Wong Yan Ke is the Bersih Deputy Chairperson, Case Management and Campaign Coordinator at Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) and secretary of KLSCAH Youth. He is also the former president of UMANY and the Chinese Language Society of University of Malaya. As a student leader on campus, he was a founder of Suara Siswa, a part of Universiti Malaya Student Union and Gerakan Pembebasan Akademik, and part of the committee of the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat.

*All pictures were provided by Wong Yan Ke. 

Tell us about yourself, your upbringing and your first encounter with politics.

My full name is Wong Yan Ke. I grew up in in Bukit Mertajam, Penang and the first time I know about politics during the primary school and when I was Standard 6 because that time is 2008, whereby we know people call this as a political tsunami for the first time in Malaysia, although there’s once in the 3rd General Election (in 1969) but anyway… During that time, because I was in Standard 6 and I’m based at Penang. And we also know that the Penang, Selangor, etc., is the stronghold of the opposition during that time which is Pakatan Rakyat. Oh, sorry. That time there’s no any Pakatan yet; it’s a loose coalition. It’s just DAP, PKR and also PAS during that time. So on that time where I saw a lot of flags flying around, and also ceramah, etc. So, when we start reading the news, they (family members) talked about a lot about the politics, so, I [am] also quite curious [about] what is happening in our country right now.

Did you read the newspaper?

I did but I don’t have much memory about that; on why it’s happening. I remember that time is the next day, which they (newspapers) said [that] there are a lot the opposition parties win in several states and became the headline of the newspaper. So, I [was] also quite curious about that because we know nothing about the polling, the elections, but this is where I start getting [to] know about the politics; because my Standard 6 school teacher, the tuition teacher, just ask a question to us. She asked: “Which party your parents are going to vote for? Is it the one [where it’s] pointing out to towards the sky, which is they meant the rocket, which is DAP [at] that time. Or the ‘timbang’, which is the Barisan Nasional?”. Then, I realised that a lot of people raised up their hands, saying that their parents going to vote for the rocket, which is quite surprising because it’s quite a contradictory to what I see during the election; because when you see the flags, all [of the flags] are in blue, right? However, lot of people will still vote for DAP. So, I have a question to ask about it. So, this is where I start getting to know about politics. However, I need to admit that in traditional Chinese family, people don’t talk about politics because there is a 13 May tragedy. People say [that] it’s better that kids stay away from politics. Even though they might engage in a conversation to discuss the politics in Malaysia, but they try to make sure that kids [do] not get involved in politics. This [is] what I see. However, that’s where I start to [be] concern about politics, but I have to admit that I was in a opposition stronghold state. That’s why during that time, I don’t have any kind of critical thinking, etc. I was just seeing that I’m [in] support for the opposition because they want to bring changes. I don’t know that if they are populist, etc., but you just buy into the narrative that they float out. So, it seems that you are a hardcore supporter for opposition during that time, and you want the change to happen in Malaysia.

So, this come[s] to the secondary school, but I start to question about it. So, during my Form 5 in secondary school, is [in] 2013, whereby there’s a general election again; where Pakatan Rakyat come out as a coalition, and they stand out for the election, and they win, I think 53% of the popular vote. However, because of like the gerrymandering and malapportionment in Malaysia etc. So, that’s why they lost the election, even though they win the popular vote. So, this is [the] time whereby I feel quite unsatisfied with the current system, electoral system, but during the time from the 2008 until 2013, I think that we observe a lot of different changes. I mean including the social movement in Malaysia, and what I can see from the TV and also from internet is the BERSIH movement and also the Himpunan Hijau. However, I didn’t get much information about that, but I think why people are coming out is [because] people are quite angry about the current administration; because they don’t care about the living and livelihood, the health of the people, and there are a lot of corruptions that happening around. That’s why people are coming out to the street, to protest, and during that time, we also quite… I mean like the way for us to show support in Penang is not going out to protest, but instead expressing our thoughts in social media as well as like during the BERSIH time, we will change profile pic[ture] and change it to yellow colour; and during election, we’ll change it to the opposition kind of logo, etc. This is how we express ourselves back in Penang. So, during that time we also… in 2014, if you remember in Taiwan and Hong Kong, there’s a Umbrella Movement and also Sunflower [Student] Movement, whereby I see the role of the young people playing in politics. So, it was reported mainly by the Chinese media, Chinese press, so that’s why we get- uh, we did follow up about that and we can see how the young people can create the impact towards the society change. This is where I think it’s also impacted me, when I went to matriculation.

Where was your matriculation?

Negeri Sembilan. So, when I was elected as the student representative, this is the first time I observe the corruption that happened in our education system.

Okay. So, before you go there, because I think we want to explore a bit about like how people got into it. So, you mentioned between the GE11 until GE12, that period, where- I mean you mentioned internet, and TV, and all that, but what was your sense of people’s grievances and like was it just the living conditions, like corruption? Give me a sense of what you felt and what you think other people felt that caused this change.

I think during that time, especially after 2013, when we see [that] even though they can win 53% or 51% (I forgot already. Sorry, I need to check about the data.), but because they win the majority of the popular vote however they lost in the general election, they cannot gain the simple majority to form government. So, this is where I think something [is] wrong with the electoral system, but for that part, [what] we always label is corruption, or first people are buying votes, or they are registering- the so-called propaganda is like registering the immigrants as phantom voters, etc. And there are a lot of narrative that happen in the social media. But one [thing which] concerns me more is like I will start [to] question; why [is it that] when someone win the majority, [they] still cannot become the government? You [will] question whether [there’s] something wrong with our electoral system.

Can you link- I mean because I think you would describe that as maybe a sense of injustice but when was the first time you made the connection in your head? Election happens at a very high level; was there any other incidence that ask you to think about injustice in that way?

Teoh Beng Hock case. I think [the case] impacted me quite a lot when I get to know about the politics because if I remember correctly, it happened in 2009. And at that time happened a lot of murder cases including Altantunyaa bombing, etc. So, you will start thinking why [do] the adults will ask you to stay away from politics? Is it because it’s too dirty? And is it because it will taken your life away about politics? But how Teoh Beng Hock case impact me a lot is because about the injustice lah. It’s because first of all, he’s a young person and why [is it] when he’s doing something for the opposition, the life can be taken away simply by the government? And I still remember the interviews being made by Teoh Lee Lan and her family members and how she cried in the media, etc. Series of events inspired me to want to become a lawyer or take forensic science; yeah, it really impacted me a lot because you see, is it the way to solve the injustice is where we participate as a lawyer or as a forensic scientist or a forensic pathologist in these cases? Because even they go through a lot of inquests and there are a lot of court proceeding, but until now- I mean until now, around 15 years, the truth wasn’t being found yet, right? During that time, I will start to realise that the system is corrupted and a failure and it always seem to speak for those in power, but not for those who are in opposition, or those who are powerless or being marginalised. So, this is where I start to know more about politics.

Yan Ke with members of UMANY at Dataran Merdeka.

That’s a good kind of entry point because I don’t imagine many people think about the election straight away. Generally, there’s something that brings you into politics so this one makes sense.

Yeah, 2008 because there is a general election, but 2009 is the one where I see all the dirty things happen.

Okay and I want to just pause before we move on to your matriculation days. Can you just give me a sense of where you were having the discussions, and with who, about the Hong Kong and Taiwan movements.

