort out the citizenship of his Australian-born child. The consulate had allegedly lost the paperwork and after four years, the process is still pending.
After more than an hour of animated conversation on Lina Joy and what not, I managed to talk to Feng, a post-graduate student, before we left.
“You know, I missed Bersih 1.0. Since then, I told myself I would never miss Bersih 2.0, if it happened again. So, I organised Bersih 2.0 in New York City last year. It was successful and those guys in NYC are really active. They know what to do. Of course, it’s still nothing compared to the students in Australia. They really have guts, courage and passion. More socially active, you know.”
Feng explained that no one from the Bersih Steering Committee had instructed them to start a chapter in New York and Washington DC. It was done independently. The only correspondence ever done with the Bersih Steering Committee was to get the latter to help them with the publicity.
“When [the idea of having a] Global Bersih came up, nobody in the States stepped up. Malaysians who are members of MCA [here] were against it. They said it would tarnish the country’s image. I gave up arguing with them because they wouldn’t listen.”
I asked Feng why those who were present at the march today were mostly of Chinese descent.
“Many Malays are on scholarships. They want to be a part of it but they’re fearful of the repercussions.” He then added quickly: “The same can be asked of Bersih 1.0. Why so few Chinese and Indians? It was mainly the Malays who started Bersih 1.0 but then Bersih 2.0 changed everything. I don’t think it’s valid or fair anymore to ask why only a certain race is fighting for this cause.”
I asked Feng my last question: “Have you ever been asked why you left the country if you love it?”
He laughed at my question and his answer caught me by surprise.
“Who said I love my country? I’m not a patriot. Look at people like Chin Huat and Ambiga. To me, they are the real patriots. They have a choice to leave Malaysia but they didn’t. I’m not a patriot but this seems to be the right thing to do. This is my right and I’m exercising it.”
“And what right is that?” I asked.
“I don’t want other people to fight for me anymore. I want to fight with them. That’s my right.”
Earlier that week, Kean explained that many of the Malaysian diaspora do feel guilty for living abroad. That sense of abandonment does exist. Global Bersih allows them to redeem their guilt by doing something; either by organising a rally, participating in one or simply just to donate money to the cause.
My conversations with my fellow Malaysians in Washington DC taught me something. Being a Malaysian is not necessarily defined by distance, but by spirit and essence. No amount of national ties can be severed if one continues to care about the people whom they’ve left behind and, in their absence, continue to do what they can for the people. For those who’ve asked what have these Malaysians abroad done for the country, perhaps a more valid question to ask is what are the Malaysians in Malaysia doing instead?
Missing out on Bersih 3.0 was totally unplanned. Although I had been critical of the rally’s impact on real electoral reform, I never doubted its tremendous ability to become a national event in the history of the country.
Attending Bersih 2.0 was to me a life-changing experience as a Malaysian. If anything, I felt more Malaysian than any other day that I’ve lived in the country and it gave me a thought — perhaps the younger generation has more difficulty grasping the concept of unity or “Malaysian-ness” as opposed to Malay, Chinese, Indian and “Yang Lain-Lain” is because we never really had to fight for a common purpose together.
Not until then, the fight has always been about who’s getting a bigger piece of the pie and who’s a “pendatang”? Whether or not Bersih has succeeded to achieve its main objectives, I believe that for many, it has taught us a valuable lesson — it’s not always about “them” and “us” but who we are and what we want together as Malaysians. This, unfortunately, is a lesson our education system has sorely failed to impart and uphold.
For those who have constantly upheld the excuse that Bersih has tarnished the country’s image, I urge them to back their statement up with evidence. During the “unconference” I attended, several participants from different countries actually referred to Malaysia as an authoritarian regime. Clearly, it wasn’t the demonstrators who had embarrassed the nation, but what the government is doing to the demonstrators that gave them that impression. Needless to say, I was embarrassed.
When I came home, I gave the only Bersih 3.0 Washington DC T-shirt I could snag up to a friend’s husband who was in Kuantan for work during the rally. I smiled and thought to myself, that’s how connected we all are.