Breeding A New Generation Of Activists

Keynote Speech delivered at the Youth Empowerment Symposium (YES), Nilai University College on 14 July 2012. Base draft of the Speech by a fellow LoyarBurokker, Low Wen Zhen.

Today, I am truly honoured to be standing before more than 100 of you aged from 15 – 24 to deliver the Keynote Speech titled Rights, Roles and Responsibilities in this year’s Youth Empowerment Symposium (YES). I feel the positive vibes and soon-to-be boundless energy resting in all of you waiting to explode, and seeking to do good because you care about Malaysia and her communities.

I am also humbled because I know that all of you will have in the coming days so much more to give and so many new ideas to germinate for Malaysians and Malaysia – as compared to us who are now slightly older.

You hope, and will provide hope for our nation, because I believe, as I am sure you do, that hope for a better future is one of the greatest emotions that sustains us in life. And you – as the young – are in fact the hope of our beloved nation.

You have greater influence over your peers than any of us will ever have, and your generation is the one that will propel us forward as we develop together to meet the needs and challenges of the future. Realising the power you have in your hands, wanting to use the power constructively thus uplifting yourself early in the morning to this massive event is already a first right step you have taken in activism.

I read that YES hopes to start a fire to illuminate your lives and the lives of the people around you. This is a noble aim, a clear vision and an achievable goal.

Think not of those who say that Malaysians are an apathetic lot, and that there is nothing we can do collectively to improve the conditions of our people. Think not of those who complain and complain but take no action to help themselves or others. Think not of those who rely on the power elite and self-interested stakeholders who are then taken up and led down the garden path, and realise it has only been but a game for them. Think not of those who laugh at activism and activists only for them to crawl back seeking help from you when a problem affects them personally.

Instead think about educating yourselves and others around you. Instead think about empowering yourselves and your community. Instead think about finding solutions to the problems that youths face on a daily basis 365 days a year. Instead mobilise and organise your community to consult on that which ought to be done to alleviate the problems. Most importantly, activate yourselves and others around you to act towards building self-determining and self-sustaining communities who can stand up for yourselves, others and all Malaysians. That is our future.

You – young Malaysians today have much in common. You are aware. You are opinionated. With the benefit of instantaneous communication, you receive and share a lot of information with your peers. You are no longer complacent with the status quo and no matter where you are now, you always think about how things could be better than this. You believe in something and you are willing to fight for it. But many still tend to stop at a point: they find out about things, complain about them, and then move no further. So the crucial step for you to take, now, is to translate your willingness into action, and with that, a better understanding of your rights, roles and responsibilities to move forward.

I have been invited to deliver this Keynote to set the direction and tone of YES, and subsequently for you to take it apart to internalise the salient points for action. I will do so now.


Activists and activism

There are fellow human beings all over the world, some Malaysians, who still sleep on the streets, who still live without adequate food and water, who still have no access to medicine and healthcare, who still cannot go to school. Others are survivors of corruption, abuse of power, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. Yet others still seek real and effective justice to be able to move on with their lives. Far worse, some still do not know that they are citizens of this country who possess of inalienable rights.

The words ‘activists’ and ‘activism’ are two extremely powerful words. They connote movement and they define action as opposed to passivity and ennui.

These words however used to conjure up negative notions of ‘troublemakers’ and ‘busybodies’. This was so because the corrupt, the oppressors, the dictators, the violaters, the racists and the abusers wanted to paint a picture – a false one – that activists questioning what they were doing and shaming their deeds was wrong. In actuality, it was the only right thing to do as human and thinking beings. And so they wanted to hide from activists and activism. They were afraid of activists and activism. But they have failed.

Today, and despite many attempts at criticising, imprisoning, persecuting and denouncing activists and activism, activists and activism are buzzwords, and the ‘in-things’ to be and to be involved in. We will not stop. We will not stop because activists and activism have saved and improved lives, reduced pain and suffering and enhanced human civilisation.

Given this, we must remember that activists are not born, they are made. We learn and grow into our role as activists – some faster than others particularly if a ‘trigger’ event had occurred to effect the person’s life.

What therefore are the foundations of an activist? From my limited experience, I suggest three (and there may be more), namely, ideology, emotion and function.


The ideological

Activists must ground their struggle for any cause on first principles. Without fundamental principles of right and wrong, no cause would go very far. For example, if one’s cause is to promote and entrench ethnic superiority, what would be the core ideological premise that would gather traction with right-minded people? If one’s cause is to uphold and implement State assistance for everyone irrespective of ethnicity, what would be the core ideological premise for doing so? As such, an ideological underpinning is an imperative.