I have discussion with my parents. However, I think they buy into the narrative saying that they are the riots and protestor, but I was questioning because Joshua Wong also… he is the same age as me; he [was] born in 1996. I see him as a kind of inspiration- Of course, I cannot compare myself with him because he did a lot of things and he was able to mobilise the people to come out to the street as well to talk about freedom and democracy- because he wasn’t first appear to the public as the Umbrella Movement. He was first appear is for his involvement in speaking against the newly announced moral and national education whereby they want to bring in the China narrative, etc., and change the civic education in Hong Kong during 2012. So, I was quite inspired by him because first, he was [the] same age as me, who was very young during that time. And when I see [that] he can do something about it, it seems like actually we shouldn’t underestimate the young people, right? But I also question how he can move the movement this way because is it about the education system in Hong Kong? Or is it about the exposure he got in Hong Kong, etc.? But the discussion is much among with the adults, which is my parents, and also the peer around me doesn’t know about the the case. So, I feel like I’m alienated. But I always have these kind of questions lah; like how the young people can do something about this towards the society? At the same time is why can they do so? What drives them to do so? I have this question, then all this question has been answer[ed] when I was enter into university but I will explain it later.

Alright, now we can bring it back up to matriculation when you were elected [as the] student rep.

So, that’s why I find out the corruption things. I feel injustice also in the second stage of my life is when I was chosen to enter to matriculation, but you will question the inequality that happened in our education system. I was so lucky because I got straight- not straight A but I get A+ in the major subject, the science stream subject, for example, Additional Maths, Maths, and also Physics and Chemistry; that’s why I got into the matriculation. However, I will also question because there are people who are getting straight A and straight A+ who are Chinese (I was study in SMJKC) but they are not being admitted into matriculation and people are start[ing to]- because during that time, you will see a lot of news in TV station or in radio station whereby the non-Malays will come out to say “I’m the straight A students. Why can’t I get JPA? Why can’t I get into the matriculation? Or why can’t I get into public university?”. Although the background maybe the same, they are also from the lower income group or middle class, right? So, this is where I feel there’s in inequality in our education system. And when I enter into matriculation, the one that I found out the corruption is about the 1M4U, the program. Why? Because whereby they have a project in the matriculation, however, they pride- I think it’s about the gotong-royong or something like that, but the fund, the expenses for that program can go up to 10k or more than that. But when you look back at the expenses they spent on a broom, it’s very expensive, so they buy a lot of things which are expensive, but you cannot see the existence of that things as well. So, you start questioning “Oh, so this is what they mentioned about the corruption.”, because before this only right from news, and people accused the opposition leaders or opposition member of parliament, accusing like the government get involved in corruption.

How were you able to see this? Because you were the student rep?

I’m a student rep, and because me and my friend was involved in the program. So, that’s why we find out when they say the expense, we have no access to the financial report etc., but we know that there’s a fund allocate for this program. However, the fund that was being used wasn’t as much [as] what we can see in the program. So, we start [to] question about this. So, when I think- I’m not the one with access to the financial report, but I think someone, bendahari or what, they got mentioned about this; which is they buy expensive brooms etc.

Did you feel like you were in a position to speak up?

Yeah, um, I mean that time you try to question, but I think we are being rejected by saying that it’s better [if] you are not asking about this thing. But during that time, I wasn’t dare enough to challenge the system, entire system, because I’m feeling alone at that matriculation.

So, in matriculation, obviously it wasn’t an election year but were there discussions about elections among you and your [friends]?

Um, no. Not really but I read the news- why I starting to get interested to go into University of Malaya, first is because my cousin studied University Malaya as a doctor. Second, because during matriculation, I read the news also online, whereby I saw they (the students) bring Anwar into the university before the judgment day and rempuh the gate and had ceramah inside the campus. I think during that time my Maths teacher in matriculation college, she said [it’s] the day of injustice in Malaysia when Anwar was sentenced to jail for the second time. It’s the darkest day for justice in Malaysia, something like that lah, so we discussed it with my lecturer in matriculation college. But not much about this because- yeah, I need to highlight, sorry, because it’s scattered around in my memories. I did mention something during my secondary school time. I questioned about Rukun Nagara, because I questioned about the existence of Rukun Nagara, whether it is used to, what we say, as a propaganda of the state, to put the state propaganda there and try to make it as the official narrative, but not letting people to challenge that. So, I question the existence of Rukun Negara. Why is it so? “Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan, kesetiaan kepada Raja dan negara”, so how about the 80’s? How about those who are not- if they are not loyal to the country because the country being unfair to them? For example, Teoh Beng Hock case. So can I just not being loyal to the country if the country always- there are a lot of systemic injustice in the country? So, I questioned this but I was getting a slap from my secondary school teacher who teaching the civic education.

And this is in and SMJKC?

Yeah, SMJKC.

And even there, there was no space for this kind of questioning?

I think, yeah, because… okay, for example, for Teoh Beng Hock case, I question about this when I was entered into the Form 4 and Form 5, right? I spoke to my teachers, for example, for Chemistry, I said can I be like a forensic scientist or become a lawyer, etc.? They stopped me from doing that because they say it’s very dirty. It’s very… politics is something that you cannot expect to be good. So, either you become corrupted to survive, or you will be killed by the system. Yeah, this is something like that. Then why my teachers were so concerned about this [is] because first of all, I question something [that’s] very sensitive, right? Second, I think she came from the way that she doesn’t want me to get involved in politics and being… what we call being prosecuted by the system, something like that. So, I think, yeah, he’s more concerned about my safety or what. “You see, you shouldn’t say this in the public.”.

Okay. But you did begin to bring this up-

I bring this up not during the personal conversation but also in the class. So, she slapped me in the class. But she did ask me to have a separate conversation after the class lah.

So, that sums up your matriculation days…

Maybe I add something about the Rukun Nagara. It’s kind of like… they want to- oh, Rukun Nagara, it seems like a dogma for us. So, I question about this. And [it] want us to obey to a certain rules who are being created without any justification. So, that’s why I question about the existence of this Rukun Negara.

I mean that leads me to an interesting question before we enter more exciting views. I mean, do you remember when you- was it just the Teoh Beng Hock case that caused you to learn to question? Or did you learn to question somewhere else? Like from, you know, just engaging in social media, talking to friends, but you did say that not many of your friends are political, so where do you think or you remember this kind of desire to question come from?

I think I raise the question a lot during my primary school or secondary school, but however, the response that I get is just “you shouldn’t talk about this, you are still a child, so it’s better to stay away from politics”, that’s why I say why we need to stay away politics, I will question this lah. I think, is there anything that inspired me to question a lot beside Teoh Beng Hock case? I think, nothing. Maybe it’s my nature. I don’t know about that. And maybe the bombing of Altantuyaa, etc.

Okay. There was a lot in the news and you observing it.

Yeah, yeah. Oh, and I have a very good teacher who teach Chinese, and because it is during the tuition class, sometimes she will raise about the national affairs, and she also talk about the democracy. But during that time because we don’t have pengajian am, even for our civic education, it doesn’t talk about democracy. But however, my Chinese tuition teacher mentioned about it, is because she said democracy is for you to pick the leaders that you want and you can hold them accountable. It happen when you are choosing for your class rep, and also, they asked us to look into the history of Japan, whereby they always change the Prime Ministers, right? Not only during the election, but if let’s say if the Prime Minister doesn’t gain enough confidence or support from MPs, they will they rotate it. So, she said this, changing government is a healthy trend in democracy and for the betterment of our country, if let’s say we want to progress, in terms of like accountability issue, etc. It was raised during the tuition class because you can’t raise it during the school, especially if you are a public servant.

Do you remember how old you were there?

Uh, I joined the tuition class starting from Form 3, or Form 4, or Form 5. It’s during that period.

