This is the second part of a series of stories for the #followthewhisper campaign. Stories #2 and #3 are exceptionally long, so why don’t you get a cup of coffee, relax and read at your own pace.
by Cia Yee
I’m not surprised if the mention of Nottingham draws the occasional blank look of unfamiliarity from most Malaysians.
If you follow up your mention of Nottingham with Robin Hood, you might you see a slight tinkle of genuine curiosity in their eyes. If you mention that our current Prime Minister studied there, you might see a glimpse of surprise.
Nottingham has a place in my heart but when you think of must-see vacation spots, it’s hard to say that the city of Nottingham would ever come to mind as one.
It isn’t a Cambridge or an Oxford, but to be honest, it doesn’t need to be. It’s a curious city with its own unique history that often gets taken for granted, but then again isn’t that applicable to many places around the world?
It can get miserably cold here during winter and the city definitely isn’t as vibrant as London or Manchester, but there’s just something about it.
Something about those geese you see crossing the road on campus. Something about that paranoid squirrel that scurries away (or if you are in the Sutton Bonnington campus, a rabbit!).
Just something about all that shade of green or orange that if you take a moment to look, just takes your breath away.
Literally take it away, as you walk for 30 minutes uphill to the other side of campus just for one class.
The ‘retirement’ plan
It was in this city about a year and a half ago, where I sat in the kitchen of my rented accommodation, located just a minute’s walk away from one of the entrances of my university, chilling and thinking that exactly 1 week from then, I was about to step away from my position as the President of the Nottingham Malaysian Society.
Free at last! Or so I thought.
I enjoyed my time with the society but it was time to pursue other interests. Two years of helping to organise the Nottingham Malaysian Games had its fair share of wear and tear and I was more than ready to hand over the reins to a successor at the society’s upcoming Annual General Meeting (AGM).
Our society had around 400 members and the AGM was often held during March or April every year. Alongside the usual election of incoming committee members, members of the society get the opportunity to take a look at the society’s financial statement, events and even debate motions.
Motions were ideas and plans that members of the society proposes to other members of the society to be adopted, which then gets debated and voted upon, potentially shaping and binding the direction of the society and the decisions of its committee members for their term.
Anyways, it was back there in the kitchen where I sat blissfully relishing in the aftertaste of a home-cooked dinner when I first heard the news.
“Have you seen what Cassandra posted in the group?” asked my housemate, referring to the Facebook group where society members are allowed to share news and information amongst themselves.
Cassandra Chung, my senior had posted in our society’s Facebook group. I had glimpsed briefly at the notification before that, thinking that it was something insignificant.
I can’t remember the first time I met Cassandra but I remembered her messaging me one evening asking if I would be interested in being part of a human rights internship programme that she was helping to run.
I said yes. Cassandra and I would work at the same place in that following summer.
Admittedly, her invitation to join the programme became an important moment for me. It led me to a path that shaped me into who I am today.
If you asked me what I remember most about Cassandra, I would say it would be her voice. Or more specifically how loud it was. Ironically, it would be fitting that she was the one in the UK that spoke the loudest with her petition and motion regarding the 1MDB issue.
“No, is it important?” I asked while reaching for my phone to check.
I didn’t say much upon receiving knowledge about Cassandra’s petition and motion; opting instead to take a long and warm shower during which it dawned on me that shit was about to hit the fan with me having to experience the impact first-hand in all its glory.
I just didn’t expect it to hit so fast.
Scrambling out of the shower, my brain kicked into high gear and my first thought was to contact her. A news portal had just caught wind of Cassandra’s petition and I needed to hear from her what was going on and what her plans were.
Before I saw her petition, I did not even realise that our Prime Minister had a ‘2-meters tall portrait’. It might have been because I was too busy focusing on my examinations in the past to really pay much attention to his ‘portrait’, which was located right outside my examination hall for some of my papers.
In the months following this whole situation, group selfies with friends in front of the ‘portrait’ after our examinations would become almost something of a mandatory act of celebration signalling the end of exams, which I find quite humorous, given the amount of trouble it had caused me.
