Joachim Leong shares some of the lessons he has learnt as an activist over the last few years. While these by no means form a definite guide on being an activist (this article and this booklet possibly do), he hopes to inspire and encourage Malaysians to join him in the journey to a better world.
The late Dr. Lim Hock Siew, Singapore’s 2nd longest political detainee (19 years), once said:
“ … a life without convictions, without idealism, is a mere meaningless existence, and I’m sure most of you will agree that as human beings, we are worthy of a life much more meaningful than just that.”
Now, I wouldn’t call myself an activist but other phrases like ‘active citizen’ (as opposed to passive citizen?), ‘philanthropist’ (I’m not rich, really), charity worker (so, the people we’re helping are charity cases?) or NGO worker (I’m not part of any group per say) don’t seem to fit me either. Or, at least, I don’t think they do. So, I guess I am stuck with ‘activist’.
Sure, this label has some negative connotations (bra-burning of the feminist variety, rabble rouser and anarchists, anyone?) but I take the liberal definition of it as someone who’s pro-active in works within the community or society. Of course, there’re others who may argue over what actually constitutes activism (i.e “My brand of activism is better than yours!”) but I say, each and every person has his or her own role(s) to play.
It all began with that ‘A’ word – no, not activism, but action
Some background on me: I came back from legal studies, and chambered and worked in KL from late 2009. In between, I got myself involved in the numerous initiatives run by the Malaysian Bar, namely, Free Legal Aid, the Teoh Beng Hock Inquest Watching Brief team, and the Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee, a.k.a BCCLC. This led me deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole to Loyarburok, UndiMsia! and the Malaysian Election Observers Network (MEO-Net) where I became part of an observation mission during the recent Sarawak State Elections. I also started my video-graphing career with the birth of Bersih 3.0.
I suppose that’s why, after the State Elections, I entered the realm of video activism. We made a film entitled Ulu Bengoh Darom Piin which was screened at the Freedom Film Fest 2011. It highlighted and examined the lack of ‘outrage’ at the ballot box demonstrated by villagers in rural Sarawak despite having their homes submerged by a dam approved by the Sarawak government they had elected.
Money raised from the sale of DVDs and screenings as well as money collected from donors have gone towards an initiative we started – LightupBorneo. Since then, we’ve succesfully installed several mini hydro-generators in three villages, some of which had been denied development by the current state government as these villages had brought a suit against it.
Funny where activism brings you, sometimes
One memory of my adventures in activism that continues to stick has to do with a BCCLC meeting I once attended. I remember I was seated at the table at the Bar Council Auditorium and surrounded by distinguished lawyers as well as eager-eyed students (I was certainly guilty of this), utterly beside myself about sharing the same space as the country’s most veteran do-gooders. Towards the end of the meeting, the then-chairperson, Edmund Bon, began to ask each person at the round table for suggestions. When my turn came, I had a few suggestions up my sleeve I didn’t hesitate to share in a gush of excitement. Something about flashmobs and reaching out to community centres with MyConsti workshops and seminars. What Edmund said next threw me off-guard: “Ok, Joachim, can you lead it?”
My instant reaction (which I suppose is common with most people who’ve just been asked to commit) was this:
What? Me? I don’t have the time! I don’t even have the skills to do this. I’m just putting a forward a couple of ideas. Can’t someone else lead it instead?
Lesson of the day? In future meetings, Joachim, just shut up, smile and volunteer with what little time you have in your tiny paws! The bigger lesson that I learnt eventually? Be the change you want to see. Because everything else falls into place once you decide to be just that. In fact, even Time pops up where you least expect to find it.
I’ll be very frank however: We are never fully prepared for the responsibilities thrust upon us. (I never was!) Rather, the circumstances and the problems thrust upon us prepares us for even bigger responsibilities in the future. I mean, I have zero formal training in filming or in being an election observer all on my own in a large constituency. But I found myself constantly needing to be resourceful in order to adapt to situations as they presented themselves to me. I think that’s where and how one learns the most.
Solving real issues and staying honest with activism
Being an activist can bring you closer to the ground than any policy-maker will ever get (even with their grandstanding walkabouts). At least, without surrounding yourself with sycophants. You can afford to make mistakes and learn from them. Above all, you can be true to yourself while doing all this; there isn’t a need to please anybody and everybody.
So, is there virtue in activism? Or is it just a bunch of troublemakers trying to get attention? Well, I say activists are simply a breed of people willing to call a spade a spade and find a solution where there’s just talk and excuses elsewhere. If Malaysia faces challenges in hiring more independent, critically minded individuals in the workforce, heck, shouldn’t we all simply dive into activism and get things done in our own way?
