The Reluctant Marcher

How Shanon Shah overcame his excuses and joined Bersih in 2007

In 2007, I didn’t want to go for the Bersih march. It’s not that I didn’t support its ideals and objectives. I had just started my job as the executive director of a non-governmental organisation and I was up to my ears in grant application deadlines and organisational plans. I thought it was alright for the rest of the staff and members to go, but not me, thanks. Besides, I was a recording artist – what would happen to my music career in Malaysia if I were caught? And as the youngest child, I was being advised by my family to stay out of trouble. I appreciated their fears – they had between them witnessed 1969, the Memali incident, Operasi Lalang, Reformasi, and so on.

So I wasn’t going to go – I had made up my mind. Yet, barely a month before the 2007 march, we were getting news about Burma’s Saffron Revolution. And in a thrilling moment in history, Malaysian lawyers had marched for justice in Putrajaya. Also, I knew that among my close circle of friends, many were going to march on 10 November, including the closest person to me at the time, the late Toni Kasim. And it’s not like I hadn’t been for any protests whatsoever before that. It’s just that the kinds of assemblies I had been to in KL were mere candlelight vigils, where journalists and Special Branch officers outnumbered demonstrators. You gathered, lit candles, got chatted up by plainclothes police officers, and went home.


At a vigil for Burma, 2007

So yes, I would support my friends who wanted to march, but I was not going. You can’t force someone to march if they don’t want to, I thought. In the lead-up to 10 November, however, there were more and more Facebook updates about the march. At work, I was forwarded emails written by the Bersih organisers, bless them, with guidance on how to behave during the march – with courtesy, dignity and utter non-violence. I wish I’d saved these emails. There were also announcements from the government that it would crack down on protesters, although I think our PM at the time, Pak Lah, was a pussycat compared to his predecessor and successor.

And then I don’t know what happened. We were leaving a Deepavali open house celebration, and I asked Toni, “Are you really going for Bersih tomorrow? Aren’t you busy, too?” She said, “Of course I’m busy, but I’m going. You really don’t have to feel bad about not coming, you know.” And that settled it. I said, “Well I’m coming too.”


Feeling like Frodo

It’s the afternoon of 10 November 2007, and it’s pouring with rain. Toni and I are marching side by side. We have to take multiple detours, down back alleys in the heart of KL, because countless FRU trucks have blocked access from Pasar Seni to Dataran Merdeka. I have just witnessed something that makes me laugh to this day:

When we started marching from Pasar Seni, a Malay man in a yellow shirt started leading a chant. “Allahu akbar!” he cried. Some of the more seasoned protesters followed this chant. As a Muslim who was surrounded by several non-Muslim friends, I was unsure what to do. Many others held back from following the chant. When he continued chanting this, Toni ran up to his side, and every time he chanted “Allahu akbar!” she responded with “Hak asasi!” “Allahu akbar!” he went. “Demokrasi!” she replied. He glared at her, she glared back. Us newbies giggled and joined Toni.


At Bersih 2007 - me hidden behind camwhores Toni and Pang

Now we encounter several police blocks – human fences of FRU personnel wielding armour and batons. Here I am, marching with Toni and the others through a back alley, I forget which one. Suddenly I hear something coming from the back – I don’t know if its footsteps or the beating of drums. I turn back – I see a sea of FRU officers marching towards us, beating their armour with batons. They are stone-faced – it looks like they are walking, but they approach us with terrifying speed. “Toni, what do we do?” I whisper. She looks at them, looks at me, and says, “Run!”

So then we start running, and the FRU officers break into a chase. I feel like Frodo Baggins trying to escape the Uruk-Hai. I don’t know if the FRU personnel manage to catch the stragglers from behind. Those of us still running with the group are ushered on by calm-faced Unit Amal PAS volunteers. One of them smiles at me as we pass him, and I know he recognises me. “Eh, ini artis kan?” I imagine him thinking.

We then cross one of the flyovers and I see that the whole of KL is at a standstill. The traffic does not budge. But I wonder if it is the police or the marchers who have caused this. See, in the UK, where I am now doing my MA, public demonstrations and industrial actions happen all the time. The police just alert the public beforehand, and on the day, they are just there to maintain order and make sure protesters march along the planned routes.


No fuss - how UK police deal with strikes and protests

We eventually gather in front of Istana Negara. I see multitudes of people. The FRU is out in full force, and police helicopters drone overhead. But it is amazing how many marchers there are. “Toni, was Reformasi as big as this?” I say. I missed Reformasi because I was studying in Australia at the time. “No,” she replies, and scans the landscape in awe.


Possible critiques

There is much to analyse about that first Bersih march. For one thing, there were conflicting approaches by the participants. Many didn’t wear yellow (I know I didn’t). Many wanted to use more inclusive chants (“Hak asasi!” “Demokrasi!” “Reformasi!” “Bersih! Bersih!”). Others wanted to sacralise the march with Islamic symbolism (“Allahu akbar!”) or appeals to the monarchy (“Daulat Tuanku!”). And yes, there was a moment when some opposition leaders rode to the palace gates, and many looked on with disgust because civil society, the grassroots, was supposed to own this. Also, in some corners of the protest the police fired tear gas and water cannons. Some of our friends were arrested, and many of us trudged to Bukit Aman afterwards to show support and solidarity, and to try to get them released. (The police would be even more merciless during the Hindraf march a fortnight later.)

Words cannot describe how glad I am I marched. I saw the news that night and read the headlines the next day, and I was both angry and comforted that the government-controlled press was lying. I was there, and I knew what happened. I knew why we marched, I deepened old friendships and made new ones, and I knew that a good number who marched in 2007 were just concerned, caring Malaysians.

So as I read about how the state and some pressure groups are now demonising and threatening the organisers of Bersih 2.0, I am comforted by my own experiences. I know these folks. I marched with them. To me, they’re exemplary Malaysians. I don’t hate the ruling coalition or any of the pressure groups opposed to the march. They have every right to take this position. I just wish they were more honest. Bersih 2.0 should not be above critique, but the critique should be fair and accurate. So from my perch in London, I await 9 July 2011 with hope, anxiety and yearning.

Specially for LoyarBurok, Shanon Shah rewrote Indonesian band Ratu’s hit “Teman Tapi Mesra” into “Bersih Lagi Mesra” and sings it for us here:

And from his second album, “Suara Yang Ku Dengar”, Shanon dedicates this song “Bantuan Pasti Akan Tiba” to Bersih 2.0 marchers:

Shanon Shah was the Columns and Comments Editor at The Nut Graph, and still contributes articles there occasionally. He is currently reading his MA in Religion in Contemporary Society at King’s College London.

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