Okay, so that does lead up well into your matriculation days. Okay, good. I think now we can get into your uni[versity] days. So, what did you study in UM?

Civil engineering. Initially, I want to study Law. But I think because I’m not determined enough lah, to have a debate with my parents. Why they don’t want me to become a lawyer is because at the same time, I say, because they afraid, given my nature, or given my curiosity about politics in Malaysia, they think I will join politics if I study Law. So, the second part is they said I might be helping the wrong person. The traditional chinese family, they will say that. So, they say it’s a karma for… it will become what we call a sin for you, to helping the wrong people. So, however, I didn’t determined enough to argue with them. Oh, alright, now I remember the people who influence me a lot, which is Karpal Singh. Karpal Singh also one of the… so, because Karpal Singh is from Penang, and whenever I saw from the news, I saw him as a [person] who has courageous to speak against the power, for his performance in the parliament, as well as when he represent the marginalised group. So, he inspired me a lot. I think he is the person who inspired me a lot lah, in knowing more about the politics because he also represent- I mean, he and his family represent Teoh Beng Hock also, right, for the case.

Yan Ke with fellow UM students demanding the abolition of AUKU

Okay. So, it looks like- I mean, you had multiple sources… and just out of curiosity, the Karpal Singh case also was covered in the Chinese press, very extensively lah?

Yeah, because I remember the one that says that it impacts me a lot is that it says something I think it’s either related to equality of races or something like that, they want to pass a law. I’m not [sure] whether it’s turning Malaysia into an Islamic state or what but it said if you want to do this injustice, first of all you need to step over my dead body, which I think “Wow, this person is quite inspiring!”, because he dares to speak up against the power.

Okay, okay. So, you decide- well you were sort of forced into doing civil engineering, what were your uni years like? and bring us up to when you were involved in the student movement and maybe all the way up to your first protest.

So, remember the one that I mentioned [about] the Hong Kong protest, Taiwan protest as well, where they go like the the Taiwan protest, the students break into the parliament and occupy the parliament, and for the protest [which] they bringing Anwar back into University Malaya. Why I see the young people are there during the social movement. So, the question were answered when I became the first year student in University Malaya whereby I joined Chinese Language Society. Because I was appointed as the, what we call, the film director for a documentary, and also to talk about the history of PBCUM, Chinese Language Society. So, when I started to do the research, and started to understand the history Chinese Language Society, and realized that actually Chinese Language Society was previously actively and outspoken about the social injustice, but they do it a different way. Instead of protesting, they do it like a stage play to reflect about the inequality that happened into the lower middle class, as well as they talk about the unity of the races. Why we should be unite[d] as a Malaysian, etc. So, they did a lot of things. At the same time, because during that time is 1996 and 1970s. 1960s and 1970s is I think the golden age of student activism in Malaysia. And Chinese Language Society was a part of it. However, I just realised that the leaders are being arrested under ISA, and also they issue a white paper, is it? There’s a term call white paper in parliament. And they closed down the PBCUM and claimed that [it] is affiliated with communist party. So, this is where I start to learn about the history. And because when the leaders in PBCUM was arrested by ISA, they are also being tortured in the custody like what explained by in our report launch just now, was also experiencing by the leaders during that day because they are fighting against the consciousness raising, is about against violence, about the race unity, and also about something like against pornography or what, I’m not sure… but they said, since you are against you are against this kind of culture, let me show you the pornographic books [to] see if you have any kind of reaction. When you have any kind of reaction, they will use the Chinese joss stick and try to humiliate you with the joss stick around your private part lah. So, this is first time I heard about the torture and it was experienced by the student leaders. And one of the former President of Chinese Language Society, when he was being released, immediately, he killed himself because of the psychological stress that he has been experienced during the detention. So, this is where I get to know about the human rights issue, I get to know about the student activism during that time. And because during that time is the so-called “the golden age”, I also learned about the Baling and Tasek Utara issue and also how Student Union has been stood up as the voice of the people and marginalised community.

Universiti Malaya Students’ Union…?

Yeah, correct. And after that, I read before about Fahmi Reza presentation, the student power presentation. And I start to know about the role that student can play in this country, if they want to make a change. So, when I was doing the documentary about the Chinese Language Society[‘s] History, it made me to think about how the state can oppress the students, because they are outspoken, and because of they are being critical about the power, and always send solidarity with the people. So, I was try to compare the Chinese Language Society during the time, also the Student Union during that time, with the present time. So, you can see much difference, then you start to question about it. So, during that time, I try to bring more political awareness and literacy…

And tell me which year that was? That was still 2014, 2015, right? Before Pakatan?

Yeah, before Pakatan Harapan. I think it’s [20]15, [20]16, or [20]17, during that time. And there are a lot of things that happened during the day, right? Like the 1MDB scandal, and BERSIH 4 and [BERSIH] 5. I was so excited, initially I want to join the BERSIH 4 but it was the first day of my orientation. But the things that I can do is just changing the profile pic, etc. However, I did join for the BERSIH 5 but luckily it doesn’t turn out to the one that I observe-

Yes, it’s not as exciting.

Yeah, previous one is exciting lah, where people really fight hard for democracy and freedom. 2 or 3, whereby there are tear gas, there are police brutality, all this. But I was imagine the first time I joint, because this is my first time joining a public assembly, which is the BERSIH 5…

So, just to be clear, in UM, before BERSIH 5-

Tangkap MO1.

Oh, you attended-

I didn’t attend during that, because Tangkap MO1 was before BERSIH 5. But I know that the university always issue the warning to all the students through our SiswaMail, etc., saying that “please do not attend, or else we will take disciplinary action”. So, luckily, I found a friend who is also interested in this kind of social movement. That’s why we go together. But during that time, I haven’t joined UMANY or else I already participate in much more. And because some of my secondary school seniors will ask us to stay away from UMANY, because you are the…

Okay, maybe I will just explain a bit about the BERSIH 5, when I experience, because I’m as a participant, and I joined that-

No, but maybe let’s do Tangkap MO1 first. So, was that [your] first experience? Because obviously you had someone, you decided to go…

Oh, I didn’t attend in person, because that time I can’t find my friend to go with me together. But I know it was started up in UM. And it was the student leaders from UM who initiate the… which [is] Anis Syafiqah lah, to initiate this public assembly, which i think I quite interested in but I didn’t go that time because I cannot find any friend. But I did observe it live on social media.

Okay, then BERSIH 5.

So, because when you receive the warning email, then you will start thinking about should I go and should I not go but I think because I’m the university student, and no matter what you have observed in the media during your secondary school, it’s time for you to experience by yourself. So, I decided to find my friend from the secondary school, I said it’s time for us to go to there. So, we are so scared and we just put the BERSIH t-shirt in the bag, and we’ll change it when we reach the protest area. During that time is around uh… I enter into a mall, but I forgot the [name of the] shopping mall already. But you can see there are people who were so exciting, and they didn’t scare about it, but it’s more like a carnival, I mean people were taking pictures etc. And you can see the crowds in LRT, there are a lot of people. So, nothing happened during that time but I did attend the public assembly and listen to the leaders. I remember Ambiga also gave some speeches during that time.

What was your impression of like- I mean what did you feel? So, sounds like you were at least nervous when getting there, but once you were there, once you were listening to-

I feel like I’m part of the movement, the sense of solidarity. You are feeling like you are not alienated, like what I have experience in secondary school. Because when you talk about politics, people will just say you shouldn’t talk about that. But when you went there, first of all, people are being friendly. They will talk “hey, who are you?”, but that time I don’t know whether there’s SB or not, because I don’t have any experience, right? But they will speak to you, they ask about you, and they say it’s good for university students to attend to this kind of assembly etc. And I think people around that… you feel like you are part of a social movement and like-minded people are surrounding you. So, you are feeling very safe when you enter to that protest zone.