However, I use the term ‘portrait’ quite loosely. The picture of our Prime Minister was part of a long banner featuring notable alumnus of the University. It was in one of the buildings in King’s Meadow Campus (aka the campus we rarely ever go to except for examinations) and to be honest it was big but I don’t think the description ‘2-meters tall portrait’ would win any awards for most accurate description.
It was something that the news media would inaccurately report on to my disdain.
The picture of our Prime Minister was placed awkwardly in a continuous banner featuring pictures of other notable alumnus. Even if the motion did get passed, I have a hard time imagining how they would slice up the banner in a way that would still make it functional.
You can probably tell that I was slightly disappointed when I first saw what was really causing all the trouble when Cassandra first sent me a photo of it while I was in the process of drafting a statement for our society, a process which I would discuss in more detail later below.
When I first spoke to Cassandra, things still haven’t blown out of proportion yet but I could notice the petition getting more and more signatures as time went on. It turns out, as she explained to me, that Justin only offered his name as a seconder for the motion (poor guy).
To be honest, I was disappointed to know that her plan was to let our society take over the process of lobbying for the removal of the ‘portrait’ without her having much involvement if the motion passes. We were in uncharted territory with an issue that was picking up steam back home and her lack of a solid strategy, plan or ownership in the matter was disappointing when it was not only her interests that was at stake but also that of others, namely our members.
Even if such a motion was passed I didn’t know at that time how to even go about trying to get that ‘portrait’ down. Her petition was going viral as I had expected and we agreed to meet up during the weekend to discuss the issue further.
I also informed the committee members of the Nottingham Malaysian Society to keep silent on the issue until further instructions and updates from my side.
All of the above happened within the span of two to three hours but as the clock struck midnight, events were just beginning to unfold.
Just as I thought I could take a little breather, two minutes past midnight, Izat, the president of Kelab UMNO Nottingham contacted me. Now, before this I didn’t even know we had a student-led Kelab UMNO in Nottingham, let alone in the UK.
I had only talked to Izat on one occasion regarding some room booking for the Portland building and at that point in time, I did not know that he was the president of Kelab UMNO but I knew he must have had some connections with them given the timing of his sudden message.
Let’s just say he didn’t exactly have good news.
He told me that other student members from Kelab UMNO were pressuring him to act against the petition and word got around that the High Commissioner was asking for her number.
In one of my future conversations with Izat, he recalled the story of how he got stabbed in Nottingham by a bunch of kids. It was a hot topic for a while back home, striking fear in the hearts of parents in Malaysia.
You can read about it here: http://english.astroawani.com/malaysia-news/malaysian-student-stabbed-nottingham-29132
The dubious nickname of Shot-tingham that the city had undeservedly earned from past reputation didn’t help to make the situation any better.
The High Commissioner and the Director of Education Malaysia had reached out to Izat offering help. He told me that he knew from then on that if you received a call from the High Commissioner or a representative of Education Malaysia, it’s serious business.
I couldn’t agree more. If the senior diplomat in charge of a diplomatic mission for the country is looking for your number, you ought to be worried.
I knew I had to protect Cassandra and Justin regardless of my opinion on whether the society should lobby for the removal of the portrait or not. They had a right to voice their opinion and to propose the motion. Disagreement is one thing but the prohibition and restriction of a person’s right is another.
If these authoritative figures managed to obtain her number I knew that it would not bode well for Cassandra or Justin. Messaging various groups I know, I advised them to keep their numbers private but not without first informing Cassandra about these recent developments.
We agreed to meet up the following night at my house along with Justin. The weekend was just too far away and these recent developments were too important to ignore.
I updated the Committee Members of the Society about the situation before heading to bed, dreading the events that I felt were beginning to unfold.
“I bolted to the library after class for some reason that I can’t seem to recall now. Perhaps I was manifesting my desire to escape temporarily from the events that had transpired. Or maybe I just wanted to grab lunch.”
