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This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider.
Corporates do it. Socialites want to be part of it too. Anyone who wants to have his 15 minutes of fame, or brush with stardom, jump on the bandwagon. Activism, in Kuala Lumpur, has become sexy.
Who doesn’t know of LoyarBurok and Haris Ibrahim? The megawatt auras of elite activists and public intellectuals such as Malik Imtiaz Sawar, Art Harun, pack rooms when public discourses are organised. Uber feminists such as Marina Mahathir, Ivy Josiah and political heroines like Nurul Izzah and Hannah Yeoh have ramped up the political scene even more.
And just like the media in Malaysia, activism seems to be centred on upper middle class Bangsar. Malaysia Day is celebrated at low-key but upscale restaurants of Jalan Bangkung. LoyarBurok’s office is at Bangsar Utama, and hardened activists and writers meet at the mamaks’ outlets surrounding the area, as organisations such as NIEI, Malaysiakini, and yes, this very news website, are based here. Across the road is the old guard, New Straits Times. And a hop, skip, over to the other side of the city, is The Star and the Redberry group of companies. Meetings, deals, insider gossip and leads tend to converge around Bangsar as it is convenient.
Would it be (un)fair then to say that activism in Malaysia tends to be middle-class, and that the players, while they have bleeding hearts, have no clue as to what the issues are?
It is Not about Bangsar
It would be harsh to single out Bangsar as the epicentre of activism social activities. It just happens to be that, simply because of the convenience, and that is the cold hard truth.
Edward Soo, lawyer and owner of Leonardo’s is behind MalaysiaKu, an annual whole day festival celebrating Malaysia Day, situated at the tony Jalan Bangkung, Bangsar. The fleet of restaurants host talks, events and the street is transformed into a luxe-boho carnival. In an email interview, Soo offers very candid views on activism in Malaysia. For one, he disagrees that everything is centred in Bangsar. “Pang Khee Teik runs some interesting programmes in Annexe Gallery. UndiMsia! runs a program in Hulu Langat. Transparency International runs a forest watch project in East Malaysia. The list goes on,” he wrote.
According to Soo, the “… thinking people in Malaysia have always been concerned about the direction the country is going.” Three issues concern them and they are the economy, “… when we run out of oil, we will be in big trouble. A lot of our country’s wealth is also lost to corruption. There are also increasingly a lot more people who depend on government subsidies, jobs and support, than people who actually pay taxes and contribute to the economy. This is simply not sustainable. Human resource – we are losing our brightest to other countries. And because of certain government policies, there is no meritocracy, and the right people don’t rise to top of their profession. A country run by the second or third best, will turn out accordingly. A country will face different challenges at different times, but when you have the right people in place, they will find the best possible solutions for these problems. “
He is also worried, seeing the trends which include demographic changes, and observes that “… by virtue of the fact that they (the middle class) are better educated, richer and are positions of influence and power, have traditionally been the change agents in a country. For a long time, a lot of people did not think that change was possible. But I think after the 2008 elections, there is a realisation that change is possible – people were empowered. People also realised that each of us have a responsibility “to be the change we want to see in the world”, to quote Gandhi.”
Fed up of champagne activists
The blogger, Monyet King, is vehement about his disdain of such activism and the actors in it. In an email interview, he wrote that civil society has an important job – give hope. “Yes, most (not all) of the activism and discussion of politics is being done by the Bangsar-types (is there a Subang Jaya-type?). My main grouse is they claim to be the voice of the people when they are obviously NOT. Being loud doesn’t make you right nor does it mean you represent the people.”
However, he stresses that far be from it that he is against activism and civil society. “Don’t get me wrong. I am all for good governance, transparency and the whole works. I am “disdainful” of the “so-called” voice of the people. 10, 50, 1000, or even 20,000 Bangsar-types … cannot represent the 28,000,000 million Malaysians. [I am not saying that I do. I also don’t]. Activism in Malaysia now is so closely linked with politics, especially with Pakatan politicians. [note : I voted for DAP in the last GE]. I fully supported BERSIH until politicians hijacked it. I used to empathise with the Lynas issue until it become political. To put it crudely, activists are lying in the same bed as politicians. Hence my disdain.”
“Why must the call for good governance be always directed to BN? No activists harped on the shambles in PKR’s elections. No activists are consistent on PAS’ misdeeds and idiotic practices. Why do activists who harp on the bias of the mainstream media choose to be silent on the lop-sided reporting of alternative media (including the Malaysian Insider that you frequently write for),” he poses.
The rich, by virtue of being better educated, having better access to media, being closer to the corridors of power, are able to articulate and champion causes that are dear to them. Just look at all the recent “causes” that has attracted serious activist and media attention – elections, Lynas, seksualiti merdeka, tertiary education, MRT. These are all urban and middle-class issues.
“I am sure activists have noble intentions. Unfortunately, these noble intentions have serious impacts on resource allocation. By drawing attention on urban and middle class issues, they inadvertently force the government to spend more time and resources here – thereby neglecting other important rural and poor issues.”“You see, when (most of) the Bangsar type activists talk, (a) they are only seeing problems and issues that are of concern to them; and (b) they see poor people’s problems from their rich people lenses. Both often, although unintentional, lead to misallocation of resources. Hence one of the main reasons why the rich get richer, the poor poorer.”
