On that fateful Saturday, tens of thousands of Malaysians ignored government warnings and descended onto the streets of the capital to raise a simple point; that as citizens we deserve fairer and more transparent elections. They told us it was an illegal assembly, Bersih, but we understood we had the constitutional right to assemble peacefully, what more to demand for a better democracy.
But when my government began outlawing ridiculous things like a certain colour or word, as if they were making up laws as they go, I knew I could no longer remain silent. I had to march.
Roadblocks did not stop us, harassments from the authorities did not wither our spirits and threats of arrests did little to sow fear among us. Official government statistics put us at 6,000-10,000. Foreign media estimates say about 100,000 took part in the rally. Whose figures should one trust then? Just ask anyone who was there and they’ll tell you it was anything but 10,000. That, I am sure.
I joined the rest of the people at KL Sentral. I had earlier planned to join a friend at Jalan Petaling where another group of people had already gathered. But prior to my arrival at KL Sentral, I received a text message from him saying, “Don’t come. The police have started!”
I saw firsthand what our police force was capable of. I was there when they fired tear gas canisters into the crowd in a confined part of the KL Sentral building. I tasted, for the first time, the unpleasant effects of tear gas — ironically paid for by our tax money. I’d never shed a tear for my country until I got tear-gassed that day.
I was also there when a barricade of FRUs aimed their fully-loaded tear gas launchers at our faces and threatened us, when we tried to take an alternative route. I should also mention that the crowd did nothing to provoke let alone, were being violent. The Malaysians, who turned up for the rally, were not exclusive to one race or followers of a religion, we were a diverse bunch, no doubt but we were there as Malaysians above all else. We were one people.
Dare I say the demand for fairer elections was more effective in uniting Malaysians than Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia slogan? You bet. If you were there for Bersih, you would concur too.
I then managed to make my way out of the building. By then, the tear gas was still present in the air albeit less concentrated. The fact that tear gas was fired in an enclosed area meant that the gas remained for some time. I had lost the earlier group whom we were with when I saw a group of fellow marchers heading towards me. I asked a man in the crowd why they were heading in the opposite direction. He told me the police had sealed the roads leading to Stadium Merdeka and they had to turn around. So I joined them and we marched along Jalan Tun Sambanthan heading towards Brickfields.
A man behind me remarked to this friend, “Who said we Malaysians can’t march peacefully? Look!” I turned around and said, “I agree with you, my brother!” We exchanged smiles.
I also saw a motorcyclist, who was riding alongside us, got down from his motorcycle, turned his engine off and walked with us. Many more did the same and we sounded our appreciation.
We chanted slogans like “Hidup Rakyat (Long live the people!)” and “Bangkit Rakyat (Rise up, people!)” as we moved. Passing motorists honked and gave us thumbs up in support. Pedestrians cheered at us while we passed them. Even the trains stopped to sound their horns to encourage us. I could even see passengers inside waving at us. We reciprocated by applauding them all. At this point, I am not ashamed to admit I almost teared.
I was fortunate enough not to experience the hell others had to go through. Despite the persistent denials by the authorities, there are hundreds of videos and pictures now circulating around the Internet to prove otherwise. For every video or picture, there are more inspiring stories of how Malaysians put aside their differences to help one another. It is no accident that #bersihstories was among the top local trends on Twitter.
When my grandchildren ask where I was when the rakyat stood up against oppression, I will proudly tell them their grandfather was there marching with the rest. July 9, 2011 was the day I truly felt Malaysian.
Jonathan is passionate about the beautiful irony that is Malaysia, where he is an advocate of the ideology of strength in diversity. He hopes that one day every Malaysian would all agree that national unity does not necessarily mean cultural assimilation, but built on mutual trust, respect and cooperation. His other passions include backpacking, music and bacon.