A house gathering
I woke up the following morning to a few missed calls and messages.
Apparently, the director of Education Malaysia, Associate Prof. Dr. Zainal Abidin Sanusi (or for short Prof as we call him) had contacted Izat asking for my number.
I first met Prof Zainal during the Nottingham Malaysian Games held just a few months before. After a few months of communication with his staff, he accepted our invitation to attend as a VIP for the event. The High Commissioner was also initially scheduled to attend as well but could not do so after a last minute change of plans that required his mandatory attendance elsewhere. As the President of the Society, I was tasked alongside a small team to greet him and his entourage on the day of the event and to show them around the University and the different venues of the event.
He gave the impression of a soft-spoken and humble man and insisted on meeting students during our tour of the campus and even played a little badminton. He decided to stick around for the event after our lunch, meeting and mingling with the students. Our future meeting at other student events would come to portray him further as an intelligent and rational person who was willing to not only listen but also engage with the students in the UK despite his busy schedule, an effort that I personally respect. It was after all part of his duty as the director of Education Malaysia, a duty, which compels his involvement in the situation involving Cassandra.
The fact that he had expressed concern of Cassandra’s welfare throughout the incident as she had received threats from various strangers was testament to his compassionate character.
Prof Zainal had attempted to call me and left a message asking if I could speak to him. I would but I had a few classes to attend to first. I took a quick check of the online petition before heading to class. It had garnered more than 2000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
As my mind has a bad habit of visiting wonderland during a lecture, I can say with confidence that I was not paying any attention during lectures that day (or that week as a matter of fact). Phone calls from an unknown number during class didn’t help either.
I bolted to the library after class for some reason that I can’t seem to recall now. Perhaps I was manifesting my desire to escape temporarily from the events that had transpired. Or maybe I just wanted to grab lunch. Either way, it was in the library where I answered a call from an unknown number. I answered the call half-expecting it to be Prof Zainal or the High Commissioner.
It turned out to be Mr. Taufik, a correspondent for Education Malaysia that I had communicated with concerning matters involving the Nottingham Malaysian Games. There was more than a slight hint of desperation and confusion in his voice. I explained the situation to him the best that I could, assuring him that we knew the gravity of the situation and that the society had no role in the motion and the petition and will be issuing a statement about stance as soon as possible. I knew he had a job to do and the situation was not ideal for them as well as for us.
After the call, I wrote a message to Prof Zainal, apologising for the late reply and updating him about my conversation with Mr. Taufik. He replied soon after asking if he could speak to Cassandra. I told him she was under a lot of pressure and it would not be wise to do so at the moment, which was true. If I recall correctly, threats were coming in (some of them violent) and people were looking up her Facebook profile online. Justin, on the other hand, managed to slip under the radar as the press reported his name wrongly. Prof Zainal agreed and urged me to release a statement as fast as we could.
I then contacted Nuna, our society’s secretary to book an emergency meeting for tomorrow. We needed to discuss as a committee on how to proceed forward.
A few hours later, Justin and Cassandra were at my front door.
I had informed my housemates of their arrival beforehand. There were 6 of us in the house. My housemates and all were pretty chill about the situation but it turns out some of their parents weren’t. Somehow living in the same house as me posed a danger to them. With hindsight, I find that quite humorous now. My housemates in my opinion are the last people I know that would get involved in anything like the ‘portrait’ situation, but then again just a few days before I had no idea I ever would as well.
Cassandra, Justin and I updated each other about recent events and discussed what our society’s stand will be in the position, clarifying to her that we will not stop her from putting the motion forward but the decision on whether to lobby for the removal of the portrait would be one that our members would have to decide.
I also checked on how they were doing and coping with the situation. On this topic, I believe that Cassandra herself would be the best person to tell her part of the story, given the very personal circumstances surrounding it.
We ended the night with goodbyes, our minds focused on the events that had transpired in the hours that had preceded the gathering at my house. The Annual General Meeting seemed like a very distant moment in time from then, although it was only a few days away.