So, one question would be: prior to showing up, obviously you’re nervous and when you thought about it, by then, just recall for me, did Anis Syafiqah face consequences for her role in MO1 already? I think she did, right? Right after the protest, they tried to go after her.

Yes, they go after Maria Chin and also Anis Syafiqah, right? And using SOSMA at that time if I’m not mistaken.

So, in your mind, were you afraid that something like that would happen to you?

Yes, it did. Because uh… thank you for raising up that [question], because I think I need to write a journal already. But correct, you are right, because yes, they have been targeting the student activist in UM, and they are pressing charges in UM; not in the criminal charges yet lah. They are pressing charges and they are issuing warning letter, etc. Because I remember during that time, my 1st year, because of 1MDB scandal, they also try to whitewashing the 1MDB in campus. So, they bring in Arul Kanda, the CEO of 1MDB, into the public university. So, that’s where they try to whitewash, etc. and say that 1MDB is good, it’s for your social protection, etc. I wasn’t attend that but I know someone protest and they are the UMANY Members. That time, I wasn’t affiliated with UMANY Yet. So, Tangkap MO1, Anis Syafiqah, as well as they also do a silent protest lah; they raise up the placard. And I remember they were being issue not only warning letter, but they are pressing charges and they want to take disciplinary action against these students. So, yes, it’s true that I’m anxious and worried about whether I will be expelled from university because of joining any kind of protest, etc.

But you still decided to go?

I still decided to go because I think you should go because you have desire for it for long time. Because you always see this in the news, etc.

Okay. So, after BERSIH 5, what was the next thing you did?

After that because I didn’t get caught, I didn’t get charged or etc., so I know that maybe it’s when you lay low, people won’t do anything about you. So, I also did join about the protest, Himpunan Kleptokrasi. But it was organised by the opposition parties. 

After the documentary, I decided to run for election for Persatuan Bahasa Cina because I think we should change about the role of PBCUM. So, UMANY is a student activist group, but what I can do is I should start to raise the awareness about the politics, about the civic education. So, what I try to do is to make some legal literacy, also about our constitution. Because during the Matriculation College, we are not taught about the civic education like Pengajian Am, back in secondary school.

So, I think that is a lack of civic education for the public university students. Because when you see, majority of public university students are from matriculation, it’s not from STPM. There are certain fraction, but the majority is still the matriculation students, right? So, I think we should do some consciousness, awareness raising, etc. So, I decided to bring some lawyers in, and to talk about our constitution, and to talk about the freedom expression, and freedom assembly, etc.

This was in Mandarin?

In Mandarin.

And when you had already become president by then?


Was there opposition from the committee?

Opposition… Oh, yeah, of course. They will say “Why do you want to doing this? It’s better to remain the status quo.”, because I roughly explain what we did in PBCUM. So, there are four different big event, one is talking about the intervarsity debate, which is the main debate in Malaysia, [using] Chinese language. Intervarsity debate is the highest tier of the debate competition. Then, the second one is about cross talk. Cross talk about two person make- it’s kind of stand-up comedy, but it’s in the Chinese kind. But two person will talk about something lah, related to politics society or-

It’s like public speaking with two people?

Yeah, but it’s stand-up comedy. You can make it that way because it’s make people to laugh. Then, the third part is about what we call the concert. And the last one is about a secondary school camp. We do a camp to train, to empower, the secondary school students leaders. And also we have different uh… we are working on the songwriting, and artists, and one is about the cross talk, and another one is about the Chinese language classes for those non-Chinese [who] would like to learn Chinese. Oh, and the debate class, etc. So, when I find out this is like, they are not very relevant to the society right now. Even though for during the debate competition, they will raise a lot of issue related to national affairs, international affairs, etc. But it doesn’t applies when it comes to the action. It’s like you just talk without any action. Same goes to the stand-up comedy and also the songwriting, even though some of them they did some some lyrics or or some show that is critical of the government of the day. However, it doesn’t reflect formal action. So, that’s why I think I found why people are not taking action because they are not conscious about their rights.

So, that’s why I decided to do this kind of legal literacy. However, we are not only receive the opposition from the committee, we also receive the opposition from the university administration. And they will see why you want to do this, and if you want to do this, it’s better you invite the professor emeritus. And we all know professor emeritus, they will defend the government of the day etc. But I’d say that first of all, the lawyers that bring in, they have no any kind of political background. I’m not bringing opposition leaders, I’m bringing the normal lawyers, who are our seniors, to talk about these things. But after that, they rejected us. And on the second term, I was elected as a Chinese language society. And we did a live debate between the pro-establishment student group, and also the anti-establishment student group, which are the student activist group lah. We make a live streaming about that, in Mandarin. However, during that day, I think the opposition being like UMANY people win lah because it seems like they have more substantive points/arguments, but the others just defending the establishment without giving any justification.

So, after that they see like PBCUM start get involved in political literacy or raising awareness, etc. And we are being targeted. Initially, we are being suspended for a year, but they give the explanation because they found us whereby we held some activities without getting approval from the university administration. And we try to crowdfund for some event without getting any approval from the university. So, this is where we get suspended initially, which is for one academic year. But after that, I decided to speak out, and I organised a press conference. And UMANY members came and sending solidarity with me. And actually he received a public attention from the Chinese community in Malaysia. Because like I said, PBCUM is one the oldest Chinese Language Society in Malaysia, and it received a lot of good reputation and for Chinese, it seems like it’s a cultural identity for them. When you suspend a Chinese language society, they think it’s oppression to the Chinese, even though we didn’t see it that way, but as an oppression towards student groups. So, that’s why it caught a lot of public attention.

And this is where I try to speak to the government of day. For example, MCA or Gerakan. But for Gerakan, the politicians that try to help out is because they want to appear in the public or to get the attention for the media, to get some media appearance. For MCA, they try to settle at the back channel. They say they will talk to the higher education, etc. But however, they did nothing lah. And I remember that time, MCA politician did call me. I mean, he accidentally call my phone and I pick up the phone. And he is criticising me, and saying that I’m the macai to DAP or saying that I was dihasutkan oleh DAP people, that’s why I came out to the public to speak about the suspension of my society.

Who do you think he thought he was speaking to?

He’s engaging in a conversation, but I think he did it purposely to let me listen to his conversation. I mean like to create some pressure to win, to ask me not to doing anything about this. But why I decided to raise it up, first of all, because I think it’s unreasonable. Because if I was being found guilty, first of all, I need to go through the due process. They didn’t even issue any warning letter, they didn’t ask to call for a proceeding, to listen to our testimonial. They just asked for an explanation letter, but they didn’t give us the space to speak up, there’s no any panel of judge to listen to us. So, I think it’s unfair to us. Then, I start to question about the student autonomy and also the university autonomy. So, this is where we go back.

So, this is where I started to link up why student activism during the golden age was so active and very critical of the government, and why it turns out like this, and because of AUKU. This is where I get to know AUKU. This is during my second or third year of university time, 2017, I guess. So, we questioned the existence of AUKU. So, when you start to do the research, and you start to looking back to the Fahmi Reza presentation, you just know that actually AUKU is the root of all the evils lah. Why they decided to table AUKU [is] because they want to oppress the student activism. They want to control the activities of student activism. Second, they want to take all the power away from the Student Union. That’s why Student Union was downgraded to become SRC, Student Representatives Council, instead of Student Union, whereby we cannot [be] in charge for our student affairs, we cannot [be] in charge of our finances. So, this is where I find [it] is very disturbing lah.