Because I suggest that the natural state of human beings is freedom, our ideological core must be in rights – human rights.

Many, many, many years ago, various cultures and religions spoke about the concept of ‘rights’ but not in the way we know of it at present. We were taught to love the sick, help the poor and defy the wicked. We were called to fight injustice, control our desire for material wealth and punish the cruel.

Today, freedom has been translated into legal language as ‘rights’. This was necessary because there were those in power who wanted to alter the natural state of human beings by curtailing and re-shaping our freedom for their personal or political gain to the detriment of those they viewed as ‘inferior’.

Today’s language of human rights found its roots in the modern human rights movement tracing back to the end of World War II in 1945. The shock and horror of the atrocities of the Nazi regime prompted principles of equality and non-discrimination to take centre stage. In 1945, the United Nations Charter reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, and in the dignity and worth of the human person. Proclaimed in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – arguably the most important international human rights instrument – recognised that inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. No discrimination should be practised for reasons of ethnicity, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, birth or other status.

Left unsaid is that the modern human rights movement is relatively young but has achieved great success including defeating apartheid and totalitarianism, freeing detainees held without trial, and systematically providing food, shelter and healthcare for the needy. But we must not forget that many of these concepts of human rights had previously been articulated and defined in different ways by religion and culture of past civilisations. The UDHR embodies many of these concepts. We must not forget this. Some still maliciously argue that human rights is anti-culture and anti-religion. This assertion is wrong. For every right under the UDHR, one is able to find a corresponding enunciation of the same in culture and religion, and perhaps more. In light of prevailing circumstances, human rights in reality protects the diversity of culture and religion especially those practised by the minority of persons in various communities.

The ideological activist will therefore find three key principles of human rights that he or she can work from. First, human rights is universal. Rights is inherent in everyone, regardless of who or where or what you are. It has often been argued that rights is relative; critics cite regional differences and assert that human rights is a Western, bourgeois concept not generally applicable to their particular cultures or religions. This idea of relativism – that different standards apply to different people – comes dangerously close to conceding that there are sub-standards for ‘sub-humans’.

In the MyConstitution WorkShops and the UndiMsia! GameShops, we often conduct the ‘New World’ and ‘Spaceship’ modules where Malaysians are asked to list down five items or five types of people they would take to a new world if Earth is destroyed today. Every single time, the choices would include food, water and clothes or the farmer, the doctor and the labourer as the means of production and sustenance in the new world. Broken down, we as humans need certain things to live and these things have now been called ‘human rights’. The same modules have been done and tested by other community groups with participants from Europe, South America and Africa, and the list they have consistently come up with correspond with the Malaysian list.

What this simple exercise suggests is that the central tenet of human rights is correct: across the globe wherever one comes from, human rights is the basic minimum standard of need and treatment a human being is entitled to. The UDHR establishes this principle, not only in its name, but also in declaring a common standard of achievement for all peoples in all nations.

Granted, in the application of human rights standards, States have a ‘margin of appreciation’ to deal with particular social norms and conditions but they cannot violate or ‘go below’ the minimum standard set by the UDHR. In this sense, culture and religion influences the application of human rights in particular communities, and enriches the idea of rights rather than undermines it.

Second, human rights is inalienable. Rights cannot be taken away from us by anyone because they were not given to us by anyone in the first place. Put another way, we are born with these rights. Some rights are non-derogable such as the right to life and freedom from torture. Other qualified rights cannot be compromised except in narrowly defined circumstances for the larger good of the community such that restrictions must be prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim and be no more than strictly necessary in a democratic society. Many civilised countries now have their own Constitutions spelling out these rights in order that governments and citizens act to respect, protect, fulfill and enhance these rights.

Third, human rights are normatively indivisible and functionally interdependent. Civil and political rights on the one hand – known also as ‘negative’ rights in the sense that its observance lies in prohibiting interference by governments – and economic, social and cultural rights on the other – known also as ‘positive’ rights in the sense that governments must progressively provide for its citizens – cannot be separated.

They cannot be cherry-picked to prioritise one right over the other by using the familiar ‘Asian values’ argument that we should focus on economic development first before fighting for free speech. Jose Diokno, a human rights lawyer and the former Secretary of Justice in the Philippines, aptly remarked and I quote: “True, a hungry man does not have much freedom of choice. But equally true, when a well-fed man does not have freedom of choice, he cannot protect himself against going hungry.” If one is hungry, free speech is of little use to him or her if he or she does not have the energy to protest. But if there is no freedom to speak, who will know if one is hungry when that dreaded day comes?

