Just had a petty FB argument. the immature kind, over police brutality. Guy says I’ve never been in a police raid before. I say I have been, numerous times. He demands proof, and I find myself wondering why I am layaning him. I know this is just his joy, being condescending. It costs him little effort. And I realise there’s nothing in it for me except the realisation that this is another man who will suck up emotional labour under his irrational form of rationality, where only his words have weight and mine require a supporting case. At least I will do him the credit (for now) that I don’t think he’s only like this with females, although I’m not giving that credit based on facts I have. Certainly not from experience. And he’s just one of the many guys on my list who argue the same way, thank god women don’t behave like this. But beyond that bickering, the FB thread reminded me of earlier events.
Memory. Difficult memory. It is a time before smartphones existed, and I wasn’t even on Facebook yet (because I couldn’t remember my Monash email password). I had a lot of photos of a protest, but no place to store them. My photos of the event were lost when the guy who volunteered to archive them for me broke up with his girlfriend, and my photos were deleted along with his from her Flickr Pro. It was an acrimonious breakup. Her brief communication with me, very terse, was to basically say “no, the photos are really gone forever”, which made me wonder what the heck happened between them.
My photos are of violence. We’re surrounded by tens of men (and some women). Armed forces, “construction workers”. I photographed a Muslim woman praying, as the sun sets and homes are being torn down around her. As men tear down the walls of the homes around her, including her home, she continues to pray. She doesn’t look at me, the only person carrying a camera, but I know she is conscious of my camera’s gaze. It feels sacrilegious to be looking in on her prayers, but also sad. I had a brief moment of uncertainty about taking pictures of her, the actual standoff/protest is outside. There is no media present (except the police special branch with their video camera), they had been difficult to convince. There weren’t so many back then, Malaysiakini was still the main platform, along with the traditional media. We weren’t expecting a showdown. The “construction workers” are belligerent, behave like gangsters. They are holding heavy tools — spanners, and hammers. Mostly hammers. Their tool belts don’t look much used. Definitely not holding tools like paintbrushes or measuring tapes or pails. The villagers say these are not the construction workers, they’re local thugs hired by the developers. Everyone who isn’t with the village is wearing special red coloured cloths/strings around their wrists and arms. Even the armed forces. The activists are upset that the government has sent them, not to defend the villagers, but to join the thugs. We ask them what the arm bands are for. We ask them why they’re wearing the same thing as the construction workers. They do not answer. They get in formation.
One of the construction workers, unprovoked but ready for action, attacks a child — takes off his construction helmet, thwacks it on her head, hits her with a tool and kicks her to the ground. We bring the girl back — her head is bleeding. Her mother is very upset. The villagers are shouting in angry protest. The officers are not wearing badges or ID, only coloured strips around their wrists, blank uniforms. They rush in. The FRU have a formation. We are quickly disbanded by their violent efforts. I see them dragging off my housemate YX, who is trying to weigh herself to the ground. Another person dragged off in a separate direction. One of the activists punched as he is falling. My hand meets a large, mostly clear shield, with a stripe of red across. My hand leaves the shield, it’s bleeding. I am indignant, stunned, I hold up my hand to show my blood to the guy responsible, my face all WTF, his face invisible behind the helmet. Even as I do it, I wonder what I’m trying to prove. I do not believe in violent retaliation, even in a protest where we are being abused, but I am deeply frustrated. Adrenaline pumps. I don’t remember how the day ends. I only remember being back home after the protest, YX and I still rattled by what had happened in the day. In the time to come, I see months of the village children performing their story around Klang Valley in wayang kulit. It brings back nasty memories of corporate greed, government corruption, and helplessness in the face of brutality.
Some time after the violence, YX, YZ, Jerng and I take a wrong turn in Sentul and drive by a wooden house on a near empty plot of land. It has a homemade banner displayed, in Malay, decrying Umno and the government. We drive past, pull over, and decide to turn back to find out what is happening.
