Cassandra‘s takeaway lessons from the Walk4PeaceNFreedom London.
Just about a week before the Walk4PeaceNFreedom London Solidarity held on 18 October, I decided to ditch my Law books for the night and actually have eight hours of sleep. I knew the next day I wouldn’t have classes, so there was plenty of time to study. I ended up sleeping a whopping ten hours despite not having done anything physically draining in the past few days. After I had lunch, I ended up heading straight to bed for another two hours of sleep.
When I finally got up and actually stayed awake, I wondered to myself why in the world was I so sleepy and exhausted. A couple of my classes had been cancelled that week: I should have had more energy to dedicate to my books and complete my other obligations. It then dawned upon me that though I wasn’t physically exhausted, I was most certainly mentally and emotionally drained.
A couple of us in the organising committee for the protest had spent the last two to three weeks trying to get people to come, trying to get the Malaysian Societies to support us. I remember going to the extent of hanging posters inside and outside university just to attract the attention of the 400 over Malaysian students at my university. My fellow comrade, Nicholas, and I spent the week leading up to the protest spamming our Malaysian Society’s Facebook page and asking people personally to come. We emphasised the fact that cheap tickets were available. Nicholas went to the extent of doing a comparative analysis on the costs of clubbing and going down to London for a day trip just to prove that going to London would be worth the money. All this was to no avail: only five people from my university showed up in London.
I was fortunate enough to be a part of a Malaysian Society that allows freedom to post about events in the Facebook group. They even offered to book rooms for us if we ever needed it for our #MansuhAktaHasutan campaign because as individuals, Nicholas and I could not do so, only societies could. Some in the organising committee had it worse. Some had been turned away by their Malaysian Societies I presume on the assumption that this was a sensitive and overly political issue. We had one committee member who got kicked out of her Malaysian Society’s Facebook group simply for asking if she could promote the Walk in her personal capacity. The very same person also had to deal with incredibly flimsy excuses, the most prominent being “personally I don’t really care”. I was spared that agony.
I spent a good two weeks panicking how many people were going to show up and often, I questioned myself on why I cared so much about the Sedition Act, why should I care so much. It did not help that my house mate told me that rather than bothering about this, I should be focusing on my studies. My panic and stress reached its peak in the two days — Thursday and Friday — just before the protest. I had to prepare a speech for the day and also the burdens of the other committee members had taken a toll on me. I skipped church on Thursday night because I knew my cell group leader would ask me about how the planning was going: I was very sure I was going to burst into tears if she were to ask me that. I didn’t want to face some of the Malaysians at church after being disappointed the past couple of weeks especially after one of them had recently blatantly admitted to me that he wasn’t going back to Malaysia but was “running away to Singapore”.
After weeks of mobilising people, 18 October finally came. I met up with the organising committee before we headed to the Malaysian High Commission. Our leader, Jo Fan, was clearly stressed out. As expected, the turnout was not exactly what I would call comparable to Bersih 3.0. 70 of us, dressed in black, were chanting, giving speeches and holding up placards demanding the repeal of the Sedition Act. For a good part of the protest, we saw no movement whatsoever for the High Commission. It was only after the protest when we lined up against the metal gates for a picture with our posters did we see the mobile phones pop up from the curtains.
And just like that, it was over.
Though most of the stress has gone by now, the weeks leading up to the protest has given me — and probably, the rest of the committee — a lot to think about and a lot to learn from.
We learnt that this wasn’t just about the Sedition Act, it was about fighting an education system that has taught Malaysian students not to care, not to question, a system that has put fear into students for thinking critically. In the course of mobilising people, I came to learn that scholarship holders were not allowed to participate in such events as stated in their contracts. While I did expect this out of government scholarships, I did not expect this out of corporate sponsors. One of my friends told me how his contract explicitly warns against participating in anything seditious and another told me about how she was not allowed to take part in public demonstrations. Fear was entrenched in the private sector as well.
I learnt to manage my expectations: if I was serious about activism long term, I had to face the fact that this was not going to be my only disappointment. I could not shut out Malaysians around me simply because I felt they didn’t care enough. Not everybody is willing to protest; everybody has different roles to play in the long run. As for those who simply chose to remain ignorant, I had to stop myself from judging them harshly; many of us came from a system that taught us to be like that. Not everybody would want to step out of the system — not everybody can.
I also learnt to always look at the positives. One woman gave a speech at a protest telling us that when Bersih first started out, it was just five people protesting in front of the High Commission every Saturday. It took over five years for that small group to progress to the Bersih 3.0 turn out. Maybe in a couple of years, with enough effort, there will no longer be 70 of us but hundreds instead.
I learnt the importance of surrounding yourself with like-minded people because where else are you going to draw your energy from? We had to stay together for the purpose of encouraging each other.
I also learnt that despite the exhaustion, despite the heart-wrenching disappointments, I wanted to be involved in the process of changing Malaysia in the long term. Raising awareness about the Act in the course of mobilising people was the best thing that resulted from this. From my side, the second best thing was being even more sure about wanting to be involved in the process of change.
And that makes the exhaustion worth it.