Then, also related to the autonomy, because initially for previous time, we only need to apply with Student Union, but right now it was decided by the HEPA. It was decided by student affair division. And the student affair division wasn’t chaired by the students, it was chaired by someone who doesn’t know anything about students’ welfare and rights. So, this is where I start [to] question about AUKU, and where I decided to join UMANY. Because I think you can lay low, you cannot speak against any power, but until the end, you might be oppressed. So, it’s better you speak up right now, you stand for those who are being oppressed, and to ask for abolition of AUKU. This is where I start to join student movement. I start to get know to Azura (Nasron), Amirah, Izzah, and you, Jeremy, after this lah.

Yan Ke and others protesting the defunding of public universities

Okay, great. So now, I think you can just jump straight into your involvement in UMANY So, you joined as a regular member or you still in committee already?

I was- because the entire student activism movement enter into dark age, as of our society during that time. There are Tangkap MO1 cases, and because of 1MDB scandals. I mean the government takes stern action against student activists. So, I think no one wanted to join the student activist group. So, there’s no any committee left at there UMANY. I was being approached by UMANY seniors and also the current members. They ask if you want to join, then I join. Then, I was elected directly as a President, even though I don’t have any kind of membership before this. Because during that time, I was outspoken about AUKU during a lot of public occasions, and during the intervarsity debate. I also raised why we need to abolish AUKU and Chinese media cover about it lah. And they see me as I can be a president for UMANY, given my organisational and leadership skills, back in PBCUM. So, I did that. So, I tried to get those who are interested in politics and also student activism, and ask them to join as a new member. So, I start off from scratch. But I realised that this is opportunity for us to speak up during that time, because there’s a change of government in 2018.

So, roughly, which month, which year, were you elected?

I joined UMANY in 2018, but it’s after the election. But my society was suspended before the election. There are two organisation being suspended. One is PBCUM, and other one is the PMIUM, Persatuan Mahasiswa Islam Universiti Malaya. Because we have a long history, whereby we are very vocal and outspoken about politics and social issues. So, the so-called reason (not complying with rules) that we see is just a mere reason for them to shut down our organisation.

So, the government changed, and then you became President?

Yeah, I became President. And I see this as opportunity. During that time, Maszlee Malik appointed himself as the President of IIUM. So, that’s why I think a lot of student activists disagree about this. Because we don’t think it is appropriate- if you are the one [who are] against the political appointment, why do you want to appoint yourself as president? And you are the minister of education. And there will be a lot of conflict of interest. First of all, in terms of allocation of budget, whether you will allocate more for the UIA, but not for the other public universities? So, it doesn’t go that way, even though they say they want to make some reform starting from UIA, but we disagree with that. First, about the political appointment. Second, about the conflict of interest. So, we go and participate in that, and we also part of it, Izzah, Azura, me, Amirah.

Let’s describe that first one where you took part. So, you took part in it as an organiser by then already?

Initially because Izzah and also Asheeq Ali was arrested during that time. And I was just being elected, so I decided to go there to show solidarity with them. So, this is where we get to know each other.

So, just to make sure I get the timeline, this is still 2018? This is after the government was elected, so probably August [or] September kan? Very recent. So, after that you got to know them, where did you meet them?

I met them outside the police station in Putrajaya. Because I was still new in student activism during that time, so I decided to show solidarity because like what I said, you need to stand up for the oppressed, or else you will be the one being taken action. So, I decided to go there to stand in solidarity with them, and I met Azura, Amirah, Asheeq Ali and also the Malaysia Muda founder, Fadiah (Nadwa). So, we decided to do a follow-up action first, to have a conversation with Maszlee Malik. Then, second part is we decided to do more about the AUKU part lah. So, this is where we met and we start organise things. Like I also participate with Azura in the Gerakan Pembebasan Akademik. Also, Gerakan Pembebasan Akademik is kind of a loose coalition to try to get around the student activist groups together, to ask for the abolition of AUKU, because AUKU restrict a lot of freedoms. That’s why people are not being critical. So, I decided to take part on it and-

As an individual or the organisation?

Organisational members in Gerakan Pembebasan Akademik. And why we started out is after the release of Asheeq Ali and also Izzah, we have a breakfast and we discussed. We think we need to re-organise the student movement right now. So, I get involved in it, and also we take opportunity when we are speaking to Maszlee. We say [that] if let’s say you want to do the reform, the first reform you can do is to return autonomy to the students, to hold the election by ourselves. Because before this, the campus election was controlled by the adminstration and not transparent. And I think during that day Maszlee Malik immediately announce that they will give the autonomy back to the students to run election. Because I think they want to divert attention from his appointment as IIUM president and where he has a conflict with Asheeq Ali. He want to show that actually, I’m open about discussion and actually, I’m a reformist. So, this is what we do. So, we take the opportunity to push for student autonomy to be revived to hold campus election by ourseleves.

So, we start up in UM, we write memorandum, we say what should be done, who should be in election committee, the structure of EC and how a clean and fair election should be implemented. So, we give a lot of suggestions. We even send someone to participate in it. So, we do a lot of reform lah. And UM successfully to hold the first campus election, which was hold by the student. This is where we see the reform. Also, I was being appointed as the Ahli Jawatankuasa Teknikal Mansuh AUKU, by the MOHE. So, after that, because Jawatankuasa Teknikal Mansuh AUKU is kind of like the top jawatankuasa, but there’s a different branches. So, I also joined the branches, which is the Jawatankuasa Mahasiswa. So, we organised talks, forums, as well as workshop, to gather the MPPs, and to talk about the abolition of AUKU lah. And with the academicians, administrations, and the others, we successfully draft a policy papers about why we want to abolish AUKU, and how we’re going to move into the next stage. To have a new higher education act [that] is more comprehensive, and more protective, instead of like right now, which is restrictive and regressive.

Okay, great. So, does that summarise everything you’ve done up until the pandemic?

No. So, this is part of the student movement that I joined, it’s to participate in advocacy part to abolish AUKU lah. I did a lot of things during my last year [of university]. So, after the student election, campus election was done, I just realised that- you remember there’s a by-election, and Najib start to come back with the “malu apa bossku” tagline? So, I was wondering why he can try to whitewash himself, but people are buying the narrative. So, that’s why I think it’s quite hypocrite for him to say that “malu apa bossku” at the same time, because he said he want to stand up for the students. He said about the B40. During that time, because there was a report about the B40 students have to eat nasi bujang, with white rice and also telur mata to survive in the campus. So, he raised about it in public statement or something like that. But I think he’s quite hypocrite because first of all, he’s the one involved in corruption, he steal the money and during his time as PM and Finance Minister, there’s a cut in our university budget.

Yan Ke and UMANY members protesting Najib’s comments about B40 youths.

During that days, they try to de-fund the public university. So, that’s why the students suffer. And because of that, university has to change their policy whereby they get the direct intake. However, given the limitation of current facility, I mean that the supply is not enough, but there are a lot of students [who] are coming in, their demands are high. So, that’s why I think he is hypocrite about that. And also I think we need to spoke out against the not only hypocrisy, but as well as the culture, whereby a politicians who allegedly involved in corruption, can whitewashing himself, by just saying the “malu apa bossku”.