We meet a man who says that like other villages before, “construction worker” thugs have shown up along with the government’s armed forces, but none wearing ID. His is the last house standing in his village. The story is the same as before. The village has been there for decades. They are not illegal squatters, the government has withheld the papers they legally have rights to. The land is sold from under them, the “compensation” offered by developers is paltry, and comes with threats that the sum should be accepted if they don’t want any difficulties. Some families have taken the money, mostly out of fear, the few remaining families were brutalised. The man says it’s just him and his two(?) dogs now. The rest were scared and had left. We just missed the last family before him by a day. He shows us around the few remaining structures he has, besides his home, remaining in the village. The land looks bare. After the brief tour, invites us in his house to talk. I wasn’t carrying the DSLR then, there are no photos of what we saw. We take down his details. We call journalists. The man said he has called the journalists too, but none had showed up. Not even Mkini. We share the info with the activists who were defending the previous village, which had substantially more media, to inform them of the situation. The next time we drive by, his house is already gone. I never saw a single article about that Sentul village that was erased. My housemates suggest that maybe the traditional media would favour their advertisers and the government, and thus not cover the story. We wonder if the activists didn’t come because they couldn’t directly draw links between the developers and the state government. We are disappointed in Mkini. We don’t really have enough info to draw real conclusions, and no way of contacting the man now that he had moved (we hoped). When I see news for Kg Chubadak and Kg Railway, I already know how the story plays out. The activists from before have moved on to other causes (AFAIK). If there are rallies for such villages now, they are beyond my social circles. Eventually, I stop hearing about these things. Either from not reading the news, or from them not being reported. Other shinier news catch my attention, there is some substantial background guilt on this.
The last major protest I participate in, I watch a video of the IGP on tv, national news. He declares our group of protestors (fewer than ten ppl, mostly women) a national threat. The internet mob is fearsome. We had walked under 1km, having to cut it short to run away from the police. Under 1km, but our message brought on death threats, rape threats, and info on us individuals were dug up and being published online along with calls for violence against us. Facebook exists by now. I lose friends who are worried being connected will invite this violence into their lives. I remember the apologies sent to me. They mostly fear being raped.* They fear showing up on my FB friend list. I am numbed to the fear, but the logical awareness of my situation is there. There were so few of us, we would be easy to find. All in Klang Valley. One of us gets threats in her letterbox. Support from others outside my immediate circle is low. It is my first proper experience with the fatigue of activism — and I’m not even full time with activism, although a lot of my bread and butter at that age outside of the arts is through working for NGOs or social causes.
I show up for a few Occupy Dataran nights, but somehow never on the nights when there was violence, or if I did, I left before it started. I prefer other more fun types of events about reclaiming spaces, like parks in the daytime. I am doing political graffiti (which also involved running away from police), with friends and alone, although an encounter some friends have with the SB puts an end to it. I no longer do graffiti, although now I believe the walls publish the people to the public, and I believe in smaller circles of effect. I carry art tools in my green sling bag to selectively vandalise, censor or subvert messages that are harmful.
I am probably reading too much Adbusters. I am addicted to a collection of Focas magazines, and searching for Malaysian answers to it. I am writing for newspapers, in arts websites, editing a Malaysian LGBTIQ blog, designing posters for NGO events — all these things about ideals that don’t really pay the bills. At least not consistently. I go from thinking I’ll never need more money than to feed myself (and even then), to learning that people who need to pay the bills, properly pay the bills because I don’t stay with parents and can’t go to them for funds they do not have, can’t do things like ethical travel journalism because there isn’t a system that supports that. I am temporarily sheltered by kind friends. I look at a cheque I receive from TimeOut London. The conversion rate makes it generous pay, and it is one of the more substantial ones I have received for writing. At the time, I realise, if I wanted to keep doing this and make a living, I would end up writing for white people, preaching to the choir and not really communicating with people around me, constantly networking with editors I never met, and that ethical travel journalism still exists in a system of unethical or irresponsible travels and experiences. I work for a local news website with a lot of principles — and the only one with a clear editorial policy on corrections and fact-checking, not to mention ethical leadership and a clearly stated pro-LGBT policy. It’s not perfect, but it’s good for me.
I walk in Bersih. At first I am hopeful. For the 2nd rally, I even bring along a journalist, to get coverage for the rally and its message. It is the first time I’m in a local rally large enough for me to feel anonymous, although I keep bumping into happy friends on every street. I take the teargassing as part and parcel of the rally. By the third, I am disillusioned and frustrated by the political platform it has become for politicians I do not intend to endorse through my participation in these civil society protests. I attend to get photographs for the news website I work at/contribute to. When I am teargassed in this rally, I am sick and nearly as upset with myself for being there as I am with the person who ordered it. Eventually the politicians seem roped into Bersih officially. Now, the leaders of Bersih are signing (as individuals) political statements and endorsing undemocratic fuckeries. I see a need for Bersih, but I also see an urgent need for an audit of Bersih’s message — I don’t think they realise how many people will just not turn up, as opposed to debating with them on this.