The Emergency meeting and the statement
The next two days, which were the 11th and 12th seemed to have blended seamlessly in my mind. The transition from day to day seemingly non-existent due to a lack of sleep, portraying itself in my mind as one long narrative.
The lack of sleep in the 11th was driven not by worry or fear, but rather by a singular drive to complete our society’s statement on the matter. Every word chosen for a purpose and every argument thought out and planned as my eye flicked back and forth from sentence to sentence. As a law student it is in my nature to be meticulous and the current situation provided me the opportunity to put my nature to good use.
The statement was what our society would rely on from the moment it would be published and I knew that I had to ensure that it was carefully written.
Earlier on the 11th, I had spoken to Prof Zainal on the phone upon his request. Apparently word of the petition and motion had reached the Prime Minister’s Office. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham had also been contacted. If I recall correctly, he mentioned that the High Commissioner wasn’t too pleased either. There was tremendous pressure for a response on our society’s part. He stressed the importance of getting out a statement from the society and implied that I knew what I had to do.
I assured him that I did.
I just hoped that he and I were on the same page.
Later in the evening, I met up with the rest of the Committee Members and updated them about what was going on. At the end of the meeting, we had a plan.
A statement would be published as soon as possible and a meeting with our members were to be held two days from then. The meeting will provide the members with the opportunity to ask questions, get explanations and discuss whether or not the motion should be passed. The AGM has notoriously in the past have had a lack of time to discuss certain issues substantively and we wanted to avoid that. At that point in time, our society had not responded either, opting to go about as if nothing was wrong. Understandably, members were not only curious but concerned as well and a meeting before the AGM would help to ease tensions as well as afford the proper discussion needed for the weighty topic at hand.
I think some members were upset at Cassandra. Their interest and scholarships were at stake if the society fumbled the ball. Others were worried about the society and if it could survive without government support.
With all these concerns hanging in the air, we planned what the statement should contain and I went home that night with my sleeves rolled-up, ready to dive into what I knew was going to be a long night.
I remember that I wrote about the ‘portrait’ and how it wasn’t exactly one. I wrote about the Student Union policy that says there is nothing wrong with non-partisan activities before going on to argue that in the committee’s opinion, Cassandra’s actions may be political but they are non- partisan and with our mandate decided to allow the motion to be debated and for the members to decide if they wanted the society to lobby it. We also clarified that we can’t restrict a student’s right to free speech and told bullies and harassers to leave Cassandra alone. We also clarified that we would remain neutral in the situation unless the members decide that Cassandra’s motion should be passed.
I poured my energy into the statement and I finally completed it in the afternoon of the 12th. After running it through with the committee, we published it.
I wrote a lot of things but if you ask me now what I had written word for word, I won’t be able to tell you because I simply can’t remember all of what I had written.
What I do remember though was the good response. Many people were impressed which in turn surprised me. Friends told me that they were proud. Members showed their support for the statement and even Prof Zainal praised us for the mature and well thought out statement.
We had managed to calm the tides for the moment and I could feel the pressure on us being lifted slightly.
It is quite a shame then that despite all that good response, the statement now no longer exists.
The following day was pretty uneventful.
I received a message from Prof Zainal, informing that he had discussed with the university’s international office and they were impressed with the statement. Abel Hartman, the recently elected Student Union Community Officer dropped me a message on Facebook offering help if the need for it should arise.
The break of pace turned out to be what I needed. You can only keep you foot on the pedal for so long after all.
A day later, before I headed to class, Prof Zainal asked if the High Commissioner could speak to me. I said yes and moments later I was on the phone conversing with him.
Speaking with the High Commissioner was a different experience compared to speaking with Prof Zainal, it wasn’t exactly bad but I got the impression that he was not too interested on hearing me speak and was seeking to instead dole out his own advice and instructions.
He insisted that our Prime Minister was a nice person who would not have gotten himself involved in the illegal acts concerning 1MDB that have been alleged to have occurred at that point in time and that the whole situation with the ‘portrait’ was embarrassing the country and tarnishing its image.
