Notes from the Freedom Square

FMT takes a trip to Dataran Merdeka to meet both the students protesting for free education and those from the Occupy movement. 

Aneesa Alphonsus. Free Malaysia Today 

The atmosphere was almost carnival-esque at first glance. Hundreds of people clad in white t-shirts and black pants prancing around on Dataran Merdeka to pop songs, traditional numbers and some other musical genre while a man’s voice booms over the loudspeaker telling them to “get it right.” They are rehearsing for the royal parade tonight and constant reminders that “50,000 pairs of eyes will be on you” by the voice over the loudspeaker – this time female, elicit refreshed enthusiastic moves, purposeful in their fervour to entertain in coordination.

It makes for a stark contrast to another group of people a little further down. They number much less than a 100, but are coordinated nonetheless in a common cause. These are the denizens of Occupy Dataran, various student groups, and other individuals who are there in solidarity.

The area occupied is no larger than 300 square feet. During this visit, six tents are counted and the number will increase as the night advances. There are mats in varied designs and colours, which are placed neatly next to each other. People are furtive with their steps and careful not to tread on them with footwear on.

There are also t-shirts for the upcoming Bersih 3.0 rally being sold and the presence of a pet monkey serves as a welcome distraction from the more sedate matters at hand behind the occupy and protest situation.

Over the din from the rehearsal music, now blaring a traditional zapin number, 30-something private sector employee Salleh Mat Seh shared that he had grown tired of just complaining about what’s wrong in Malaysia’s governance.

“I had taken a PTPTN (higher education) loan too and I’m still paying it off with another seven years to go. Back then, it was inconceivable that something like this could be done. Yes, we were not happy, but the culture was to grin and bear it. It’s surreal being here with these students now and I sometimes find it hard to believe that something like this is really happening. I do pinch my myself from time to time just to make sure,” he said smiling wistfully.

Salleh together with the other students have been camping at Dataran Merdeka since Saturday following a rally where 300 undergraduates marched into the city centre demanding free tertiary education and for the PTPTN loan scheme to be abolished.

Opinions concerning this are explosively divisive. There are quarters, young students themselves who agree that loans taken must be honoured. Then there are those like 24-year-old Ikmal Hashim who had this to say, “I can understand how those university graduates find it difficult to repay the loan to PTPTN if they earn a salary of RM2,000. Even with a RM3,000 income, it will just cover your monthly expenses. There is rental to pay, car repayments to be made, transportation costs and daily expenses to be considered. It’s not a surprise then that there are so many of them struggling.

“In actuality, it may even take them up to 30 years to settle the loan. Consider the 3% yearly interest when added to the principle loan, it’s just too much. Even if free education cannot be had, why can’t the government collect the principal and forego the interest. I’m sure this can be afforded?”

‘Doing this for the future generations’

The conversation is steered away from political brick brats when someone comes around with a big plastic bag full of nasi lemak packets. They are still warm to the touch, apparently having just been sent over by a member of the public.

Food has been arriving at a steady pace since the occupy situation began last Saturday. According to some of the protesters, three meals are had and some are delivered anonymously.

Luqman Yusri, a 21-year-old student at Unisel, expressed his gratitude to the public and said that it’s overwhelming to a great degree that so many have come forward in support of the cause.

“These people who are helping, don’t have to, but they are coming forward nonetheless. When something like this happens, it’s very humbling because we’re getting help from people who don’t know us, but who understand why we have to do this.”

Over a packet of food, Yusri is asked about his motivation behind participating in the protest. He proferred, “By being here, I not only represent myself but also my friends for the possibility of free education which Malaysia can afford.

“The thing is this. The point we are trying to make is why not grant free education when so much else is being spent in gargantuan amounts? How can reading about careless and unnecessary expenditure not make us feel angry? Being here doesn’t make me feel like I am wasting my time. Someday, I may have children of my own and I’m doing this with the hope that it will pave the way for better education opportunities and facilities.”

While on the subject of facilities, roughing it out has been the order of the day, and well, night. Showers are had in friends’ homes, the toilets at Dataran Merdeka are there for the in-between uses and some, like Luqman, charge their phones at the nearby Masjid Jamek.