I argue that any form of activism based on the human rights value-system will be well-rooted, strong, progressive and necessarily humane.


The emotional

Beccaria in his Of Crimes and Punishment of 1764 once said that “if, by defending the rights of man and of unconquerable truth, I should help to save from the spasm and agonies of death some wretched victim of tyranny or of no less fatal ignorance, the thanks and tears of one innocent mortal in his transports of joy would console me for the contempt of all mankind”.

Ideology without emotion misses the reason for activism in the first place. The emotion of care for others grounds the activist. Why be an activist? Why do activism? Do unto others what you would like to be done unto you. Shorn of rights language, it is because there are complainants, victims and survivors who are suffering, needing help and seeking justice. They say that their rights have been violated, and you see it too. And you are able to help and want to do something about it.

Being an ideological activist is not sufficient. You must not only talk about rights in a highfalutin or fanciful manner, but must also have the soft skills and ability to understand and empathise with the person being wronged or who is suffering. How is the person suffering? Is the person able to live his or her life meaningfully as any decent human being should or would like to? What are the laws or policies preventing this from happening?

After all, there would be no cause to advocate for if no one is affected. So the activist cares for the person involved, and must seek to arm himself or herself with the personal story of the person. It would require the emotional activist to effectively listen – not just hear – to the person by way of conversations and interviews, and to look at the problem as a form of human suffering which the activist would not want befall himself or herself. It would also require the generally known traits of ‘love’ to be exhibited, namely, compassion, kindness, patience and gentleness.

The more effective lobbying campaigns have been those where activists build a case study or profile around the person who is suffering, and the effect it has on his or her family and friends. By invoking a composite personal story that touches the hearts of others, it would be easier to connect the problem with those the activist seeks to gain mass support from. This would necessitate communicating the person’s story in the simplest yet heart-wrenching way possible without distorting the facts. It is a powerful tactic in activism.


The functional

Adopting the rights value-system and then putting yourself in the shoes of the person suffering must culminate in understanding the responsibilities you have and roles you play as an activist for effective action.

Having rights engenders responsibilities as with great power comes great responsibility. For example, a person may have the right to express himself or herself no matter how distasteful or stupid the statement may be, and the right should not be curtailed by the State save in limited circumstances such as if the statement is a call to war or constitutes imminent incitement to violence. However, in exercising the right, one should be acutely aware of the effect the expression may have on other communities who may not share the same view. Such was the case with the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that while the depictions were in exercise of the right to expression, the cartoons were disrespectful and bordered on religious prejudice. It would have been better had the cartoons not been published.

Article 29 of the UDHR tells us that everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his or her personality is possible. Similarly, Article 29 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted in 1981 enshrines the duty owed by the individual to his or her family, national community, country, and positive African cultural values. Restrictions to a person’s rights in certain areas such as freedom of speech, assembly and association are permissible only if necessary on the basis of morality, public order and national security where the harm to society outweighs the benefit in the exercise of the individual right.

It is the responsibility of the functional activist based on the ideology of rights to decide if a certain cause of action should be taken or not, and in that equation whether the harm to society outweighs the benefit. In essence, do not in the pursuit of curing a rights violation commit a further violation. A person’s right cannot be seen in isolation from the rest of society, and the responsibility as activists is to as best as possible ensure the rights of all are balanced in respect and protection.

An underlying problem may perhaps be a misunderstanding of the vision of human rights that it is not meant to hurt but to protect. It is not a carte blanche for offensive or extreme behaviour but merely to set a minimum benchmark. Once that standard is adhered to, little can be heard by way of complaint. Centuries ago back in 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen defined liberty as consisting in the freedom to do everything that injures no one else. Reminding ourselves of this definition calls us to constantly execute a balancing exercise between the cause we are fighting for with how our activism affects various communities either positively or to their detriment.

Layered with the suggestion about our responsibilities I just mentioned – once the ideological and emotional activist has decided to act on a cause – is the question of the role an activist is to play. Pumped with adrenaline rapidly flowing in the blood veins, the functional activist makes the action happen.

The phrase ‘fighting for rights’ when searched on Google shows many images of protestors waving placards, shouting slogans, marching on the streets, setting up camps in public spaces such as in Wall Street and Dataran Merdeka. The role that these protestors are playing is the ‘Rebel’ role as defined in Bill Moyer’s book, Doing Democracy. Moyer writes that there are at least four different roles an activist can play – the ‘Rebel’, the ‘Reformer’, the ‘Social Change Agent’ and the ‘Citizen’.