I mean I wouldn’t know if our Prime Minister is a nice person or not but I clarified that our society was merely allowing Cassandra to exercise her right and was neutral in that matter unless our members choose to pass the motion therefore mandating us to lobby for the removal of the portrait.
He responded by asking if he could attend the AGM, I said no. The Annual General Meeting was exclusively for our members.
He then mentioned that he would be sending someone over, a representative of his to our Annual General Meeting to report back to him once the AGM was over regardless of whether we allowed it or not before proceeding to hang up the phone.
Not long after that, I received a text message from Mr Taufik who said he would be representing the High Commission’s office and as the Education Attache’ for Midlands, would be attending our AGM.
Sigh. To be honest, we saw this coming.
A few days before, during the committee’s emergency meeting, some of us mentioned that the Kelab UMNO people had asked if the AGM was open to the public. They were interested in attending. Some of my friends from other universities had expressed their interest to attend as well.
While our Constitution had said nothing about non-members being able to attend, we knew that it was extremely important to restrict attendance at the AGM to only our members.
How can there be impartial discussion and voting if our members felt threatened because of the presence of external parties such as the High Commissioner or his representative. Our members would be afraid to even discuss the petition or to cast a vote that may seem unfavorable seeing as some of them are under scholarship contracts with the Government.
Yes, we may still do anonymous voting on the motion but if the members are not even comfortable to express their views and opinions, how can we reach a proper decision that can be said to be reflective of what our members want.
We had until that point when I received the call from the High Commissioner been extremely strict on our stand. Only members, no one else.
However, we knew that what we said was simply a regulation and we had no power under our constitution to guarantee that. The High Commissioner’s decision to send a representative over regardless of what we said was a huge blow.
If this was a game of chess, we had up to that point moved our pieces strategically but the words of the High Commissioner on the phone, if it could be condensed to only one word, would probably be the following:
But this isn’t chess and I’m not out of moves just yet.
I decided to take up Abel’s offer to help, dropping him a message and asking if he would be interested to meet after class. This would with hindsight turn out to be a good move.
I met Abel a few weeks before during his campaign period. He had met me and the other committee members on separate occasions to pitch his ideas as well to seek our society’s opinions on various issues that a society such as ours faced on a regular basis.
He told me that he is from Amsterdam but had spent a great deal of time in Malaysia (I think it was 5 years if I recall correctly) and we had a mutual friend as well. I remembered him being much better informed than me in some of the inner workings of the Student Union and its various platforms.
I had contemplated on contacting the Student Union for help and advice before this. We had no idea how to proceed if the motion did get passed and where to turn to lobby for the removal of the ‘portrait’. We were pretty much clueless in this department and I thought contacting Abel would be a good place to start.
On the issue of non-members attending the AGM, we, the committee had decided during our earlier meeting to have our own motion to amend the constitution, which if it gets passed, would take effect immediately, affording committee members the power to exclude non-members during the discussion or voting on motions during the AGM. This would be our last resort should the representative of the High Commissioner attend the AGM.
Abel and I met at the café of Hallward Library. I updated him about the situation and asked for his advice on certain matters. He told me that regardless of whether the motion was passed or not we could still lobby for the removal of the ‘portrait’ privately by bringing the issue to the Union Council, which could lobby for the removal of the ‘portrait’ to the University on our behalf.
Since he was only recently elected and had not gone through the necessary training yet, he proposed to bring me to Rob Jennings, the incumbent Activities Officer to further discuss the issue.
We headed over to the Portland building in search of Rob Jennings in the Student Union office but he was not in at the moment. I thanked Abel for his help and agreed that I would send an email to Rob once I got back home, which I did before heading off to the pre-AGM meeting with our members that was being held that night.
The Pre-AGM meeting
The Pre-AGM meeting was intended to be informal, something that could be comparable perhaps to a roundtable discussion, except our table for the occasion was a long rectangular one with our attendees circled around it.
