General Housekeeping 3.0 – Sabah
by Nadira Ilana
Author: Don’t like long articles? Start in the middle – ‘The Kicker’ – to skip the day’s report. Don’t worry. I’m not judging you. ]:p
I had the great fortune to be in Kuala Lumpur and join in Bersih 2.0 last year. It was an exhilarating and profound experience. This year, I decided to participate in Bersih 3.0 in my hometown Kota Kinabalu in spite of the previous year’s proceedings and it was altogether a very different experience compared to the chaos I experienced the year before.
After Dewan Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu (KK City Hall) came out with this statement in the news, Bersih Sabah organisers followed in the footsteps of Bersih 3.0 by allocating various meeting points around the city and then marching towards Padang Merdeka. I started in front of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, opposite Center Point where most of the main Bersih organisers were. When we began to mobilise, Pakatan Rakyat took the lead although I don’t think they were meant to. Megaphone in hand, the political hijacking started with cries of “Hidup Pakatan”, “Reformasi!” and “Mansuh BN.” People were walking in the middle of the road, annoying drivers until the police told them to move aside. We stopped at the park next to the KK High Court and a Pakatan member asked us all to sit down to listen to their representative speak. Atama stepped up to speak but not until after Pakatan delivered the first speech of the day.
Our next and final stop was at Padang Merdeka where we gathered with Himpunan Hijau, the rest of the rally members and the po-po.
The FRU were already marching up and down the field, banging their shields in a show of intimidation. Trucks were parked in the field, information booths were up, loud festive music was playing.
The emcee was unabashedly saying things like “we are proud to be law-abiding Malaysians who love peace and harmony”, “this is how our FRU team approaches a riot.” It was hilarious watching the FRU demonstrate to Bersih rally members how they “march into riots” while ignoring us at the same time.
They kept playing ‘Macam di KK’. Never in my life have I had the police playing a satyrical prank on ME instead!
See, DBKK had confused people the day or two before by saying they didn’t give Bersih Sabah a permit. This came after saying that Bersih Sabah was allowed to share the field with an already ongoing ‘anti-drug campaign’. I coyly asked the first policemen I could, “boss… ni kah kamu urang punya kempen anti-dadah?” (boss… is this your anti-drug campaign?). He gave a shy, cheeky smile and looked away. Over the speakers, the emboldened emcee welcomed an invisible audience to their (last minute) anti-crime programme. Sneaky sneaky!
Around 2pm, Bersih members began their sit-in. Throughout the speeches, the police turned the music up loud to drown us out (talk about disturbing the peace) even while we sang the state and national anthem. There was a little bullying on their part when a police helicopter circled us and hovered low above us for a while. Otherwise, the police didn’t bother us. A reliable source mentioned that the chief of police had briefed his subordinates saying he didn’t want to hear a single complaint about people getting harassed by cops!
A bit of a disorienting but brilliant move on the police’s behalf, I must say. Bersih Sabah got to protest peacefully and the police got to restrain the rally enough to appease their superiors.
The rally itself was chill, a lot of singing and goodwill, medics and organisers with walkie talkies making sure everyone stayed safe. Earlier at the park, Atama had chanted, “hidup Bersih! Hidup kuning, hijau, SAPP, USNO, PKR, mansuh PTPTN.” Every opposition party member then Himpunan Hijau and the student activists got a chance to speak.
There was an incident however while we were seated, Bersih organisers called for an USNO member to come up and speak. The USNO rep announced that he had brought a lot of supporters to Bersih and asked those supporters to stand up. What the speaker couldn’t see behind him was that the trucks looked as though they were about to reverse into the crowd and they were quite close. Quite a few people in the front stood and we started yelling for them to sit down cos hey, it’s a sit-in and if everyone stood, the police might have pushed us off the field. It caused a bit of a scare but in retrospect I’m almost doubtful of that being their intention. It might have just been our paranoia. The police, at the end of the day, were overall very cooperative and friendly. Bersih 3.0 Sabah was praised for being peaceful and managing to bring in a crowd of 2,000 people. There was singing, guitars, flowers and children. An overall very chirpy experience.