I turn to other types of activism. I do community work. I’m in Chow Kit at 2am talking to homeless people and the urban poor in terrible Malay. I visit a squatter in his home, and leave with questions more knowledgeable people tell me to set aside first. I’m in Chinatown on Sundays holding the hands of old ladies who want to be manjaed for their pains and aches, have their wounds cleaned. Talking with men about the soup kitchens around town, meeting other volunteers. My Cantonese isn’t very good when it needs to be spoken. I am not good with too much socialising, I struggle to put names to faces I remember. Some of the other volunteers, I suspect those who have been at this for much longer, don’t bother to talk with me. I like it, but I also accept it’s probably because they correctly assume I won’t be around regularly in the long term. Street community work doesn’t suit me well — a lot of it is about building connections with the people, and I feel inadequate, tongue-tied, socially awkward.
The fatigue with dealing with the authorities, and even civil society activists, felt all-around constant. I think I embraced the weariness too early, too readily.
Then: Recently I went for a political rally organised by university students,. It had female leadership (as did Bersih). There were passionate speeches. Not many political faces. I didn’t go alone, I went with awesome friends. It felt like a proper civil society movement. I didn’t have to watch Anwar on a pedestal, being handed a microphone. Fantastic. It was smaller than Bersih, but it was more meaningful to me, because I didn’t have to wrangle as many internal conflicts as Bersih.
I also attended an art protest rally. While I have done art-driven demonstrations for social justice or political causes, this was the first time in ages I was doing it for art, which had been my entry point into protests when I first came to KL anyway. I believed strongly in the message, even if I didn’t believe strongly in the efficiency of the rally in getting results from the government. But I could still hope through it. I thought it was essential to add to the cause this idea — that we all cared enough to come together for this. It was a splendid rally. Full of art. Music. Poetry. Performance art, which I really liked. Some political commentary. It sparked media coverage, but also a lot of discussions amongst us. It became a catalyst for future action, which I’m still seeing today. It had the solidarity I needed. I even bumped into the activists I used to link arms with when protesting in villages — one of them I’ve been meeting while volunteering at the soup kitchens/with the urban poor community. He is older and I wonder if his path has been similar to mine, although I am very certain his was full of much more activism and protests and direct action.
And so I think, slowly, the fatigue is ebbing. I accepted it too easily before. I think the trick is to manage the things I find toxic. And when I find causes I support, they really do recharge me. No more bad rallies for a while. But plenty of good people with good ideas and good energy. I am re-learning which goodness to let into my life, figuring out boundaries for my own sake.
This year, I was uncertain about whether or not I’ll join Bersih again. Definitely haven’t volunteered to bring any journalists around. I pushed off the decision making, thinking I wanted to read the official statement before deciding if I’m on board. The statement was published, but before I had the chance to read it, the EC’s extensive gerrymandering around Malaysia was making headlines. I meant to keep track of how Bersih would respond to the redelineation in regards to the rally, before making my decision.
Then a close friend’s wedding dates come along, clashing dates with the rally. I don’t intend to spend an eternity in Fiona’s doghouse for choosing a rally over her day. So I’ve been spared a decision I didn’t want to make. Hurray for straight people with the right to marry!
It’s good to be able to reflect on how the last two rallies went well. I don’t think I’ve had time to think about that lately. A lot of it has felt like I’m just aligning my interests with where my living expenses come from. But it also looks like I’m just hitting things like a pinball ball.
I recently rejected an offer to work in Singapore, and in the 7th month of austerity pay cut at work, I wonder if I made the correct choice.
But for now, all I need to think about is where I’m going to buy a shirt for Fiona’s wedding — as she already banned the entirety of my current wardrobe. Must. Avoid. Doghouse. I should have asked Bella if she’d go clothes shopping with me**. Months of hanging out with a stylist all the time, and I only think of this now when she’s in France. Crap.
I shouldn’t be up this late blogging. It’s against doctor’s orders. Ngeh.
*All the people who were fearful of direct harm to themselves were women. Because we understand that this violence affects us all, and it isn’t based on what we can control.
**I bet Bella doesn’t remember this, but she and Zal brought me shopping in 1 Utama for my prom dress when I graduated from Cenfad.