With the AGM less than 48 hours away, there was a sense of urgency in the air. I glanced around the medium-sized room surrounded by familiar faces. We had decided to open the Pre-AGM meeting to members of the public, as we were interested to hear their opinions on the issue at hand. Prof Zainal was initially scheduled to join us but he couldn’t make it.
Izat was seated a few seats to my left while Cassandra sat on the opposite side of the table. The three of us took our turns updating everyone in the room about the events that had transpired during the week, before proceeding to open the discussion to the floor.
The discussion went quite well. I could sense a split amongst some of the attendees on whether to pass the motion or not but there was no dispute on whether or not the motion should be discussed at the AGM.
I went back home that night feeling slightly more confident.
The “Special Branch Officer”
There’s something about receiving a call from a stranger that makes me anxious. It’s not the call itself that I worry about but rather the sense of mystery it produces and the uncertain nature of the news that the caller may bring.
If I could compare that feeling to anything, I would compare it to my first rock-climbing experience with the auto-belay device, a device that supported your weight going down after you’ve reached the top of the wall or after you’re exhausted climbing up. After the climb you would be instructed to let go of the wall and to lie back in reliance on the device to support your weight going down. Normally with a partner acting as a counterweight you can feel the weight support immediately after letting go but with the auto-belay device, it felt as if you were jumping of the wall like a mad man or woman hoping that the device would kick in to save you from a fall to your probable death.
It might be hard to let go of the wall, but that’s the thing. Hesitate too long and it gets worse as time goes by. You start to dread the thought of letting go even more and more.
I have trained myself to reject that first impulse of anxiety, to compartmentalise it and act. To take a deep breath just in case I had to sink or swim.
I received a call from an unknown number on the 15th by a man claiming to be from the Malaysian Special Branch. He called himself DSP Zamarul. The number he used to call me was a Malaysian one and I still have it on my phone. Maybe I should give it a call one of these days.
DSP Zamarul after introducing himself, threatened to press criminal charges against me unless I stopped the motion from being discussed in the AGM.
I got pissed. Let’s just say it’s been a really long week and this guy is underestimating me.
“Sorry sir can you tell me what these charges would be? From my knowledge I don’t think we have done anything that contravenes Malaysian law and the decision to proceed with the discussion of the motion was not mine alone but the collective decision of the Committee,” I replied.
He told me I didn’t need to know what the charges are; I just have to stop the motion from being discussed. In other words, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
I stood my ground.
“I have your phone numbers and house addresses (he was referring to Cassandra, me and someone else) with me right here. You should be careful,” he said.
“Ok, sir, can you tell me what their phone numbers are then?” I asked in response.
“I have it ok, I need to find. I wrote it down somewhere just now when I was in the office.” After a moment of what seems to be some fumbling, he proceeded to read the digits of an incomplete number to me before stopping to say that it was all that he could remember and that he would be able to check later. I would later check the number he had said, which although incomplete would turn out to be accurate.
“I have your addresses here with me though,” he said.
“Ok sir, what is my address then?” I asked.
He then started laughing. “You…you are good.” I had called his bluff.
“I know we all want to help the country but there are better ways to do so than this,” he continued, his tone becoming friendlier.
I said yes but in my mind I find it pretty ironic for him to criticise Cassandra’s method when harassment seems to be perfectly fine for him.
We exchanged a few more words with me mostly assuring him that I understood where he was coming from and that we had done nothing wrong and the matter will be one that is decided by the Society and that I can call him tomorrow to update him if he wishes. I also offered to give help if he needs any from our society.
“Don’t call me tomorrow, I won’t be free,” he said.
After our conversation, I was mad. Who had passed my number to this individual to try and intimidate me? I decided to ask Izat if he knew that number.
After briefly updating him about the call, Izat told me if I would like to speak a Malaysian police officer associated with the High Commissioner to report the number. I was surprised to know the willingness on the officer’s side to help. I told him to pass the number to the officer.