Now the kicker
I can’t say here that I’m speaking for all Sabahans. What I’m about to address is incalculable and based on personal experience. If I have any misgivings, kindly, patiently correct me in a comment. It is not my intention to defame, condemn or discourage any person/body publicly.
On Donald Stephens’ initial reluctance to join Malaysia in 1961 -
“Donald became less and less eager to embrace the idea of a union based on the then current situation. His thoughts increasingly centred on a painful, perhaps even embarrassing reality: The illiteracy of Sabah’s natives and their abysmal level of political awareness were huge disadvantages when weighed against the sophistication of the energetic and highly educated Chinese in Singapore, and the relatively astute and entrenched politicians of Malaya who had learned their lessons from four years of independence.”
- Granville-Edge, P.J. The Sabahan: The Life and Death of Tun Fuad Stephens. 1999, p112
It is still a painful thing to admit that Sabahans still have an ‘abysmal level of political awareness’ compared to our neighbours. Many of our youths are patriots yet they are completely unaware of even the most basic sore in Sabah’s side – Project IC. It’s not because we’re dumb. No way. Our underdevelopment in the 60s was due to the fact that we were Borneo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lost world in Alamayer’s Folly. Today it’s because of our education system and media are biased towards West Malaysia. That, and we have a habit of not wanting to talk about ‘painful’ things. While trying to discuss Bersih 3.0 Sabah prior to the event, friends pointed out that it is not in our culture to openly criticise or try to intellectualise issues and so I should keep my reservations to myself so as to not make enemies. I find this condescending. If Sabahans are forever going to be so delicate and ‘kicik hati’ that we refuse to have any upfront, honest discussions about the issues that affect us then it is only the gain of those who wish to control us.
I want to hear more Sabahans take charge of their opinions. I want there to be more intellectual, open, constructive debates and I will do my best to start with myself. Even if it means that some people are going to hate me for it. I only have the utmost respect and appreciation for the organisers of Bersih Sabah for their pains and sleepless nights but if our principles are aligned, you will not mind my honesty. I only intend to appeal to all Sabahans and their ability to reason. I want us to be stronger and for us to realise that we can no longer use ‘being Sabahan’ as an excuse for our failings.
In the last four years, Bersih 2.0 has been elementary in recovering Malaysia’s long lost democracy. ‘Democracy’, however, is a word that easily becomes lost in translation.
A democracy is not intended to award people ‘absolute freedom’, nor is it synonymous (although it is correlative) with ‘freedom of speech’. You can say that a democracy is being able to choose your government but it’s so much more than that. Democracy in our modern context is usually a shortened form of liberal democracy. That does not only bestow upon citizens the power to vote, it also means that citizens have a say in how our government writes their policies. Basically it means that the people are boss. Not our politicians.
Which brings me back to Bersih Sabah.
The whole procession was peaceful and 2,000 more people turned up at Padang Merdeka than the year before. People call it “Bersih 3.0 as it should have turned out” but there’s a give and take with that. It’s no secret that Kuala Lumpur’s Bersih 3.0 was hijacked by politicians but when it came to Bersih 3.0 Sabah, I can hardly say that it was ‘politically hijacked’ because the Bersih Sabah organisers willingly and literally gave opposition politicians and NGOs the microphone.
Bersih 2.0 has many principles, written and unwritten; it is a non-partisan movement, political parties are encouraged to support and come to Bersih but only as citizens. Yet Bersih 3.0 Kota Kinabalu was a round of speeches from Pakatan, SAPP and USNO. It didn’t feel like a non-partisan, civil rights movement because each opposition party was given the opportunity to talk and when they did, they spoke about themselves. Were ordinary citizens invited to talk? No, unless I missed something. For the most part, us regular people had to sit down and listen to opposition politicians brag about how many followers they brought that day in support of Bersih; how they wanted to topple BN and how they too shared the same demands as the rakyat. The old “I feel what you feel because I am YOU”. It was sickening. Not only that, it was contradictory. Bersih 3.0 Sabah is pushing for the RCI into Sabah’s illegal immigrants and in front of all of us, they gave USNO a chance to speak. Anyone who knows about Sabah’s political history knows that this is a conflicting alliance.