Generally, the Rebel highlights the gap between what the current situation is and what it should be, and will persistently say a loud ‘No!’ to rights violations even if it means risking life and limb. This contrasts with the Reformer who works within the system by engaging in dialogue with policy-makers and power-holders through the parliamentary and legal process to bring about change. The Social Change Agent educates and empowers, promotes new values and solutions in addressing problems, and organises people for mass support. The Citizen upholds positive values of a good society and supports social activism to give legitimacy to the movement while resisting drastic and violent change.

When considering our roles as activists, it is useful to ask what role do we want to play or what role do we play effectively. Each and every role is important, and social activism movements usually find success when all four roles are cohesively and effectively carried out by activists. The ambitious and multi-talented activist may be able to play up to four roles at given points in time of a movement. Gandhi as an example played the role of a Rebel when he led the Salt March in 1930 and played the role of a Reformer when he sat with the British to discuss and work towards the independence of India. The Bar Council played the role of Reformer in drafting an alternative law to the Peaceful Assembly Act and attempted to push it through, and further, played the role of Rebel in taking to the streets to protest the said Act at the Walk for Freedom on 29 November 2011.

Many fall into the trap of thinking that activism is only about playing the Rebel role, and many who are afraid or unwilling to do the same believe that they cannot therefore be activists. This is untrue as the Rebel role fulfills only one of the four roles in activism. A person may be more inclined towards one role than the other; and in practice the activist may interchangeably play all four roles, at different stages of a movement. We should support every person playing each different role, and see the actions of all as a whole.

We need those who will demonstrate and occupy to bring issues to the forefront of our collective awareness and prompt us into action (Rebel). We need groups like the Bar Council and Bersih to research, publish reports, draft recommendations and lobby Members of Parliament for reform (Reformer). We need movements such as the MyConstitution to campaign and create public awareness about the Federal Constitution, UndiMsia! to empower and activate communities to take effective non-violent, direct actions and LoyarBurok as an online platform for free speech and expression (Social Change Agents). There is a role for you and everyone, if only we search ourselves a little bit more.


Do-It-Yourself Activism

Where are we at now? I have suggested looking at the paradigm of activism from the lenses of the ideological, the emotional and the functional. An activist must have all three components. Speaking rights to power demands that the activist sets out the cause based on human rights, articulates the personal story of the sufferer and takes effective non-violent, direct actions to shift the balance of power away from the oppressor.

I gather you came to YES hoping to be empowered to do what I just mentioned. But you cannot rely on others to empower you. And you do not need others to empower you. As the young, you do not carry as much historical baggage of older generations; you are not haunted by too many ghosts of the past. You are able to discuss issues that have hitherto been thought off-limits, and you are able to think of ideas and possibilities that no one has ever imagined before. It is all too easy to be armchair commentators, too convenient to be Twitter or Facebook activists; but at the end of the day, clicking a ‘Like’ or retweeting a tweet without more just won’t do, if what you are trying to do is to make a difference.

Once you are able to ideate the three components of idealogy, emotion and function, you must then ask:

  • using the #ProblemTree analysis, what are the causes and consequences of the problem you are seeking to solve;
  • using the #BigPicture analysis, where does the power lie and who are your allies in the cause;
  • using the #ActionPyramid, who are the targets (e.g. policy-makers and power-holders) that you are calling on for behavioural change, what message(s) do you intend to send to the targets, what non-violent, direct action(s) do you intend to take to send the message and what tactics do you intend to employ to make your action effective and impactful.

The tools to undertake this critical exercise is not the subject of this Keynote, and if you are able to attend one of UndiMsia!’s #IdolaDemokrasi GameShops, you will find out about the tools to help you establish a comprehensive action plan for the cause you intend to champion.

It should come to pass one day that no one should need activists or activism for there are no problems in the world to contend with. But that end is not near yet.

The time for talking and complaining is over. The time to ACT is now. Free your mind and empower yourself! I wish you the best.

Credit: Big Ant International ||

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Life's a sufferance. Lawyering a bore. As Edmund continues various escape techniques to be rid of Lord Bobo’s influence, he crusades with UndiMsia! movers to build strange youth love movements around the country. And so he tweets @edmundbon and practises the black magic art of advocacy at

Posted on 14 July 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

Read more articles posted by Edmund Bon Tai Soon.

Read this first: LB Terms of Use

One Response to Breeding A New Generation Of Activists

  1. pepperlim