Activism as an antidote to apathy
We were built for empathy and compassion but modern society will have us focus on our individual selves as this creates a wider market for goods and services. This also makes it easier for marketers to break down trade unions and other bodies that can strengthen their bargaining power against the powers-that-be.
The alienating effect of consumerism has caused us to find less comfort in each other. Instead, we turn to retail therapy for our fix of happiness, fleeting as it may be, and end up feeling utterly alone and powerless. How long can material goods make us happy? Until they break? Until the next version comes out?
Meanwhile, we express the freedom money bestows upon us with large houses but imprison ourselves with barricades and guardhouses. We try to distinguish ourselves from others but ironically end up owning the same expensive cars, the same smart phones. Is this all there is to the game: He who dies with the most goods, wins?
I feel we should be widening our circles of influence and broadening our life experiences - here, I’m not asking you to abandon your comfort zones but to come out once in a while to connect a little. This nugget I find applicable not only to activism work, but to professional and family life as well. Why persevere to build better homes for ourselves and our loved ones but leave the politicians to the running of the ‘household’? The household that’s our country in which the ‘house rules’ decide just how comfortable our lives beyond the fences will be? If we let those in power decide how we live by keeping busy or silent on their policies or neglect, to what extent will our personal efforts be fruitful?
I’ve seen the wonders of standing your ground (politely and firmly, not necessarily militantly) from knowing your rights. I’ve also seen how some pressure can help get the right thing done. By coming out of our comfort zones once in a while to connect with the issues surrounding us, to acquaint ourselves with our fundamental rights, we can better safeguard our individual goals towards better living.
Activism and the role of anger
There are plenty of reasons to be angry with the state of affairs in Malaysia. Absurd guidelines.Traffic jams (a big one for those who live in the city). Loss of NCR land and developmental politics in rural areas, to name a few. One moment where things got to boiling point for me was during the Teoh Beng Hock inquest, one that was quickly turning farcical due to the antics of the MACC’s counsel. Okay, maybe some of the anger was also due to my not being able to keep up with the speed of the proceedings as a result of lame touch-typing skills. But primarily, it was anger at the audacity of professionals behaving unprofessionally, unethically even.
Then there was the family. Teoh Beng Hock’s family. Seated neatly in a row, with the deceased’s mum holding his picture, was a family in mourning. A family anxious to know the truth. A family who had not only lost a beloved son or husband but who’d been denied true justice because they were caught in the crossfire of politics.
I’m terrible when it comes to comforting people who’ve suffered a loss in their family. I can never find the words to say apart from offering a ‘be brave’ smile when eyes lock. But sometimes, when everything else in the world doesn’t seem to matter, the smallest acts of kindness do. It’s in the moment between two people where the opportunity to care (and show it) matters. And it’s a moment where you won’t remember how many days you’ve worked, how many cases you’ve won, or how much money you’ve made. Only that you touched a life and yours got touched in return.
If anger spurs you to kindness, then it’ll serve a good purpose. If it remains as anger, the kind that only succeeds in turning you into a hardcore cynic, it won’t. As Master Yoda would say, “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (Yes, activists are Jedis. You can quote me on that.)
For activists, anger that’s negative clouds our minds and makes us forget why we’re doing it and who we’re doing it for. And it can’t be for glory, revenge or redemption. It has to be communal, other-directed, so it we should be doing it for a better future for all.
Activism and the folly of expectations
When you first embark on activism work, it’s easy to expect changes to occur overnight. After all, you don’t have that much time to make a difference in the first place, so every sign of change counts. But activism, I’ve learnt, is for those who’re in it for the long run. Here’s an invaluable lesson about perseverance and stoicism the villagers taught me on my filming trips to Ulu Bengoh.
Imagine you’re one of them. You’ve lived all your life feeding your family by sustenance farming, vegetable farming, livestock rearing and maybe some cash-crop farming. Whatever extra you reap, you keep for the ‘rainy days’ ahead. The rest you sell for money to school your children or for trips into town. Then, one day, the government decides to build a dam and submerge your village. Rightly upset, you bring a suit against the legality of the dam and fight for your ancestral land rights. But get this – these suits are delayed until the very last possible moment, i.e when work has been completed and your suit, rendered academic. You move on, make a decision to build a new home on higher ground. But lo and behold, the government now offers to build those homes for you. Homes you have to pay from the little compensation money they give you in the first place. And homes that’ll forfeit your right to the land.