It was like speed campaigning and I was surprised that the organisers allowed this propaganda to take place at a Bersih rally, of all places. This took place at a central, historical public square where in any other city, ordinary people are free to stand on a soapbox and say whatever is on their mind and yet Sabahans went to Bersih 3.0 KK and were made to sit down quietly at a civil rights movement to listen to politicians speak. As though we haven’t done that all our lives. Freedom of speech within a democracy does not only mean that one gets to say what they want, it also means that it is your prerogative to also listen to others. And yet the man who passed the politicians and NGOs the microphone tweeted -
So why wasn’t the rakyat invited to speak? This goes the same for Himpunan Hijau and the student activists. Although this year it has come into trend that Bersih 2.0 has become the umbrella NGO to all of Malaysia’s problems, I say Malaysians should not give in to this habit lest Bersih’s goals be corrupted. Has anyone noticed that #OccupyDataran and the student activists for abolishing PTPTN both camp out at Dataran Merdeka yet both movements don’t necessarily support each other? Even though Fahmi Reza is the original Kuasasiswa? It’s because they have different goals but they still maintain a distant but civil camaraderie.
Yes, solidarity is important but so is staying true to your principles. 28/04 Padang Merdeka was Bersih Sabah’s campaign. Himpunan Hijau and the student activists should be welcomed, not featured in another NGO’s event without its audience’s consent. [I regret that I missed the orang asal/PACOS speeches, which I heard were inspiring but their cause is more relevant to Bersih 2.0 than the others and they're co-organisers so I applaud them]. As the student activist began to talk about taking down BN and abolishing PTPTN, I heard a young woman in the crowd say “I did not come here to listen to student activists talk” then turn away. Not everyone agrees with having free tertiary education and organisers should respect that their followers did not come to support a different agenda than what was expected. Bersih should not be a corroboration between all the bodies opposed to the ruling government. To do so would be biased and insincere. The only exception was Dr Chong Eng Leong who is a PKR member, human rights activist and author of ‘Lest We Forget’. Unlike the others, he spoke for his cause and not for his party.
Later, June Rubis, one of the organisers tweeted, “Proud that @BERSIHSabah brought many groups together including political parties who would not sit in same table together before..” One, there is the United Borneo Alliance. Two, it’s not Bersih’s prerogative to get political parties to bond.
She repeatedly defended the presence of political parties at Bersih Sabah but she also posits some good questions and asks “why is civil society not strong enough?” She tweeted, “All this reminds me how we need to build civil society & support movements, esp orang asal & youth. Don’t just condemn, HELP US. #Bersih”
Okay, she’s kind of lambasting civil society too and accusing us of doing nothing but I agree. Civil society does need to be more confident. This confidence comes from education and awareness. Bersih Sabah organisers have been excellent in organising human and civil rights workshops and reaching out to youths and rural folks but they’ve left out the emphasis on knowing Sabahan history and our political climate. It’s the missing part of our education, because our education system and media leans to West Malaysia. Teach people why and what it is that they need to protect – their heritage, their culture and security. That is how you empower them. I’m not trying to pass the buck but that’s what most NGOs are for.
A proper dissemination of information would be so useful in explaining the reasons why Malaysians need to fight for free and fair elections; what having a democracy can really do for us and for every citizen to realise that they are just as important as any politician no matter how high their rank. The problem was that Bersih Sabah was sorely lacking on their PR side. They did not create a blog and their Facebook page was seldom used till the fortnight before. In the beginning of this year’s campaign, most of the posts were instructions on how to handle tear gas or what to do during an arrest. There was not enough information on electoral fraud till later. Bersih Sabah leader, Atama, mostly reiterated Ambiga’s concerns but did not put enough effort into explaining to all Sabahans, why Bersih 3.0 and the RCI into PTIs is so important to us.
