After three years studying abroad, ideals fade, hope dwindles and one is faced with the omnipotent question: to return home or not to return home?
When I first stepped off the plane in Heathrow Airport three years ago, I was your average idealistic-19 year old who thought she knew everything, and who thought she had it all planned out.
I was going to come to the UK, finish up my law degree and go home to Malaysia and single-handedly change the system. Everyone else who had trodden this path before me and failed just hadn’t tried hard enough. Everyone who went abroad and never came back were cowards who didn’t love their country.
Now, three years on, as I face my imminent graduation and the prospects of returning home for good, I find myself questioning the very beliefs I once held so dear.
It’s hard to leave the fact that I can walk a mile to class everyday and not fear for the safety of my handbag (or my lungs). It’s hard to leave the fact that I can discuss religion and race openly without getting accused of being an “infidel” or “ungrateful.” It’s hard to leave the way I am allowed to think and question and express and explore for myself, and where my views are respected. It’s hard to leave when here youths are given a voice and never patronised, and nobody says “because I said so.”
It’s hard to leave the fact that I can walk down the street wearing anything I want and nobody will give me odd looks or whisper behind my back, or even force me to “cover up.” It’s hard to leave the fact that throughout my three years here I managed to immerse myself in student activism and politics and went on protests and demos and nobody bat an eyelid. It’s hard to leave the fact that whilst yes, racism does exist everywhere, at least here it is not institutionalised and ingrained and incited by the system.
And as I sit in my little student room in Nottingham and read about the latest Federal Court hearing or by-election outcome, or the latest racial slur by a politician, or the latest “religious” festival that has been banned, I think to myself: Why should I go back? What’s in it for me back home? Why should I go home and try to fight for something that is obviously only going downhill? What role is there for a young law graduate whose interests lie in Human Rights and International Law — human rights, international law, Malaysia, are you kidding me?
And even if I did eventually go back, I realise it is surprisingly easy to not care and to get sucked into your own little material world with your own little problems. I came home for the summer with the full intention of getting into the thick of things and ended up spending most of my time drinking overpriced coffee in Bangsar, listening to my friends talk about internships in large law firms and financial powerhouses. Maybe I could get used to this life after all — it’s nice and cushy and there are yummy cocktails involved. What happened the last time I went for a demonstration of any kind in Malaysia? Oh policemen with riot shields chased me and the FRU trucks blocked my way home. I think I’ll take the cocktails, thanks.
In short, I had become the person I despised, without even realising it.
My wakeup call came in the form of the Aljazeera Youtube channel on 10 February. Watching Mubarak’s speech, and watching the energy in Tahrir Square, something in me snapped and I realised that maybe we could do it too. Sure, we had a few teething problems to address — like perhaps having a single united movement with the same aim in mind, but yeah, teething problems — but it wasn’t impossible. It could be in a few months, or a few years, or even a few decades, but there was hope at the end of the tunnel, and maybe at that time it’ll be our turn to scream and cheer in our very own Liberation Square as we finally realise that the country does, indeed, belong to the people. And I realised, it will kill me if I wasn’t a part of that.
There is a line from Yasmin Ahmad’s Gubra that I’ll always remember: “Sometimes, it’s like loving someone who doesn’t love you back,” Orked says of Malaysia. And it’s true, sometimes it feels like we’re all alone, fighting and struggling for something that doesn’t even want to be fought for. Most of the time, there are a lot of easier options, like for me to just stay on in the UK and be perfectly content here. But I guess it’s like a long distance relationship, where you need to keep putting in the effort, and you need to keep trying, and at the end of the day you need to go back to the person you love.
We have a long, long road ahead of us. There won’t be any change (much less a full-fledged revolution) in Malaysia until we get our act together, until the people can come together and decide what it is that they want. We need to wipe out apathy amongst the youths, and educate and entire country about their rights and their choices. But amidst the darkness some people have lit their candles and they shine brighter than ever — the recent solidarity movement amongst students, the outpouring of protests against the PPPA and the building of the mega-tower, the fight of the indigenous people.
What these tell us is that we need to be patient and keep fighting the good fight and don’t ever give up.
What it tells me is that I need to regain my passion and hope and idealism, and get my ass back home (and overpriced cocktails in moderation).
Alea is a final year law student in the University of Nottingham, and is in denial that she is, well, becoming a lawyer. She thrives on sunshine and good food, and thinks that the world would be a better place if we all lived life according to a Beatles song.