About 15 minutes later, the first officer had informed Izat that the guy did not belong to the Special Branch and would be doing more research on the number. The first officer asked Izat to tell me not to worry and that it was just a scare tactic.
I was impressed by the officer’s efficiency and felt much safer knowing that I could rely on an actual police officer should the need arise.
Although all evidence pointed to the caller faking his identity, to this day, I still can’t shake the feeling that a piece of the puzzle is missing. In one of our later conversations, Cassandra told me that personal confidential details of hers had been posted on a blog online.
These details would not have been easily accessible unless you had some connections.
“We had defied the will of the High Commissioner and for once, I think that certain parties could see that they can’t go about doing as they please, especially not on foreign and private land.”
It’s easy to forget that our society still had other things to attend to besides the ‘portrait’ situation. There were preparations for the AGM that had to be done such as the preparation of slides, candidate elections, food, reports and other miscellaneous stuff.
I left the preparation work to the rest of the Committee as I focused on dealing with the ‘portrait’ situation. I thought it would have been better for me to deal with it alone, as I did not want some of the Committee members who were scholars themselves to have to deal with the situation. If different people were communicating with different parties, it would have been a messy affair that would lead to a tangled web of communication.
The night before the AGM, I had to attend to my other duties as a President. I met up with Kohila, who was part of Global Labour Market Team under the university’s Careers & Employability division, responsible for global employment engagement activities (specifically in Malaysia and SEA) and creating employment opportunities for students and returning Malaysian graduates our UK and China campus over dinner to discuss some matters. She had travelled from Malaysia and had decided to take the opportunity to meet me while she was in Nottingham. We met at the Orchard Hotel, a small but rather grandiose hotel that was located in my university campus, where I would pass by occasionally on the way to class during my first year.
We talked over dinner about various things, which of course included the ‘portrait’. It was during that night when I was introduced by Kohila to one of the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellors who happened to be having dinner at the same place (it was a bar/ restaurant located on the ground floor of the hotel). Kohila informed him that I was the President of the Nottingham Malaysian Society, at which his eyes lit up with a slight hint of curiosity and interest.
“Ah,,yes,” he said before going on to share his own experiences with Special Branch officers during his tenure at the Malaysian campus. I found it quite amusing that he was familiar with the usual shenanigans that may be expected in Malaysia when it comes to students attempting to take a political stance on issues.
He told me he won’t say too much but told me that he trusts that I would know what to do and that I would take into the consideration the interests of our society’s members.
“But..I have to say that we have portraits of quite a few dubious people in museums. If we took them down it still wouldn’t mean much,” he told me.
“Yeah well…that’s because those people aren’t currently in power,” I responded.
He seemed taken aback by my response, giving a slight shrug of approval as if to say “fair enough”.
After a few more short exchanges, we bid each other farewell but not before he reminded me again to think about the interests of our society’s members.
I went back home that night exhausted and yet weirdly excited for the AGM.
I was also looking forward to meeting the Student Union’s International, Cultural and Faith Group Coordinator, Rebecca.
Earlier in the day, I had received a reply from Rob who directed me instead to Rebecca, our society’s Development Coordinator who in turn was quite keen on helping us with the situation. We had agreed to meet the next morning along with Abel to discuss further.
Our society had worked with Rebecca before on more than a few occasions particularly during the Nottingham Malaysian Games. Turning to Rebecca for help would turn out to be the best decision I had made during this whole week of bizarre events.
The Annual General Meeting
Abel and I were cramped in a small room.
I have been in the room on more than a few occasions but on that morning there was a tense feeling in the air. Rebecca entered the room. We greeted each other before quickly moving on to discuss the matter at hand.
I brought Rebecca up to speed with the events that had transpired over the week before raising some of my concerns, in particular the attendance of the High Commissioner’s representative at our AGM.
Rebecca listened attentively to the concerns I had raised. She confirmed what Abel had said a few days earlier regarding the process we could take after the AGM regardless of whether the motion was passed or not and promised me that she would get back to us as soon as she can with more information on what the university can do to help.