This is from his only candid public address, which was released on the eve of 28/04:
“Many years I have been dreaming of a day when Sabahan youths & elders gather for one day to celebrate true freedom for Sabah. This has always been hindered, partly because those who are enslaved never realize even to see the shackles on their feet or notice the handcuffs on their wrists. Brainwash and conditioned by the controlling mainstream media, they never may nor perhaps never will every see how their lives are hanging on a string – puppets by the very people they elect into power.” – ‘The Next 48 Hours Will be Historic’, Andrew Ambrose Mudi @ Atama
This passionate speech came only too late. If only he spoke to the public before as he did then and with more facts than philosophy, Bersih Sabah may have stood a chance at reaching out to more Sabahans especially those who are normally apolitical. By not doing so, they had inadvertently excluded ‘civil society’. He estimated 100,000 would come on the day but last week, the Bersih Sabah page still only had about 400 likes and this week it has doubled. This is in spite of Atama’s celebrity. Bersih Sabah had reached out to political parties and NGOs but not the public themselves. There wasn’t even an explanation as to why less than two weeks before 28/04, Bersih Sabah suddenly had 8 + 1 demands with a new campaign slogan, ‘No RCI, no election’. Just three days prior, Ambiga had come down to Sabah to launch their ‘Jom 100 : 100% voter turnout’ campaign. From 100% voter turn out to. No RCI, no election in 3 days? … and they complain that the Election Offenses Act was amended at the last minute without the rakyat’s consent.
An insider revealed that when Ambiga came down to KK this early April to launch ‘Jom 100′, she was shocked by the magnitude of Sabah’s PTI problem and how it dilutes Sabah’s voting power (in the third most populated state in Malaysia, no less). Which makes me wonder – between MAFREL, Bersih Sabah and Tindak Malaysia, how come Ambiga’s only figured out this problem now? It’s only been plaguing Sabah for the last 30 years.
At the end of the day, I’m glad that Sabahans took the initiative to come together and exercise their right to assemble peacefully. I only hope that the next rally (hopefully there won’t be a need for one) can be better. What I learned from Bersih Sabah is that Sabahans have a culture of relying on other people to say something they can agree with but most won’t speak up themselves. We’re surprisingly shy and we love to “ikut belakang”. We’re always looking to find good, strong leaders but we always come up short because we’re not developing ourselves as leaders. Last Saturday, I saw that hundreds of people at Bersih Sabah preferred to come as their agendas rather than themselves. It makes me realise how disempowered we all still are. I’ve met many youth party members who felt that joining a political group was the only way to make a difference. Because being a citizen means you are powerless. This simply isn’t true and I hope they figure that out soon. I’m not sure if this message came across during Bersih Sabah.
They can say that Sabahans came together that day from all walks of life, all ages, races and religions but if we all come together with prominently different political beliefs and values, are we really united? It is when we are divided that we can be conquered. Sadly while I was at Bersih 3.0 Sabah, that feeling of selflessness and unity like I had experienced at last year’s Bersih – wasn’t all there. At Bersih 2.0 in KL, whenever someone yelled “Hidup Pakatan!”, civillians would shout back “Bersih! Bersih!” to change the chant and make it non-partisan again. That’s when it really felt like a non-partisan, civil society movement.
Sabahans are very united in their own way so I was surprised that it couldn’t come through last Saturday. I feel more united during Ka’amatan. If only we had gone to Bersih just as Sabahans and not all these different groups at one time, something amazing could have happened. Bersih is meant to be an equaliser between citizens and politicians. A time for politicians to reflect on their responsibilities to the rakyat. That’s why it’s important for politicians to come to Bersih as regular joes.
Now if you’re asking why I’m being a backseat activist instead of helping the organisers – well, I was actually approached to help out with the campaign but I declined. Not just for personal reasons but because I now have a documentary and a short film to shoot in Sabah and their schedules overlap. Meaning my schedule is packed to the brim. Like many other civilians, I haven’t the time to go to all the workshops or events initiated by NGOs, nor do I have the time to assist them. I might put in more effort than some to understand Sabah’s political situation and I always knew I’d show up at Bersih 3.0 KK. I talked about it and defended it even if I couldn’t be a bigger part of the process. I’m a registered voter and I will be voting this coming GE. That’s all I could ask for from any average civilian, most days.
If that’s not enough and you think my opinion is unimportant because I’m not ‘up there doing something’ then maybe you don’t really understand yet, the difference one small individual/voter/citizen can make. And perhaps you overestimate politicians and diplomats if you think they do more than just talk. Peace alone should not be the measure of a successful protest. It is the nature of the protest and what was achieved. We know time and time again that Sabahans are peaceful. What we must strive to do now is to prove to ourselves that we are not nonchalant.