Yet, through this travesty, you manage to smile and laugh. It’s not a brave face but one that says you’re going to take things one day at a time and make the most of what you have at that moment. These are villagers who’re genuinely happier than most of the urban dwellers I meet on a daily basis! They don’t have the latest gadgets or the grandest houses but they have something better – the ability to be thankful for what they have. The wisdom to look at the big picture. And hope.
In comparison, we tend to sometimes take ourselves way too seriously. I think we need to be measured in our expectations and recognise Malaysia as a young democracy. A lot of maturing needs to be done but who says we can’t have fun or a laugh along the way? Oh I know – the person who forgets that any work worth doing is, as I’ve said, for the long run.
The long but never lonely days ahead
I look forward to locking hands with Malaysians, or better still, the human race, united in a singular purpose to be the change we want to see. But I also fear these days ahead. Not because of tear gas, the potential provocation, the ridiculing and the rejections. No, I fear the loss among Malaysians of what’s most needed for a better place to exist - hope, love and compassion for fellow Malaysians, universal values that cut through race, creed and religion.
The hype created from the Bersih events will hit a zenith, doused by tear gas and water cannons, aggression by cybertroopers, lies by mainstream media and fear-mongering by ministers. So what now? Hold steady, I say. And let’s persist in finding ways to improve our nation. They can be small ways, even dramatic ways. But the point is to find something close to our passion and areas of specialty or skills and reach out to others.
If you’re a teacher, teach the underprivileged. If you’re an engineer, design a contraption that provides clean water to rural areas. If you’re an IT programmer, create a software to help track corruption. The ideas are endless, limited only by the will to act.
In short, you know yourself best so you decide.
You decide if clicktivism is enough. If sharing with friends and family your knowledge about our rights is enough. If being an example to those you teach, play with and work with, is enough.
There’s much power in the concept of ‘you’. Imagine the potential of a collective who thinks and begins to act like you. So, consider uniting with like-minded Malaysians to find your ‘activism niche’. And then let rip.
Some practical stuff to note
On my election observation trip to my homestate of Sarawak, I had the honour of meeting a veteran civil society mover, Dr. Toh Kin Woon, who gifted me with a gem of advice. In his years of involvement in civil society, he noticed that parties and NGOs often break up over the smallest things as egos had a habit of getting in the way. So, “Be better and bigger than that,” he said.
I think there’s much truth in that. The ego may very well be that one most significant barrier to the advancement of society. There’s a time to lead, a time to follow, and of course, a time to let go. It takes some experience and discernment to know the difference. I sure am still learning to develop discernment as many of us are.
The good Dr. also mentioned that how well an organisation succeeds also hinges on how well it handles the contradictions within it. This is important as activism groups, like any group, is a collection of different people with different opinions and motivations.
Time to act
When I started writing this post, I only had a simply goal. To encourage those interested in activism or those who simply want to contribute to the community or society. I suppose it’s therefore appropriate that I then end it by sharing the seven ways to get started:
3) For inspiration, check out the fabulous Freedom Films Fest at Jaya 1 this weekend and watch films that highlight issues relating to justice and human rights. This year’s winners include ‘Rights of the Dead’ by Tricia Yeoh that focuses on Teoh Beng Hock, post-death and inquest. Click on the FB event here and note that workshops are being held as well. Meanwhile, you can grab the preview video here.
4) Scope out EngageMedia where video activists from the South East Asian region share their creative works on issues that concern them. Think youtube but for activists!
6) If you’ve already registered to vote but wish to do more, check out Jom Pantau. Volunteers are needed to monitor procedures at the coming General Elections and and report on any fishy goings-on.
7) Come to Culturerun’s series of workshops on the Federal Constitution in October/November! Members of the MyConsti campaign (myself included) will be conducting interactive workshops on the Constitution. (Places are limited so get in on the event ASAP!)
Last words (but not the last act)
Activism has led me to many memorable and invaluable experiences but like it says in the #DIYToolkit – it can’t be taught, it’s gotta be experienced. So, go forth. Free your mind. Build your confidence. Liberate your soul. Be the ‘Act’ in activism and be proud that you’re doing something.
Note: Photo credit for Ulu Bengoh go to Sam (thanks, bro for the great DSLR pics) and Edmund Bon (sorry I shameless took stuff from your instagram feed!)
(Featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Tomas Quinones, source: http://bit.ly/VgrHBe)