A couple of days before the rally, I announced to my friends my intention to take part. Their response was mixed. Some gladly encouraged me. Some worried about my safety and thought that I shouldn’t join because I would be risking my future.
Not to say that other undergraduates who chose to take part faced far lesser risk in terms of job prospects, but for us law students, if we were arrested, we faced an exceptional risk – i.e. not being called to the Bar. That would mean our three years worth of effort studying law will go down the drain just like that. For me, that’s four years because I had to repeat my second year.
On top of that, my decision to take up a law degree was not without personal cost. Had I chose not to quit genetics studies at UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), I would have already graduated by now and be earning money to reduce my mom’s financial burden (hell, she might not have to work at all). Not a day goes by without me resenting myself for not being able to provide for her yet.
As for my dad, he would be able to see me graduate. He would be able to witness his first real payoff for all that he had worked hard for. Had I not had to repeat my second year, my PTPTN loan would not have been terminated, and my dad wouldn’t need to work extra hard to afford my exam fees. Had I chosen to stick to the path laid out before me, and settle with my comfortable life, I could have spared my mom an added burden on her already failing health and my dad wouldn’t become so frail and pass away without seeing his sons fully grown up and mature into working adults.
But I chose this path for a reason – my dad.
When I was a kid, he was a hero to me. Someone who could do everything. There was nothing that his creative mind could not fix. Whenever we’re in a crisis, we all could expect him to figure a way out. He never cheated on my mom, although he could not be as emotionally supportive as she needed him to be.
But he was loving in his way. Most of our furniture were made by him. Back then, the whole family stayed in one room and his furniture would line up every wall. He was well-known as a skilful electrician that anyone could go to for problems they have not encountered before.
But his employer recognized none of this. My dad had to endure a boss who couldn’t care less about his hard work and contributions. Instead, he had to stand by and watch his lesser skilled colleagues rise up the ranks. As long as you’re close to the boss, no matter how dishonest and worthless you were at work, you were guaranteed a top position. For many years, he never received any raise but he faithfully stayed on with the company. He didn’t get what he deserved, and there was no one who stood up for him.
However, the teenager in me then could not really empathize with what he had to go through everyday. All I saw at that time was an unhappy, always angry and bad-tempered old man who ceased to be a hero for me. When my mom and my brothers were scolded for no apparent reason, I would stand up to him. I failed to see the tears welling up in his eyes when even his eldest son had no respect for him. I failed to realize that what he lacked was a modicum of self-respect that he couldn’t get from the outside world. That was until I had my own taste of what it was like.
In UKM, my friends and I were working on a project. Towards the end, a dispute arose between me and a fellow team member. I put all my heart and soul into making the project a success. Instead, she saw only my mistakes. Whatever contribution I’d made, the length I had gone to to meet her expectations went unnoticed. We became more and more acrimonious to each other as a result. But what’s more saddening was when a friend, whose mistake was the cause of the acrimony but for which I took the blame without revealing who actually did it, chose to side with that team member and attacked me.
There was no need for such an attack. But I was in no position to speak for myself either; the team members were distancing themselves from me, and whatever I said would have no weight because I was an ‘outcast’. All that was required was for the project manager (i.e. someone neutral with authority) to man up and solve the dispute amicably. Alas, he didn’t have the balls to do so.
For the first time, I learnt the hard truth of the proverb, “Every man for himself.” The isolation and the sense that people will not acknowledge your hard work. It’s who you know that matters. However, what I needed most then was for someone to stand up for me, to make my case heard.
I wasn’t going to resign myself to pessimism and become cold and calculative just to survive. I was going to give a voice to those who need it, for there is no greater injustice than being deprived of your voice with no one out there to speak for you. Thus, that was why I decided to take up law, as a launchpad into either the legal profession or journalism.
Years have passed since I made that decision, which surprised everyone except me. I have grown in wisdom of the law as well as of life. I’ve learnt to forgive those who had hurt me in ways they never knew. I’ve reconciled with my dad in the last years of his life. I have just finished sitting for the last exam of my degree. Last but not least, I have made wonderful friends who have helped me to grow in ways I could not by myself.
But when I told some of these friends of my intention to join the Bersih 2.0 rally, they advised me against it with sound reasons. At that time, words escaped me when I tried to explain to them why I would risk my career for a street demonstration that I could take part in in the future after I get called to the Bar.
The answer came back to me on the day of the rally itself. It came in the form of the innumerable lively crowd at the foot of Menara Maybank, beckoning you to join them as you walked out of the confines of shop houses lining Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin. It came in the form of an elderly woman who meekly but defiantly held up a flower stalk before the heavily armoured riot police. An amputee, who was armed only with his pair of crutches. When the tear gas stung your eyes so badly that you couldn’t see where to go, you put your arms around your friends’ shoulders as they led you away to safety. Together, the crowd stood and marched to voice out and make the case for themselves, and for many others who couldn’t turn up. All of us stood proud, reclaiming our dignity by refusing to give in to the threats and the repression of the State.
That was why I was there. That was why the risk I took was one worth taking. That was why I read law in the first place.
On the 9th of July 2011, I was glad that I did what I came here for.
Daniel Bong has been told on countless times that it’s too huge a risk to join the rally when one has too much to lose. However, as risk is incommensurable, each of us who had taken part had taken a risk, the gravity of which is very significant to us personally. But we went down to the streets nonetheless.