She more than delivered on her promise and I was over the moon.
I quickly messaged Mr Taufik to inform him of the situation, advising him against attending. He replied saying he understood.
A few hours later, I was at the venue helping to prepare for the AGM and the Security Supervisor along with another Officer of the security team were present to lend assistance if needed. I briefed them about the situation and they stood outside the room. Shortly after, an officer from the Student Union came along and assisted us by standing outside as well.
Abel was also there to lend his support. Although they were only present for the start of the meeting until the debate of the motions, I felt more confident knowing that we had the university’s backing in the matter.
We had defied the will of the High Commissioner and for once, I think that certain parties could see that they can’t go about doing as they please, especially not on foreign and private land.
I just hoped that there wouldn’t be any repercussions.
The Annual General Meeting itself went smoothly. After some debate regarding the motion and some assurance on my part that regardless of what the vote would be on that day that we would have a plan moving forward for the society, voting for the motion was done.
The motion was defeated with an overwhelming 41 votes against and 6 for.
This is only my side of the story. Cassandra and Izat will share theirs with you.
The timing seems right to tell our stories. After the incident, Cassandra had made a promise to her parents not to get involved in anything until she was no longer a student. She finished her BPTC recently.
Izat, on the other hand, has graduated and went back to Malaysia and is now working.
If you are reading this epilogue, it means that you have taken some time to read through this perhaps unnecessarily long account of my long week with the ‘portrait’ of the Prime Minister and for that I would like to thank you.
You could have just ignored it or stopped halfway but the fact that you took your time to read what I have written means more than the world to me and if nobody else reads it, at least you and I know what really happened a year and the half ago.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a cautionary tale. I’m not writing this to further reinforce our society’s belief that you should just “keep quiet and study”. In fact, this experience that I’ve shared with you is to urge you to speak even louder, smarter and more often but of course within the boundaries of the law.
I have taken a long time deliberating on whether I should share my experience not because I’m afraid but because I wasn’t sure if my story was one that was even worth sharing.
Would my story just appear to be self-gratifying?
Would people scoff at my story, saying it isn’t anything special? Just another case of an opposition supporting young buck.
For the record, I don’t give a damn about who runs the country. It’s how they run it that matters to me. Regardless of your stance on whether the motion should be passed or not, you ought to agree that Cassandra should have the right to speak on the issue without intimidation or harassment regardless of whether it came from society or the government.
A few weeks after the AGM, our society’s statement on the issue would no longer be accessible. Someone had reported the account that we had created for societal purposes for using a fake name. I, foolishly, did not keep any other back up of the statement that I had written. The only record that I have of the statement is in news reports (which you might like to read to get another perspective of what Cassandra went through).
Throughout the whole incident, I can’t help but feel that we were alone.
Every other Malaysian Society in the UK was just watching us. Watching and waiting to see what the outcome would be.
Even KPUM kept silent on the issue. Sure UKEC did call but I knew what their answer would be.
Let’s just wait and see. We will help you after. It’s just unfortunate then that the help we needed was before.
I don’t blame them though.
What had happened with Cassandra was perhaps unprecedented. She herself did not expect that the petition would blow out of proportion and it was not like our society stood there crying for help either.
But I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish there was at least a statement or acknowledgement of what was going on.
However, Cassandra’s actions had kicked open a door that was previously sealed. There were signs of things beginning to change. On the day of our AGM, the University of Birmingham Malaysian Society had theirs as well and it seems that Cassandra’s actions had convinced their members to come up with their own motions.
A year later, a motion asking for UKEC to be more willing to participate in non-partisan political activities was passed.
That brings us to today.
A year and the half later, I’m approaching the end of my tenure as KPUM’s Human Rights & Activism Officer and I can feel the tides beginning to change.
It’s time we stood together as students in the UK regardless of our societal affiliations or backgrounds to stand together united in our effort to respect, uphold and more importantly protect our rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association.
You shall hear from us soon. Just follow the whisper.