I went to the rally as a spectator. I returned a believer. And I had ice cream with the FRU.
By Charis Ding
I went as an individual rather than as a supporter. Whenever asked throughout the day, I told people "I just wanted to see what’s going on". And that was the truth.
In the weeks leading to it, I was undecided whether to support the rally. Right up to yesterday I couldn’t decide. But I knew I didn’t want to stay home or watch from a distance. I didn’t want to just follow the news online. I had to see it with my own eyes. So I decided to do a walkabout, and I thought perhaps it would take being there to help me make my stand. And so as I was there I considered myself an observer – a reporter.
The police presence at the Pasar Seni area was overwhelming. In front of Central Market, four or five blue trucks in a row. Tension on the streets. It was eerily quiet. On Petaling Street, I walked past a small sized aunty in a yellow shirt (: I overheard her words to a few young boys around her – "We must stay united" she said - "that’s why we must wear yellow, to show we are united". I smiled as I passed.
I saw that the flower shop was open and bought a bunch of daisies.
There was tension in the air, the sense of waiting for something to erupt. At Masjid Jamek, there were more policemen than civilians. I took note of their batons, their weapons. The air was oppressive. I caught myself seeing the men in uniform as the antagonists – weren’t they on the other side? But then I realized they were supposed to be our friends. It is their job to protect people like me.
I sat with the other people from various media. On the side of the road leading to the stadium, huge intimidating FRU trucks were lined up. POLICE barricades. After a while hanging around, I decided to wander across those borders. Some of the police, leaning against their truck, looked straight at me. I smiled, they smiled back. Phew. I walked by a bunch of intimidating looking FRU people staring at me. Right across the road from Dataran Merdeka, I stole a picture of one of them leaning on the back of his truck. He called me over. We chatted.
It's tough, he said. They’ve been here and there all week, hardly with any sleep. Staying watch to make sure everything’s alright. Sometimes they sleep in the trucks. They were there until the wee hours of the morning yesterday, and came back early in the morning. If he could, he’d rather just have a quiet Saturday, stay at home, watch TV.
I nodded because I understood.
I spoke from my heart – it shouldn’t be this way. We should all be friends … we are friends.
Apa nak buat? There is always a chance of those who will cause trouble, he said. Don’t hang around here, he advised. It's not that safe today.
A motorcycle tried to pass, carrying packages in plastic bags. Not wanting to distract him or get him into trouble, I took my leave. Told him to jaga baik-baik. He said "nice to meet you".
I started back across to the other side. Halfway, I came across a bunch from the FRU surrounding an ice cream man, buying ice cream in buns. "Ais krim!" I kinda exclaimed. I was beside myself. "Ambik lah", they said. "Which one do you want? Cornetto?" Just realizing that I had pretty much imposed upon them to belanja me ice cream, I said – "Takpe takpe, saya beli sendiri".
"Takpe, bayar sama sama" – one of them said. They insisted I pick one.
"Where you from?" – they asked in English. "Here", I said – "saya orang sini saje". They laughed, "oh, ingatkan orang jepun!"
As we stood around with our ice creams, they asked me who I was. Did I come for the rally? "saya cume seorang gadis biasa" I said. They found that very amusing. "jangan-jangan ada t-shirt kuning dalam beg tu".
I laughed – "tak de lah…".
Then what was I doing there? "Saje mau tengok", I said. "cume ingin tahu".
"Baguslah tu", he said. "But you shouldn’t hang around today, it might not be safe". I asked them, "Apa khabar?". "Ok", they said. A bit tired, they hardly had any sleep. Ada rase tension? "Tension tu, sikit-sikit mesti ada lah".
We finished our ice creams, and I said goodbye. "Jaga diri", I said. "Jumpa lagi".
I just had ice cream with the FRU.
Right after I crossed the barrier there was a commotion and the media was running towards where I had just came from. They were apparently mobilizing.
About twenty minutes later, I was in the middle in front of the Maybank Tower with the throngs of people on my right and the FRU line on the left. The crowd had just gathered, they weren’t even moving forward yet. The FRU shot water cannons. It was unprovoked. Then the gas came. When it hit, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. And it hurt. I grabbed some water from my bag and washed my face with it. I covered my face with my baju. In the chaos, one, two people offered me salt. "Makan", they told me. It really helped. I crumbled and sat on the corridors for a minute, eyes and nose watering.
