I never knew that KL city centre could be so eerily quiet on a Friday night. Instead of calm, I felt tense. Outside the balcony of our friend’s 8th Floor apartment in Brickfields, I could hear the speeding KL Sentral Monorail. I could hear a temple function. I could see police patrols on the streets.

There were 12 of us gathered at this strategic “field base” (about 3km away from Stadium Merdeka) for Bersih 2.0 the following afternoon, some were new friends, some old. A few of us risked police checks that caused massive traffic jams along major roads leading into the city, a few of us snuck in by public transport. Some disobeyed our concerned parents at home. Why did we have to risk our lives? Why did we have to be sneaky? Why did we have to be disobedient? Why did we still feel guilty when we weren’t even breaking the law?

My determination was still fragile. My heart was not lacking fear. Was what we were doing OK, even though Bersih 2.0 was announced illegal by our government? Were we just being too naive and egoistic, to stand up for our rights? What will mom and dad feel if I was arrested, and hauled into the Black Maria? Will our elections become free and fair, even after risking our lives to go to the stadium?

We knew the police had the right to arrest us for being part of an “illegal gathering”. We understood that there would be misleading and misbehaving parties among the big crowd. We knew we had to be prepared for worst case scenarios. In our hearts, we wanted to see it for ourselves. We wanted to see that we did not come to fight with violence and anger, that we were united as ever, that our mentality could be on par with international standards.

It was a sleepless weekend morning as the orange sun rose among the hazy city skyline. Still very quiet really, besides the cartoons on TV and piano keys in the living room. The atmosphere stirred up a bit when the choppers started roaming the skies. A few more friends turned up. Everybody made sure we were all geared up with water, towel, salt, identity cards, emergency numbers at speed dial. We drafted messages for the if and only if.

Yellow shirts were optional. While putting on my walking boots, I could hear my heart beating so loudly. Looking at the rest, I felt the stress among us. It was like entering into some sort of an emergency state. There was a sense of urgency. It was shockingly awakening. We gathered the courage to walk towards our destination, with shaky steps. It was 1.15pm then.

Thankfully, it wasn’t too hot. We marched into the city from Brickfields. It felt like walking into an unknown but believed-to-be better future. To be honest it was not easy to act normal when we knew what we were doing was anything but normal. We tried not to look very suspicious. We walked in pairs rather in a big group. We sat at bus stops, like we were waiting for bus. As we walked, we pointed directions like tourists, and smiled at the police to feign ignorance. Yes, it was this stupid.

Our eyes were more alert than usual this afternoon. When my eyes caught the eyes of others, I felt they looked back and said “Bersih?” Maybe it was just my imagination. We saw an old uncle cycling to sell little bendera (flags). And the DiGi yellow advertisement along the street. One man even laid down under a shade, making me want to say “relek ar!”.

I acted calm when walking past police. We could tell the roads into city were blocked, there were no cars at all. Then we started seeing other people walking into the quiet street just like us, forming a flow. Some taxis stopped in front and a Malay uncle came out saying to street people “Today the taxi driver sends us here for free. This is to show their support that we pay only as long as the country is being ruled by BN.” We heard laughter among us. I thought it would sound even more remarkable if we change the word ruled into ruined!

Chung was my march buddy. He was taking photos, whilst I kept an eye on our comrades’ direction. Not many shops were open, those that did open had their efforts paid off very well. 1.50pm, more people, more choppers, more reporters. Even foreigners were there, walking towards Chinatown. Cheers were getting louder then, “Hidup Hidup! Hidup Rakyat! Bersih Bersih! Hidup Bersih!” I bumped into my ex school mate from Sungai Petani, who was now a live reporter for TV news. Soon enough, Chung and I lost sight of our comrades. Luckily, there was no communication cut-off, we managed to keep in touch via phone calls. So we were ahead arriving at the main street before Puduraya.

Suddenly, we heard roaring crowds running away from Maybank building towards our direction.

“Don’t you want to wait for them?” I asked in fear.

“Don’t you want to see what happened there?” Chung insisted.

We then saw some people jumping off walls about two metres high. The FRU were on standby at the side, while a large crowd of police raced the people down the slope, with batons and handcuffs in their hands. My heart sank, but our spirit rose again when we saw our rakyat standing there with nothing to protect themselves except their courage worn on their chests.

This was the first time I fully understood why we should not be afraid of abuse of power, when we were not breaking the law! We only want to have a peaceful assembly, can’t you authorities understand? Where has your wisdom brought you my dear prime minister? To freeze our traffic? To stop our sincerity? Now to use your dirty tactics and attacks to defeat us, the rakyat?

