Monday, July 25, 2011

I was there - Scuba Gal

I’m as ordinary as it gets. I live in a decent-sized condo, in a fairly popular middle-upper class neighbourhood. I married my husband in my early 30s. I’ve got a decent job in a well-regarded private corporation, where I’m middle management.

No children just yet but we’re trying for the average number of two. On the weekends, we do what most Malaysians in our circumstances might do — head to the cinema, have a meal at one of KL’s many malls, catch up with family and friends.

Recently, I had to answer a little profile write-up for work. When asked “what’s your biggest achievement?”, I could think of nothing I’d done so far that qualified. Yes, I’m that ordinary.

This ordinary Malaysian grew up in a normal household. My father was a university lecturer, my mother a secondary school teacher. We weren’t poor, nor were we rich.

Luckily for me, my parents watched their money and saved enough to send me to a good university in the US. They were also fairly staunch Opposition supporters and I grew up apathetic about our government.

I came back after several years away to take care of a sick father. He passed on, I ended up staying. Though I disliked how there was increasing affirmative action for the majority race, it didn’t affect me enough to leave. I got a pretty good job, and my life was comfortable. I made sure I kept myself minimally informed of politics and the development of our country because it made no difference to me and would only upset my even keel.

Several years ago, just before the 2008 political tsunami, things began to change. I felt more and more upset as I saw my younger sister — top scorer, award-winning athlete, board of prefects, captain of her house — being passed over again and again for any sort of educational aid, because we weren’t the right race. And it got worse. Church burnings, the cow head incident, being told that as a Christian I couldn’t use the word “Allah.”

I got more and more angry. And I wanted to talk about it. But I was told by all the powers that be that it wasn’t in our culture to voice dissent or question any “sensitive” issue. In this multi-cultural nation, it’s amazing that we can claim there’s a single type of culture – aren’t our differences in culture and way of life precisely what we sell to the tourists?

But I was still angry, so I’d complain, although only to family members or friends who I knew for a fact had the same opinions as me. Like many Malaysians, I complained about everything – the rise in crime, the lowering education standards, the racist statements of some quarters in government, the inability of the Opposition leaders to see eye-to-eye. I complained all the time. But I didn’t do anything about it. Just like most people. After all, what could I do? It would be too much effort anyway.

And then Bersih 2.0 came along, and I suddenly felt this need to take action. I knew this was the moment to do more than just complain. So I decided I wanted to be a part of it. Was I worried? Heck, yeah! Even up to the morning of July 9th, a part of me was hoping the rally would be cancelled or that my mum would be worried enough by our government’s intimidation tactics to ask me not to go.

Neither happened. With a small group of friends (two Eurasians, one Chinese, two Indians, a Muslim East Malaysian – yes, we were “1 Malaysia”!), we braved the police at our first LRT stop at Taman Bahagia, then at KL Sentral, and at the entrance to Stadium Merdeka, at Dataran Maybank, and finally at Pudu. We faced a stand-off where we were fired at in the compound of Tung Shin hospital (yes, our Health Minister and top cop are both blatant liars). We were trapped by FRU trucks on both ends of the street but finally found a side alley to escape to.

I was terrified throughout the ordeal, knowing and seeing first-hand how our police cared little for the safety of the peaceful, innocent supporters. But it was worth it. Because for the first time in my life, I felt like a real Malaysian. For the first time in my life, I felt united with my fellow citizens regardless of race, religion, age, gender or where we came from. For the first time in my life, I felt I was part of something bigger.

For the first time in my life, I could finally answer the question of what my biggest achievement was: it was to be united with tens of thousands of men and women, in spite of our physical differences, because we held a common belief.

Was it a life-changing experience? It certainly was. Will it be enough to bring about the changes in elections and in the way things are run that we want? I can’t say for sure. But I do know that this ordinary Malaysian is humbled by the many other ordinary Malaysians who believe in something better. And who will stand up for our rights no matter the potential price, but always in a peaceful manner.

I’ve never been prouder to be simply Malaysian.

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