I got up and kept walking, now amongst the people. Some looked me in the face, Chinese ladies speaking in Mandarin, Malay men in Malay, they seemed shocked and concerned. I must’ve looked a mess. "Are you ok?", they asked me. I tried to smile and nodded.
Soon, people started running. From a distance I saw the men in dark blue chasing the marchers. So many of them. People were running down the hill slope at the Maybank Tower compound. Nowhere to run, they jumped down the hill from some height, scampering across the streets.
I ended up in Pudu, watching the marchers and listening to their shouts of "Hidup Rakyat!". When we had to run later, at one point it was tricky to escape and we had to climb a railing at Pudu station. In the huru-hara, the man beside me, instead of just climbing up himself, was yelling to his friend – "Tolong amoi ini dulu!" He seemed more anxious for me than he was for himself, or even I was for myself.
Then it started to rain, and I thought – God Himself has intervened.
Once more, I had brothers who were concerned enough to ask me if I was ok. I followed the crowd and met some young men who had come all the way from Pahang for this. We ended up in front of the Chinese Assembly Hall, where a huge crowd had gathered. The police formed a human barricade, arms crossed, and barbed wire at the entrance of the road just a short distance from the Stadium. A. Samad Said came and talked with the policemen. Such a frail man, but so strong.
We sang Negaraku … and we sang it from the heart.
We dispersed soon after. I heard someone asking others to kutip sampah before we left. Retreating, suddenly part of the crowd broke into a run. There was a big group of police chasing from behind. Just as soon as we wanted to run instinctively, others said jangan lari … bertenang. Relaks saja. And we all calmed down again. It was like that the whole day – anytime there seemed to be a chance for rowdiness or chaos or violence, the people themselves would calm each other down, keep things in check.
Meeting up with my friends who were in the KLCC group, we exchanged stories. My friend Jagadev was at the frontline. He had been hit by teargas seven times that day, and he has a battle wound from where a canister hit his leg. But the bulk of what we spoke of wasn’t of hatred or anger – but a sense of passion, of new hope, and of solidarity as a people.
"It seems we’ve got pretty decent people", I mused as a passing comment. I didn’t know how true it would turn out to be but it was immediately confirmed.
So many stories. My friend, caught in the rain, had a Malay man hand her some papers for her to cover up from the rain.
Hit by the full brunt of the tear gas, Jagad, along with a few others, stopped to help a man who had fallen down. He was heavy, too.
When someone tried to shout, incite others and burn a Patriot t-shirt, the rest immediately stopped him, silenced him and removed him from the group.
We are a decent, civilized people. What we experienced that day - Malaysia.
Later on at dinner with a different group of friends, the conversation was about our nation. This was rare. In the fifteen years I’ve known them, I don’t think we’ve ever talked together about politics, or our nation, or playing a part in it. At least, not like this. But that night, they said to me – because of you guys, we've decided we are going to register to vote.
They too caught the passion. The unggun. They too were upset over how the government had reacted to the rally, and the statement made by the Bersih marchers is loud and clear. I think it was a statement of hope that they caught. Tens of thousands of Malaysians who went out for a better nation. It’s a call that we can no longer disown or detach ourselves from, because we are in no way a lost cause.
In the midst of this conversation with my friends, something amazing happened. Following Bersih stories on Twitter, we talked about how good Malaysians can be … we remembered certain events and openly admitted those from other races who have been kind to us. And we confronted our stereotypes of always painting them a certain way.
A distinct thought came home to me then: Malaysia, I do love you.
That night we said cheers, to a better Malaysia.
By the end of the day, I discovered I referred to the marchers and myself as ‘we’, no longer ‘them’ and ‘I’. It is because we were there together, as Malaysia. We helped each other and cared for each other as Malaysia. There was no political agenda with the people there – I was there, I experienced it and I know it. It was Malaysia, embracing in our hearts and our actions the hope for better government.
What I experienced on the 9th of July is Malaysia. We are decent people, we are a people of quality. Those in power who are selfish or bigots or who try to divide the people – that is not Malaysia, and they are not deserving of Malaysia. Those who try to taint and politicize the beautiful events of that day, are not deserving of Malaysia. We are a people who deserve much more than that.
We came out and proved that yesterday. It has proved to me, to the marchers who were there, to my friends, what Malaysia is.
And so, on 9th July, Malaysia won.