Chung and I felt a sudden sting in our eyes. “Run!” we said. We used wet towels and masks to cover our faces, as the FRU released tear gas into the crowd. The impact was minimal for us and we got some good photos, then finally met up with our group again. We were on full alert. Turning our direction now towards Stadium Merdeka. It started from drizzle into rain just at the right time.

Photo by Loh Shih Chung

We let the activists, which included our ex Health Minister Dr Chua Jui Meng to lead. Up the hill towards the stadium, the crowd was getting more united, the cheers were everywhere, louder, louder, almost deafening. It was 2.05pm.

There wasn’t much yellow in the crowd, as everyone wanted to avoid being arrested before arriving at the city. We saw makcik pakcik, some came walking with ten siblings. We saw old aunty uncle, walking with smiles on their faces. It was even more so inspiring, when a man came in wheelchair, and another man walked up the hill with us in crutches. They received loud applause. The rain did not fade our faith and courage. The rain did not wash away our love for Malaysia.

For an hour, we waited outside the entrance peacefully and in discipline, under the pouring rain, waiting for the FRU to give way. Hope was frail and finally at 3.30pm the crowd changed direction again, walking towards another entrance. The ice cream man hit his sales target, I suppose. Then our group leader spontaneously came out with the “Bangun Pagi” song and change the lyrics into:

Suara rakyat suara rakyat suara rakyat laungkan

Kita bangkit kita bangkit kita bangkit dan lawan

As we were marching forward, Chung got a good picture of our courageous camera woman sitting on the phone booth recording this very memorable moment. There were some theatrical Malaysians in with hilarious masks. Just not too long after this quick entertainment, the FRU released more tear gas into us. This one had flushed out tears from the eyes, mucus from the nose and saliva from the mouths among those at the front. They ran back, asking for salt which we were also saving for ourselves. Nevertheless, we shared the salt and water. We did not worry whether we were Malay, Indian, or Chinese. The salt was magical; it cured the burning throat in seconds. Thank you, you made us see you even clearer now with the tears in our eyes.

Our spirit didn’t sink after that. Instead, we waved with pride towards the police car which passed us by, waved our support to the police choppers which were watching from the above. Then the other group at the next entrance joined us — like Spice Girls sing, when two become one. This showed us even more how peaceful we wanted it to be. We were not like the government, which banned all employees and sponsored students from joining this peaceful assembly by Malaysian civil society. We mourn the government’s immaturity and violent responses towards the people. We carried out our promise to come in peace. Our assembly was dismissed peacefully at 4pm sharp.

While dispersing, our group collected rubbish on the street. People rushed to us with their rubbish in hand and pat us well done on our backs. It was so simple yet touching my dear prime minister. We want to do it this way, the Malaysian style. We are fooled by Ambiga? Najib and your cabinet, be humble and learn from this brilliant, brave lady that stood up regardless of the many threats, rejections, and obstacles she experienced throughout the whole Bersih 2.0 campaign!

This is not the end, we will stand by those who were arrested without reason from now on until they are all released. We will publish everything we saw with our own eyes, whatever we captured with our cameras, because we know our restricted media will let us down again with fake figures and reporting.

Why do we have to risk our lives? Now we understand, because evil never wins. Why do we have to be sneaky? Now we understand, because you are dirty! Why do we have to be disobedient? Now our parents are proud that we went to see in courage and wisdom, what the goverment have done to us, of what they will be doing to our future generations. Why do we still feel guilty, when we were just exercising our constitutional right? Now we understand, because we need to be BERSIH, that is what a democratic country should be.

9th July 2011, a date for every Malaysian to remember indeed. I was there to see it, feel it, hear it, and breathe it. I will never regret this decision.

I hugged Chung, and am thankful we came back safe and happy.

We made a difference to our country. And our children will know it.

Xin Tong grew up in a small town called Sungai Petani. Her love for farming grew fonder as she traveled to remote farms in Australia during her Working Holiday. She will keep traveling to enhance her knowledge...

3 replies on “Seeing Clearer, Through Tear-Gassed Eyes”

  1. Bravo guys! You did well. Just to let you know, what you encounter and experience were the same duing the Reformasi days. We're treated worse. No support from the chiese or indians. We were marginalsed and ridiculed. I hope you guys nw appreciate what the reformers had fought for. It was not just abt Anwar but it was abt justice and fairness. They did that to a former DPM, now you know what they are capable of!

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