So, that’s why I decided to stand up and I bring the UMANY members. I also ask the others lah. Because even though UMANY members mostly are Chinese, even though there are Indians and Malays, but is smaller number. But I try to ask the allies as well. Ask Azura, the others as well, whether you can come to UM, because they have a forum at Restoran Amjal. So, I asked them to come together, let’s protest about “malu apa bossku”. But no one came, just some of them UMANY members joined the protest. So, I also contacted Fahmi Reza to see whether he can share with us his design, the caricature of Najib, or whatsoever. So, I decided to hold the caricature, but I think less than two minutes, or less than five minutes, immediately the UMNO people came and tear down the caricature and also to manhandle me about that. But do I need to describe the preparation on it?

A little bit. I mean, that one roughly when did that happen?

March 2019.

So, during that period, UMANY had already like members who confident, I think? Were UMANY members already in UMSU by then?

Yes. We are sort of part of the student government already. And we have quite a lot of student rep during at time. I forgot to say because before that we were being oppressed. So, when I joined as a UMANY member, I successfully bring the other student activist groups in UM to come together as a team during the election.

Who are the others?

Angkatan Mahasiswa and Demokrat. So, I am the founder for Suara Siswa. So, I successfully bring the team and win the campus election lah. So, we successfully become the student government during that day. But for the Najib case, I think a day or two days after the campus election.

And then you decided to do this?

Yeah. Najib initially want to enter into campus, but I disagree with it. After that, I’m not sure why Najib cannot enter, then they switch it to Restoran Amjal.

Where did you do the protest exactly?

At the bus stop outside the Restoran Amjal.

Okay, so the university couldn’t get you there also, because it’s not university grounds, right?

Yes. So, I decided to do that.

How many people?

I think it’s seven or eight but all are UMANY members. But even I tried to get some activist group from the other, they cannot make it. I think there are two or three from Angkatan Mahasiswa, they want to come, but was bit late because it’s right after solat Jumaat. They came but during that time I was being manhandled, and the SB, and also the police, decided to drag me back into the campus because they don’t want any conflict to be happen. They don’t want to have any kind of fighting. But when I was being manhandled, I don’t want to leave, actually. I want to show that non-violence can fight against the violence. If I left, it means like we decided to compromise with violence. But however, I was still being dragged by the police and SB. But after that, I was being sent to police station. I think during that day, Lokman Adam was there manhandled me, as well as the UMNO members. I think Jamal Yunos was also there. But I think during that day, he caught a public attention about-

Yan Ke being physically attacked by Lokman Adam and others.

Was the press there?

Yeah, I think Malaysia Kini was there. So, they heard some noise downstairs, they immediately go down, and the journalist was being harassed by the UMNO members as well. So, there were scratches around their arms, and also they want them to delete the video.

So that would be the first protest you organised?

Yeah. And was being manhandled and I was sent to police station after that, and taken statement. Initially, I thought I will be charged, or being arrest, or whatsoever. But actually, they want to press charges against Lokman Adam and UMNO people. But after that, I also received, what we call, of course, from university, from the HEPA TNC, Timbalan Naib Chancellor. And he’s good. He say I give you the ground to do that, but please be careful. And he said they are also concerned about our safety. But during that day, if not mistaken, Maszlee Malik also issue a statement, stand in solidarity with the students.

He wants to see reformist?

Not only reformist but also because I stand against UMNO. So, later I will explain why there’s a difference.

So, that was your first experience. That one turned out well because you happen to be on the right side, and there was media to cover.

Yeah. And also, I’m quite surprised that after that, I think Najib want to do a roadshow around the country about the “malu apa bossku”. I think it also inspired youth leaders to do the same thing.

Where was that? Do you remember where they replicated it?

I’m not sure the correct location, but I remember there are several protests after that, during the Najib roadshow about “malu apa bossku”. But however, I think I’m quite regret about something because first of all, we don’t know Najib is he going to come into the campus, or outside the campus. We only know on that day itself. So, I was preparing in rush. I’m the one who [is] typing the placard. The caricature I took I think on that day, from Fahmi Reza, from his house. Then, the other one is I print the placard; very simple one with the slogan, etc. But it’s not me, it’s my friend holding the placard. Because it’s preparing in rush, so I misspelled that. And people question whether we are the citizen of Malaysia. How come we cannot master a very simple language? And is it because we are Chinese? But during that day, before I was being manhandled, I was being humiliated. The UMNO people say I‘m DAP and communist. I’m the Chinese pig, something like that lah. A lot of being maki lah, basically. Yeah, this is what I experienced. So, after that, I think the next protest is the one that I organise by myself, during the convocation protest.

So that would have been roughly in July [or] August? Graduation period?

Yeah, during the graduation period. I think the day when I collect my jubah is whereby the Malay Dignity Congress.

You didn’t participate in anything else yea?

Yeah, because we received news from Student Union whereby the university is going to hold a Malay Dignity Congress at somewhere else, but we don’t know where until it happened. We read the news. So, I decided to protest during the convocation. First of all, because in my graduation, there’s a message that will appear on the screen whenever you walk up the stage. So, I write mansuh AUKU and also vice chancellor to step down as the incompetent leader. Because before that when the budget was cut, during the tabling of budget, I think before that Mahathir came to our campus. And we decided to submit a memorandum to him. However, we were being stopped and almost being arrest by the police. But only when the Timbalan Naib Chancellor, the HEPA guy, he came and stop them, and say [that] they are our students, please do not do that. But during that day, VC saw us, but instead of like helping us to bring up the issue of budget allocation part, because actually we are helping the university to get more margin, he doesn’t want to speak about that. And we tried to schedule a lot of meetings and to meet him, to discuss about the student issue, he’s being unresponsive.

So, for several occasion, we found out that he doesn’t really care about our university affair, and also student affairs. So, I decided to write that communication message, but it was being censored. So, they say I cannot do this. And I saw that he was involved in the Malay Dignity Congress and say something [that] is quite racist, which I think is about he try to make Chinese as the lawan dalam bayangan, the so-called boogeyman. In terms of economic perspective. Then, the second part is say hak dan kuasa yang seharusnya milik kita, and kita refers to Malay. Hak politik yang seharusnya milik kita. Then, also mention that the Malay should be the dominance, Malay should have these political powers. So, I was thinking it’s racist because we are the citizens. First of all, you shouldn’t say about the dominance. We are equal. Second of all, it seems like we are the citizens, but we have no say, and no rights, in terms of politics. So, I’m so upset and angry.

And during that time, I decided to reflect it to Student Union, and also to reflect it with my Timbalan Naib Chancellor from HEPA. I asked him to pass a message to him to the VC and say even though you are not stepping down, but at least you need to issue a public apology. And no one know that you actually use the name of University of Malaya to attend and also to organise this Malay Dignity Congress. I think it’s a disgrace to UM. And I spoke to some of the academicians, and even the lecturer are also asking whether UMANY is going to start up any protest or not. They were expecting something from us. But I try to talk with my student activist friend to see whether they want to do that, but they don’t want to do that because they say they’re parents are there. They can do a lot of things without the presence of the parents, but when the parents are there, they think it’s better not to do that. Because initially, I start up to saying we should all do this, either to pull an X, you don’t need to shout anything, no need to take any placard, you just put an act as a show of protest towards the involvement. So, I do all this and no one’s joining me, even though there’s my classmate who’s also part of UMANY, he didn’t do that because he was afraid when he went up to the stage.

