This post was originally published on The Malaysian Insider on 29 March 2012.
As soon as the digital quacking of ducks pierces the morning silence, it’s time to wake up.
It’s 7am on a Saturday and as usual, I wish for another 30 minutes in bed. While doing so, I deprecate myself for staying up late the night before.
As I drag myself into the kitchen to make a strong pot of coffee, I can’t resist asking, “Why did I sign up for this?”
This early morning scene has become a regular affair. It usually starts with a conversation with myself — mainly made up of questions that can only be answered rationally once I hit the shower.
“Surely I deserve a Saturday off?”
“Why can’t someone else do it?”
“I can always call in sick. It’s not a big deal, is it?”
Driving to the rural areas of Hulu Langat on an early morning is always a welcome change of scenery. The air is fresh, the roads are narrow and winding and the landscape green. The real pleasure though is the people; including those I carpool with. It’s a privileged time when we share conversations about ourselves and, inevitably, of politics and human rights.
It’s always difficult in the beginning when the local residents eye us suspiciously. There’s no doubt that we’re not orang tempatan. We dress, speak and behave differently but I secretly think that it’s the jerseys we wear that really ignite the curiosity in them.
With “UndiMsia!” written in bright orange across our chests, the questions we’re often asked are, “You ni dari gomen ke?”, “Apa ni UndiMalaysia?” “You Pakatankah (or replace this with the other coalition party)?”
It never ceases to amuse me that the word “elect” is always linked to political parties.
First order of the day often involves explaining at length what UndiMsia! does. It’s important to dispel any myth that we’re politically aligned. We’re neither the government, Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Rakyat nor any other political parties that are banned or otherwise. We also need to ensure that the people in Hulu Langat understand the objectives of participating in our Laporan Rakyat project.
The reaction we receive from the people invariably ranges from skepticism and fearful to indifference and encouraging. It’s certainly not an easy task to walk into a random restaurant and expect people to score their state assemblyman and member of Parliament’s performances, not especially when most people we have met have no inkling who their elected representatives are.
While some volunteers faced the disappointment of being turned away like a leper, I’ve had very positive experiences with many people. Sure, I’ve had my share of disappointment but in general the locals have been more than friendly, sympathetic and welcoming.
There are times when I receive warm invitations to share a meal or a drink with them. They always insist on paying. It gets difficult by the third cup of teh tarik that is often never kurang manis but a gracious acceptance is always the courteous thing to do.
There was an occasion when I approached two young women in a mamak restaurant during lunch time. After giving my customary greeting and explanation of the project, they turned down my invitation to conduct the survey on them. It was noon and I was desperate to achieve my quota for the day. They were hungry and couldn’t wait to dig into their lunches that were turning cold on the table.
I resorted to appeal to their sympathy. I told them that I would get into serious trouble with my employer if I didn’t achieve my quota for that day. Their tone of voice softened immediately and they invited me to sit on the table with them. “OK, we’ll answer but please, first order something to eat. It’s lunch time. You must be hungry. We eat together and you can ask us the questions.”
We had the most interesting conversation that day. It was beyond politics and governance. I learned that they have been friends since primary school and they’re renting a house together. According to one of them, they have been inseparable since they’ve known each other.
On another occasion, I had approached a table with five elderly men sharing a drink and banter together. One of them stopped me in mid-sentence, “Amoi, you boleh cakap Melayu atau Cina kah?” Having identified him as of Chinese descent, I informed him that I am able to speak Melayu and Hokkien. He then proceeded to speak in Mandarin and in a childish fashion, nudged the man sitting next to him and said in Malay, “Ahhh… ini Melayu ya. Nampak itu kulit hitam sikit.” They all burst out laughing.
Feeling encouraged, the same man pointed to
another elderly man sitting at the front and said in Mandarin, “He’s an indigenous person living far from here. Eighty-years-old already!” The man flashed me an infectious toothless grin.
As I talked to them in broken Malay and Mandarin, I learned that they’ve all grown up together in this small village.
In answering the first question I ask myself in the morning, these are the motivations that help me leave the comfort of my bed on a Saturday morning. It always ends on a high note.
A few weeks ago when news reached us that a flood had hit Hulu Langat, a team of volunteers led a small relief operation to help some of the victims. Some of the locals have expressed their disappointment at how help has been mobilised too slowly by their local leaders. Many also lamented that nothing much has been done to prevent the flood from recurring from year to year. Another common grievance we heard was how aid from a certain political party has only reached those who support the said party.
The disaster that hit Hulu Langat has reinforced the key messages that UndiMsia! is trying to impart; good governance and citizen actions on housing issues, amongst other things.
On March 31, UndiMsia! is launching a photo competition and exhibition in Hulu Langat. Photographs taken by local youths and some of our volunteers will be exhibited. It is hoped that this humble event will draw the local leaders and community together to discuss housing issues affecting the people in Hulu Langat.
Those who have volunteered for the Laporan Rakyat project will share the sentiments of UndiMsia! There’s much to be done in terms of civic education. More than half of the youths of voting age I’ve met do not know who their elected representatives are or what they’ve done for their community. Even fewer know what they can do as a citizen to improve their lives.
When do you think we, as Malaysians, will finally wake up from our deep slumber?