By Wong Guan Jie
ASASIkini tries its best to share reliable content from third parties without prejudice and with a firm belief in freedom of expression. All articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. ASASIkini and KPUM does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by the writers. This article was written at the time of the UCU strikes taking place across the United Kingdom.
Malaysian Progressives in Australia (MPOZ) is a small group of Malaysians studying in Australia. Our experience of grilling visiting politicians in public forums is illustrative of a pattern visible in Malaysian activism. It shows a shift in the main strategy of certain factions in suppressing activism – from outright censorship, to targeted and public embarrassment of select individuals.
MPOZ gets away with a lot of things in Australia that our typical middle-class parents falsely believe are impossible under a tight surveillance regime. Here’s a selection:
- Organise forums with opposition figures and independent activists
- Organise protests involving the Malaysian diaspora, including Bersih
- Posing tough questions to government officials
- Organise discourse on Article 153, ketuanan Melayu, the syariah courts and the concept of nationalism
Why we do what we do
“…there is a need for the Malaysian youth to receive a new political education. We need Malaysians studying abroad to take advantage of their surroundings…”
Things have changed in Malaysian political culture. Bersih protests starting in 2007 displayed mass activism on a scale unheard of since the working-class movement was crushed after May 13. Given the willingness of NGOs and campaign groups to deploy public protest as a tactic, those who attempt to silence activism know that they must be more subtle in these times.
Similarly, there is a need for the Malaysian youth to receive a new political education. We need Malaysians studying abroad to take advantage of their surroundings, where they can observe and participate in the full range of democratic activity, up to and including civil disobedience and strike action. If we live and breathe the potential of democracy overseas, we crave it more when we return home. Our country is undergoing a messy transition and one needs training to navigate the maze.
New members often join MPOZ tentatively, terrified of risking their safety. But the truth is more innocuous than this. We do know that we are already being watched, but we also know they won’t risk going after us unless we do something really over-the-top.
Nobody can hear you scream
In our four years or so of existence as a group, there has been a single direct attempt to silence us. It happened in Perth, where an important official from the consulate led one of our members to his car to “talk” under the watch of two Special Branch officers.
The said official’s paranoid methods are reportedly causing trouble for even the non-political Malaysian clubs, who must seek his approval for many events. Aside from this, the attempts to silence voices overseas are often indirect. The quickest way to shut down a group like ours is to prevent new members from ever meeting us in the first place.
We are the only non-government linked political student group operating in Australia, to our knowledge. Those who attempt to silence student voices often use their influence over Australian student groups such as MASCA and the local UMNO clubs, EHSAN and ISMA branches, to pre-emptively warn students of the terrifying dozen-strong group of godless communist troublemakers that lurks in the library across the street every other Friday evening.
Most of these new students never bother to dig further. They take our fliers, smile, and disappear. A few move up the student bureaucracy and spend their later uni years trying to sit with the top leadership of political parties. Occasionally, when the threat is sufficiently serious, scholars will be “gently” reminded that their participation in politics is a breach of contract. This was their strategy during overseas Bersih rallies. It works; none of our guests have ever identified themselves as scholarship holders. Conversely there is zero effect on non-scholarship holders. General disdain for politics is a much larger problem for us.
Not once have we felt that we would get in trouble for saying something. The challenge is instead getting people to listen. And paradoxically, this sometimes involves toning down our message, framing a firm political position as a discussion. Only in this sense do authorities have control over how we exercise our freedom. Even then, we pull no punches when we debate political issues internally.
“Malaysia does not have the resources to hunt down every dissident. It goes after figureheads. Anything that attracts and inspires the mass of people; a clown portrait, a defaced mural, Anwar, Maria Chin. It counts on making an example of a handful to silence the rest.”
Thriving on the margins
By remaining resolutely independent of corporate or political party influence, we ensure that risks to shut us down remain minimal. We have avoided the fate of every other well-meaning political discussion initiative by Malaysian clubs, which have lasted no more than a few years before being neutered by the threat of funding cuts.
The cloud of fear hangs over Malaysians wherever they go. But a handful resist because they find little meaning in their overseas study otherwise. Only after taking the step into activism do they realise that the wall holding back everyone else from getting involved is a paper-thin illusion.
Malaysia does not have the resources to hunt down every dissident. It goes after figureheads. Anything that attracts and inspires the mass of people; a clown portrait, a defaced mural, Anwar, Maria Chin. It counts on making an example of a handful to silence the rest. But the reality is that we can comfortably say that there are neither means nor will available to shut us down just yet.
Freedom is a constant struggle
When you think of democracy as more than just voting slips and public forums, you understand that liberation is not a status, it is a process. In the UK and Australia, Malaysians turn up thinking they’re in a free country only to realise that anti-protest laws, anti-terror laws, anti-strike laws and the long arm of conservative corporate media stand ready to step on the oppressed all the same.
Long ago people died fighting their own state for the freedoms they enjoy. But it is a proud tradition that lives on. You are in the midst of a righteous university strike at this very moment. Every day you watch the people around you defy the state and the bosses to win the rights and wages they deserve.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.” – MLK
Freedom is not for a talented leader to negotiate for you. It is not handed down, bit by bit, “when the people are ready”. And it is definitely not a privilege reserved for the “loyal” and “patriotic”. It is won, through struggle and confrontation, with the people who benefit from our silence and would deploy violence and hatred to stop us. Every time I look at armed riot cops here facing down a peaceful protest, I think of the FRU. The differences are superficial.
People power is like a muscle. You must practice it if you want it to grow strong. And you will have to continue practicing it for the rest of your life. Do not fear them. Be their nightmare. Make it so that no matter where they turn they see people who are willing to take them to task for their crimes. And never be satisfied with “just enough freedom”. None of us are free until all of us are free. Go out and join a group. It’s never too late to start.