So, I talked to my friend and I talked to my seniors. Initially, I want to do my protest [whereby] I will stand up there, I don’t want to go down until I was being dragged by the people. It will be very dramatic lah. But after that, I decided to do only like 10 second protest, which is to shout the slogan and go back to my original seat. Because first of all, I don’t want to disrupt the ceremony and because I think the student will hate me a lot if I do that. So, I just do the 10 second protest and decided to come down. But what I did is first I tried to convince for more people to join the protest, but they don’t want to do that. But I told my coursemate that I will going to do that. So, I wrote it on a placard and I put it inside the gown. When I receive the scroll, when I go to the stage in front of VC, I took out the placard and I show it to the public and say “tolak rasis,undur VC, tolak rasis, undur VC, ini tanah Malaysia”, because Zainal claimed during the Malay Dignity Congress, he mentioned “ini adalah Tanah Melayu” so I want to counter the narrative saying that this is Malaysian land, instead of Malay land.

Yan Ke holding his protest placard at his graduation.

Did you tell your parents it’s going to happen? Were they supportive?

Yes. My father is fine with me doing that. He said you know what you are going to do. So, please do expect what are coming for you lah, the consequences, etc. But my mom was trying to stop me. So, I’m quite disobedient. So, I told her either she came for my convocation and sit there, or she can wait outside, or she can choose not to come at all. So, I give them some alerts but she want to witness how I receive the scroll, so she decided to remain in hall. But after, that my mom told me that her heart skip a beat. But after that, I told my parents why I need to do so. Because I say in a democratic world, it seems like people tried- I asked did you agree with what my VC do, for the Malay Dignity Congress? She said she disagree. So, when we disagree with something, why can’t we speak up for ourselves? Why do we always tend to become a free rider in the democracy whereby we expect someone to do this.

So, actually there are a lot of parents [which] they applaud for what I do. But when you go back to whether their children can do that, they rejected it. The parents of my friends, they celebrate it. So, I said please know my stand, and why I want to do this; my justification. And they accept it lah, at the end. So, nothing happened. I was being taken statement, and my scroll was being hold by the university, initially. And they told me that because my certificate is dirty, there are ink stains on my certificate. So, that’s why they will hold it. Then, I ask can you print it right now or when can I get it? They say we can’t give any kind of dates because without any orders from pihak atasan. So, when this was out, I think there are some MPs would disagree with my action. However, they said I deserve my scroll, including Prof Gurdial Singh. So, he said when I finish my study, consider I graduate, I deserve the scroll, my academic transcript, because I excel in the examination. It’s not because the disciplinary issue, something like that.

So, at the end, you did get your scroll?

I did get but after the public opinion and pressure from the public. So, I really appreciate that actually. From CSO, NGO as well as the public. And I think the Board of Director also issue a statement. And during that time, I just realised that the university administration actually lodge a police report against me. 

And now you’re still facing charges for that?

Yeah. I was charged during the [Langkah] Sheraton period. I’m not sure whether it’s a deep state or what, I really don’t know about that. Because I think the convocation is on 14th of October 2019, but I was being charged in February 2020.

Okay. Before the pandemic, before Sheraton?

Yeah, during Sheraton but before the lockdown. So, I was being charged, then I’m quite surprised because it has been like months without any news. I thought everything was settled. So, I’m quite surprised. But however, SUARAM did provide some legal aid for me, they got a lawyer to represent me in the court, etc. But it was being keep on delaying or postponed because of the pandemic. Then, after that, the prima facie case was found against me, then I enter into a defence trial. But during the prosecution stage, you will just realise how this system being discriminatory towards the non-Malays, and also to the students. There are 13 witnesses, but 11 witnesses are the university administration. So, you can observe this lah.

So, I think you’ve described that protest, I think that you are well-known for good reasons, I think the CSO circles, we will remember it for a long time. So, what was your involvement from the Sheraton, all the way up to-

During the Sheraton, I think we organised with Azura, Fadiah, etc. You remember there’s a himpunan at the Dataran Merdeka. We are the one who start out, even though there’s a no names, because we want to make it like a Hong Kong kind of things, whereby there shouldn’t be a leader. It’s a leaderless movement. So, we did it, and we’ve been called for public assembly.

So, you were one of the people called?

Yeah, I’m being called with Fadiah, Azura, and Yang Hong.

And at that point, again, you were there as UMANY?

As organiser as well. We are leaderless lah. But we prepare the speakers, also we prepare the candles, we prepare the gimmick, demokrasi mati, something like that. And politicians kill them, bunuh democracy, something like that. Then, we are the one [who] prepare the logistic for the microphone, hailer, etc. So, we are the one in charge of it. But because it’s leaderless, I think it’s quite effective as well. Because we know what we want to do, so each role was given, even though it’s short period of time. But we successfully get at least hundreds of people. But during that day, we are quite- why we did that [is] because I think there’s a discussion at BERSIH, whereby they say it’s better for us to wait and observe first. Let the politician to do that work. But the youth are really angry about this, because we say we should [be] the one who determined for our future. We shouldn’t let it for the politician to decide. So, we decided to took a step further during that day. Oh, and that one is the day before I was being charged at the court. I remember that because Kak Fadiah mentioned in the stage saying that solidarity with me. Then, after that, I think we did twice. There are two assemblies.

And then after that, was a lockdown already lah.

Yes. And we find it very difficult to organise the people. Because even for ourselves, I was jobless [at] that time. Because I just finished my fellowship at Gamuda, I decided to join either NGO and become a researcher in some think tank. But because of my background as a civil engineering student, no one want to accept me, until I met Charles Santiago. So, after having interview, he said, I’m quite aware about the social and economic issues, that’s why he bring me in. So, after that I joined SUARAM. I become a research officer to his parliamentary office, but even though I was part of his NGO lah. But focus about more towards social protection, rental, and health issue, etc. So, it’s quite different from what I’m normally doing in university, because it’s more to the public policy and politics. So, SUARAM is related to me because they help [me] doing [my] case, and also because the human rights abuse cases, so I try to draw a link, like the torture cases that happened towards our leaders [in] PBCUM. So, when I joined SUARAM, it’s like I’m not coming in as a newbie, but I know something, and I handle cases, and I know the criminal procedure code, etc. So, it’s quite okay lah.

So, why I decided to move from a parliamentary office to SUARAM is because I think first of all, I need some autonomy for my time. Because if you are following a politicians, there’s no time for you to do your NGO work, or doing something related closely to my heart, which [is] human rights. So, that time I was asking whether there’s a vacancy and immediately, there is a vacancy because [someone] is leaving. So, it was coincidence for me to join SUARAM. And before SUARAM and during SUARAM that day, I joined Lawan as part of the participants and the organiser as well. Lawan is before I joined SUARAM but Turun is when I joined SUARAM. So, before I join SUARAM, I didn’t play an active role because- okay, I’m very close to Azura, Izzah, all of them. So, we are working on different issue but because why we are not joining the lawan deeply, because i think it was handled by Mat, Qyira, Asraf. So, I’m more towards like a supporting roles, like when they need the marshal, I will go for that, etc. Also, when we were arrested for the candle light vigil, I was there.

You were one of the people in the back?

Yeah. And it was so ridiculous because we just joined it for 10 to 15 minutes.

I mean from other interviewees, I think we heard that no one expected to get arrested because the event before, according to most people, the one with thousands of people in the street, no arrests.

Yes, no arrest for Lawan protest before. It shows the power of people who turned up. The more we are, the stronger the solidarity bond, and police will not be able to arrest all of us. So, for the Lawan, it’s more towards that I’m the uh marshal to help control the security, etc.

Were you able to help draw in the people you worked with back in the student days?

Yes, we did. So, there are some university students would join the protest as well. During that day, I’m flooded with a lot of work and it’s not related to NGO. If I’m working at SUARAM, of course I will get involved deeply inside lah. But because I have some work with the parliamentary office, and during the pandemic time is we are distributing foods, and organising a vaccination program, etc. So, I’m become one of the person-in-charge to liaise with the student groups lah. Then, after that for Turun, I helped with the security part. So basically, I’m replacing Mat lah, you can say that. Replacing Mat, and provide the legal support for the security, as well as I brief them, I give a training for them before the protest.

