Maha volunteered in a short skit at Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival by PT Foundation in July 2010


Maha was not afraid of change at the Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival by PT Foundation in July 2010

Here are the words I heard:

I don’t want to change the world; I don’t want the world to change me.

Finding a defining moment in the words of an Ozzy Osbourne song – who’da thunk it? To have it sung at you on tv by a man in a cowboy hat is both discomfiting and hilariously ironic.

There are many things I believe in. Many of them have had their sharp edges blunted by experience and circumspection, but are nonetheless immutable. Most of what I’d like to see achieved in Malaysia require the labour of millions, and the sanction of the masses. In this, the distance between the two points (A) Today and (B) The Ideal is not a straight line, but a circuitous, laborious route. It is not an easy task to participate in while dealing with the necessities – the nine-to-five (ha!) job, and the family and financial commitments. It is also not a task you can participate in without first accepting that to do so would require sacrificing certain other material achievements you might otherwise have attained.

But many people through a variety of routes, are working towards that elusive ideal, which I suppose is simply a better Malaysia. Better in terms of democracy and a respect for fundamental liberties, better in terms of how we take care of our poor, our young and our old, the marginalised amongst us, whether they are born on this soil or otherwise. Better even simply in how we speak to and treat each other.

There are little pockets of society all across Malaysia voluntarily toiling away at their respective causes, with lifelong dedication and soul-deep faith. For most, probably their greatest hurdle, even greater than any denunciation by the government of the day, is the apathy of the Malaysian public. Getting Malaysians to care is the only option left when the government of the day wants to shut you down because they’re afraid of what you can do.

I think the apathy of most Malaysians stems from a lack of understanding of how a country that calls itself a democracy is supposed to be run. There appears to me to be a lack of awareness amongst Malaysians that democracy confers on them both power over the State and responsibility to their fellow Malaysians. You cannot however, force people to care. You can only endeavour to show them these truths and trust that principles like justice and fairness are inherent in all of us.


Facilitating at a workshop organised by the MyConstitution Campaign with the Majlis Perbandaran Subang Jaya

In almost every activity of the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee that I have participated in, there have been ordinary Malaysians with a common narrative; not similar in the details, but in the broader paradigm of their lives. It is a narrative I identify with: You work hard in school to maintain an above average grade, do what your parents tell you to do 6 times out of 10, get into university and stumble out with a degree. You find a job in an office with your own room or cubicle, perhaps with a window, perhaps not, and perhaps even with an assistant. You keep yourself ahead of the curve, meeting the goals they set according to the rules they come up with. You find job satisfaction in winning the daily, routine battles that at the end of the day, are what most white collar jobs are about (legal or otherwise). And you start identifying who you are by these things, because there is nothing else. Yet through all of this, you are still the same person who at 16, had conversations about how this country, this world, had to be a different place. As you grew up, you were the son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, relative who had a hundred situations happen around you that provided a hundred reasons why what our country is and how it works needed to change. Yet that 16-year old and the ideals and principles that those experiences shaped, can find no place to manifest in your glass-and-steel grown-up life.

Eventually, something will have to give – who you are, or what you do with it. And to continue to ignore who you are, you will have to convince yourself of the truth of certain lies, like “one person can’t change the world” and “the more things change, the more they stay the same” and “there are no better alternatives” and “it’s the same everywhere else”.

Compromising on ideals and principles is difficult. It’s far easier to stop believing in them.

Many brave, loyal Malaysians who do many good things for no money and no recognition, and many brave, loyal Malaysians who do only some good things in circumstances where even the doing is difficult, are doomed to face failure, loss and rejection numerous times along the way. It’s in the nature of civil society movements, certainly in this country and if the change you’re pushing for is anathematic to the goals of the government of the day. So these Malaysians too, will have asked themselves at some stage “why keep trying?”

For all of you who feel this way, I offer to you, my Ozzy Osbourne moment. It seems selfish, and sounds far less altruistic and noble than ‘volunteerism’ is supposed to be (because isn’t it supposed to be about the Victim and the Cause?). But if you’re afraid to start living your beliefs, if reality brings you a police barricade on that road you’re on or forces you to backtrack to fight another day, or when there’s a chance that the light at the end of the tunnel might not be the fireworks of celebration but the fires of hell, try and remember that as suckifying as failure and loss can be, you’re most probably doing what you’re doing not just because of the patent purpose, but also because it is simply who you are. Don’t let fear, failure and loss – the world as it is – change you.

Maha Balakrishnan believes that any combination of letters deserves the right to be a word, that all words have the right to procreate and form even longer words and that words should have the freedom...

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