How do other activists feel about this? Monyet King represents a realistic and honest idea of what activism is about in Malaysia. Soo may represent the urbane class, but his opinions are no less worthy than Monyet King’s.
The LoyarBurok Coalition, if one can call it that, is a band of passionate, hyperkinetic and driven lawyers. Their office is a popular hangout among the young and activist set. It’s not just solely for lawyers though: many young Malaysians who want to make a change have joined the group, and the synergy among them can be infectious. Still, some have made snide remarks, that LoyarBurok is an elite fraternity. Again, it’s centred around Bangsar. (LB: Please join us. LoyarBurok is for everyone, humans and apes alike. Click here for details.)
Azira Aziz, a lawyer in her 20s, is an example of the young, enthusiastic activists and volunteers that’s part of the KL activist landscape. She is measured in her responses, and doesn’t see Bangsar as an issue for activism in Malaysia. “Bangsar is an activist hub? That I’m not sure. Rumah Anak Bangsa Malaysia is in Bangsar since its inception in 2009, I joined soon afterwards, and LoyarBurok, Pusat Rakyat LB, UndiMsia, 50B, came afterwards. I suppose it’s more for the convenience. Bangsar’s pretty popular with people, it has food, entertainment, offices, affordable structures for minimalist activists’ headquarters, etc. Accessibility is also quite good, with LRT and taxis and busses. It is admittedly middle to upper- class onwards though. However, it’s not all centred here. Other good NGOs have their headquarters in other areas of KL, etc and not to forget Central Market Annexe, which is full of the hipster crowd who wants to serve Malaysia,” she says.
What about middle-class guilt about the state of the country?
Azira doesn’t see it as that. “It’s more of in the practical sense, middle class folks don’t have that desensitised detachment towards the lower classes and yet they are well to do or financially comfortable enough to do something about it. The very rich don’t have that.”
Activists do not act on pure whim, Azira observes. She has this theory that every single activist has a pivotal event in their lives that changed their perspective or point of view so completely that they initiate projects. They are lawyers, engineers, doctors, business CEOs, and alongside the idealistic university students, they are pretty much ordinary folks who care. They hold stressful/demanding jobs, and yet find time to implement their ideas with the intent to better society. “People do resonate, I believe, when they know of the things that the activists do. They may disagree on methods, ideas and so forth, but that’s what democracy is all about.
Marcus van Geyzel, lawyer and curator of LoyarBurok.com sees activism and political awareness as two different things. “Activism is very often used (misused, in my view) to describe activities that are somewhat politically-linked. When someone is labelled a human rights activist it usually comes with the assumption that this individual is “anti-government” or “pro-opposition”. This is wrong, and hopefully this is not what you meant by “activism”.
Anyone living life purposefully is an activist of some sort, he says. “Similarly, you could also be an activist for your hobby – I know lots of running activists and some very passionate dragon-boating activists. It is heartening to note that there has been a lot of community activism in recent years – people coming together to make their neighbourhood a better place to live in.”
Geyzel also says that activism is for everyone, not just the experts. Everyone should be part of the conversation on issues that are important to them. The freeing of communication and information channels via the internet has helped to allow this conversation to take place.
“As for being politically aware, well, it really isn’t that important to me. I’d rather people not be passionate about politics. Politics in Malaysia is ridiculously flawed. The system is broken. The institutions are failing us. The individuals, in order to survive in the system, become flawed themselves. There’s something wrong with the way that society views politicians as well – why is it that at events they are feted like royalty, with money being spent to make them feel important, red carpet, worship? They are wakil rakyat, not gods. Meet-the-public sessions should be sessions where the rakyat go and ask them hard questions, to make them accountable, not to go and shake hands and pose for pictures and worship the ground they walk on. Why should so many people get police outriders? It is a disgusting ecosystem.”
Not the death knell
Is all lost then? Is this the death knell of Malaysian activism because of its bourgeoisie tendencies?
Monyet King is still fairly positive about the state of activism. “Malaysians must know that there is plenty of goodness in this country. Malaysians need to be assured that this land is where our future is. If you keep talking only about the bad things, we will become a nation of grumpy farts. I hope the civil society highlights and celebrates all the good things in this country. Why is it that nobody organises a rally celebrating the great friendship amongst Malaysians, why doesn’t anyone organise a rally cherishing the great food that we have, why are we not celebrating all the goodness? I want to see more positive news in our papers. I want to read more good news on Facebook. I want to listen to success stories from Malaysia. [I am not saying that we must not highlight the bad things, we must. All I am asking is for you do not ignore all the good things]. Create hope.”
Geyzel is hopeful. “I think Malaysians need to stop relying on politicians to help us, to fix us. To me, it is about a normalisation of revolutionary activism. It is about getting each and every citizen to understand, and fully appreciate, that they have a very important role to play in our democracy, in our country.”
“We must not allow ourselves to shrink back into our own, selfish lives, and to just be concerned about our home, our family, our money. It must surely be about much more than that. This is why it is very irritating for me to hear about things like “Bangsar activists” or “clicktivism” or “but she’s never even been to an Orang Asli village”. We should not be discouraging people from doing their bit. Different people have different commitment levels. It is important that we make the entry barrier to activism as low as possible to encourage more and more people to get involved.”
And judging by the increasing number of Malaysians joining in the protests that happen on an almost weekly basis the last few months, it would seem that activism is thriving, and out of Bangsar. Come April 28, Malaysia may be united in one cause: for a clean and fair general election.