So, a lot of the supporting roles in Lawan. Were you part of the main committee? The big one?

No. Because I cannot commit. But I’m part of the big group – Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat. 

So, I think that summarises your protest repertoire, because again, about to run over time already. So, I think this is the part where I think I want you to reflect a bit about the effectiveness of the protests and I think sort of your ideas of what protest was. So, is it safe to say that when you did the placard on stage to protest the Vice Chancellor, you thought of it as a type of protest, even if it’s one person?

Yeah, solo protest.

You considered it a protest lah?

Yeah. Even though it’s 10 seconds. I think protest is where people can speak out freely, express themselves freely about certain ideas, or they want to stand up against some issue. So, why I think protest is a true necessity, because first of all, in a electoral democracy it seems like people can only be the boss or to decide for their future during the election, but I think during, throughout, after election, until the next election, the long period of time, things may happen. Politician may be corrupted, or the policy may not suit to our point of view, etc. So, I think protest can be a part of it for us to reflect the discontent or the feelings about this. And I think it’s necessary to keep those in power accountable, or else they will just do whatever they want. So, I think freedom of expression is very important in that sense. And for the powerless to speak against those in power.

Yan Ke with members of Malaysia Muda.

And I just want you to reflect, do you think that particular action was effective or not effective?

I think it depends on the protest that we did. I think for right now, maybe for the major protest like HINDRAF or BERSIH, I think it create a lot of impacts.

I mean, just reflect on the one you did against the Vice Chancellor. What do you think the impact was?

The mere impact is to leave up [to] discussion. And I think during that time, people start to reflect, is it right or wrong for the Vice Chancellor to get involved in this? They will start to talking about whether it’s the political puppet towards the government. And I think during that time, they are moot competition happening in UM. Siti Kassim and another lawyer decided to quit as a judge for that mooting competition in UM. And I think I successfully create some momentum for some alumni to speak up about the issue. I think they did a lot some small protests like protest email. Discussion was there. But am I successfully to get Vice Chancellor to step down? No, it’s not effective at all. But the purpose of doing that protest is I think that there’s a pin silence in this issue. So, my intention is to bring out the discussion about the accountability of Vice Chancellor, and to bring out the issue why academician and lecturer has to rely on students to protest, when they disagree with the action of Vice Chancellor. So, I talk about AUKU things, etc.

But I don’t think it’s sustainable, because it should be a movement lah. Solo protest won’t be successful. It only create a spark for public discussion or public discourse, but it only lasts for maybe a week, two weeks, but after that, if there’s another major event happen in our country, attention will be diverted into different issues. And why I think we need to do more protest [is] because democracy is about public participation. We need to get people to get involved and our role right now, NGO, and others activists, is how to draw the line, how to make the issue related or close to people’s heart. This is what we need to do lah. The awareness campaign, to make them related, I think this will help the messaging part. Because in Malaysia, I think the voters are quite comfortable at where they are. I think it’s the current dynamic in our electoral democracy, because people think that you vote, you assign someone to do the work for you, that’s all.

So, now looking back on doing the placard, do you think you were being strategic, or do you think there was a better way of doing what you did, in terms of protest strategies? Because obviously when you ask people, they suggested alternatives. They say do outside, maybe someone may have even suggested [to] do right outside of campus so that the university can’t get you. But now, when you look back, because you got so much attention, the press picked it up, people appreciated what you did, do you still think it was the best?

I think for this few events, I think it’s still the best way to do that. First of all, if you didn’t do the protest inside the convocation, in front of the Vice Chancellor, Vice Chancellor might not even- I’m not sure whether it reflect itself lah, but at least it caught his attention to think about this. Because the purpose of doing this protest is make people to think right and to spoke out about this issue, or else it will die down. So, the protest is first to create a conversation. So, I think if I do it outside the campus, or do it outside the convocation, it may not generate the public opinion on this issue. So, I think in that sense, even though it’s short term, it’s not sustainable, but at least we successful to bring out this issue. But the thing that I fight against with is the racism. And the racism is a structural issue that we are experiencing right now. And I really agree that it cannot stop by only protesting. We need to do more academic research, we need to do more discussion, events, awareness. There’s a reform in education to change the narrative and also the perspective towards racism, especially like the ketuanan Melayu, etc.

So, this is what I think is lack of in my protest. Because what I can do better, maybe we can think about if I have resources, I will think about what to do next, to make sure the issue doesn’t die down. Talk about more serious issue, which the structural issue. And the AUKU problem. Same go to Najib one. I think I successfully generate some public opinion towards the “malu apa bossku”. But you’ll always find some limitation, when it comes to NGO and CSO, whereby our movement always restricted by limited fund and resources, and also manpower. So, in order to create something like BERSIH, we need to invest more time and energy in organising our own grassroot- and I think right now the government start to learn something, whereby they tried to avoid outright confrontation with civil society, but they will do some operation or intimidation, they do it on the targeted issue or small community, whereby they make people doesn’t feel related to it, and people won’t participate in the bigger movement. So, this is some limitation that we face right now.

Yan Ke in front of the police station as among those questions during the Lawan-related protests

I think we should close up just a bit on how participating in these things, and I think some of the big one was BERSIH 5, maybe Teoh Beng Hock, your protest, like how did you think all of this affected the way you [are] as a person today? How has being involved in all these actions, affected you personally, in terms of how you think about the world, how you carry yourself, your personality?

I would say because until right now, I always attend for the memorial for Teoh Beng Hock when I come to KL. I’ll go to the praying session, and go to the memorial organised by the trust for democracy for Teoh Beng Hock. Because I come to his age right now, whereby is almost 30, but he was killed by the state. So, it impacted me a lot is you can see there’s some slight changes in not only opinion but also in terms of my action. Before this, I will tend to lay low because I don’t want to get trouble, even though I was aware about what’s happening. But right now, I was maybe the front liners, in terms of when it comes to the human rights issue or democracy issue.

So, how it changed me is like maybe the quote I say to my mom, is whenever we want some change or reform, we always rely or expect someone to do something. But I think it shouldn’t be that way because if everyone wants to become the free rider in the democratic society, nothing will be changed; this is the first thing. The second part is when I’m working in SUARAM, handling cases, we just realise that sometimes you are quite compassion fatigue because there are a lot of issue happening around, that you think like your space, or the resources that you have, or the energy that you have, are quite limited. However, what I learned during the SUARAM time is that we need to celebrate the small win. We celebrate more win and also to get more people. Instead of pushing people with angers, driving the force with angers, because sometimes we need to keep some hope for people in order to make it sustainable. So, we going to say actually we can do this, and we can achieve this and that. This is what I see if we wanna have a great reform in our country.

Okay, that’s a good way to sort of, almost close it up. But I think the last one is what would be your words of encouragement for the young people who will go on to be protest leaders [or] activists? What do you think is the lesson you want to give them?

I would say never underestimate yourself. Because when we say [that it’s] because I’m alone, I’m the only person who are concerned about this issue, that’s why I think my power might be not enough to raise out the voices, or etc. I would say don’t underestimate yourself because take one example, Ain Husniza, whereby imagine a girl that did a TikTok video, where it get viral, and she was successfully to advocate for the safety in the campus, or in the school. So, you never know what you did today, may create some impact on along the route or the milestone, for a certain advocacy and movement. So, just do whatever you think is right and correct. And make sure you empower the people when you are advocating the issue. You need to get more people to involve in that.