Ngeow Chow Ying is a lawyer, former treasurer and acting executive director of BERSIH, and an executive committee member of the Anti-Death Penalty Asian Network (ADPAN). Having joined the first three Bersih rallies as an ordinary participant, she became a core member of the logistics team in Bersih 4 and 5 rallies – helping from behind the scenes to set up the stage, sound system, charging ports, tents, and, crucially, toilets. She joined a campaign 10 years ago to save the life of a young man sentenced to death for drug trafficking and has since become an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. She is now the convenor for Projek SAMA, an initiative to advocate for institutional reforms for the sake of political stability and accountability. 

Can you tell us about yourself and what your environment was like growing up?

I’m Chow Ying. I grew up in a comfortable middle class family. My dad is a lawyer. My grandparents came from China and they built a small business here doing Chinese medications. When I was born, my dad was actually in the UK doing his law [degree] so I was brought up by my grandparents. My dad came back when I was three or four years old and he started his practice.

Of course when we were young, we didn’t know what he was doing. But as I grew older, I understood that he was a social activist as well when he was a lawyer. He helped a lot of the ISA (Internal Security Act 1960) detainees and he was active in the Chinese education movement.

Both my primary and high schools are in Chinese independent schools. So throughout my 12 years of education, I was in a very Chinese environment. The friends that I have are all Chinese. I have a Malay neighbour but other than that, I don’t really have a lot of friends from different races and cultures. So this is the environment that I grew up in.

After that, I came out of college and started doing hotel management. I think at that time, I was really lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and some of my friends were like “Okay, let’s go do this hotel management course.” So I went and did one and a half years of hotel management diploma and worked for almost a year in the frontdesk. That was where I saw a lot of funny things, honestly. Then I realised that this is not the life I want, so I took up law. I studied in the UK, came back and did my CLP (​​Certificate in Legal Practice) and got called to the bar.

When did you start getting into social activism?

I think it was when I came back and practised law. Around the mid-2000s, I joined this study group that was organised by the Chinese society alumni of USM, and the main guy was (Liau) Kok Fah. They run a library in the Tan Clan Association opposite the Chinese Assembly Hall. There is a temple and they actually run a library inside there. They conduct social and political short-term, 12-week courses on certain social issues like refugee issue, constitutional issue, human rights. I joined those – it’s a paid course, but it’s very cheap, maybe RM200 for the 12-week course. The group consisted of about 10-20 people and we met people like Josh Hong talking about refugees. That is where I started to know all the friends that are in the circle. 

Then in the 13th General Election (GE13), Tian Chua contested in Batu for the second time. My dad and him are friends, so a day before the Nomination, he called me and said, “Can you be my election agent?” So I became his campaign agent or whatever it’s called. That is where I started to also be aware of politics and elections and things like that. 

I also became the Vice-Chair of the Civil Rights Committee of the Chinese Assembly Hall and Kok Fah is the Chairperson. So that is the first platform that I joined to go into social movements, and it started with the anti-death penalty issues. I remember I was in the court and (Chen) Shau Fui, she was the Merdeka Review reporter and our good friend, she called me and said that there’s this case in Singapore. A young Malaysian boy was sentenced to death, but they were opening up a review because of some prejudgement issue of natural justice and things like that. She asked, “Would you like to take it up?” I said yeah and we met up with the lawyer, Mr Ravi, and then talked to the committee and they all said, “Yeah, we should help this boy.” So we took up the campaign in Malaysia.

Chow Ying in a protest against the death penalty.

How did you get more involved in the social movement and NGO scenes?

I got to know people like Wong Chin Huat, friends of a friend of a friend and then we all got together and became close. So the Yong Vui Kong campaign, he is really the one that is also helping me to think about strategy, slogan, what are the things that we need. He was really coaching me and also another friend of mine called Tan Hui Chun, and [we had] the backing of the Civil Rights Committee members. So we do road shows and get people to sign petitions. I went to Singapore, we did media interviews, we went to the hometown of Vui Kong, we did video, asked people to sign the petitions and somehow it went really all around the world. I remember on the last day when we say there’s a closing deadline after which we can’t receive anymore because the next day, we have to go to Singapore and submit the petition. During that time, it’s not just like where you sign a petition with a click. You have to sign and then you have to fax. So I remember we were in the Chinese Assembly Hall that night, the fax machine was running non-stop. People were just sending in the petition forms, it was really touching. I didn’t realise that it could actually go that far, to be honest, so that was quite an experience for me. After that, I was involved in this anti-death penalty movement and joined the regional network.

In terms of my other social movement involvement, the Civil Rights Committee was involved in the Teoh Beng Hock case at the beginning. The Committee is one of the founding members of TBH (Teoh Beng Hock Trust for Democracy). Somehow, political involvement wasn’t my thing. I tried to help Tian Chua in his service centre but it is not a calling that I feel I want to do lah. So I slowly just faded away from the politics side and focused on the civil rights movement.

Chow Ying at a press conference with Teoh Beng Hock Trust for Democracy

I also joined BERSIH 1 and it was my first protest. I don’t know how I joined it, but I remember we were walking under the rain towards the palace. I went with my friend Tan Soo Shing. Later, the BERSIH 2 rally, that one is very violent. I remember that one is the one that they don’t allow us to wear yellow t-shirts and they checked our bags for yellow t-shirts. We were trapped in Tung Shin Hospital.

So you were one of those that were trapped in Tung Shin Hospital? Did you witness the tear gas being fired?

Yes, tear gas and the water cannons. I’m one of the people that was trapped inside that area, front and back were blocked out. That was my second protest. I was just a participant, not involved in any of the organising.

We actually booked a hotel room the night before in a hotel behind the Chinese Assembly Hall, so a few of us crammed into the room. Then in the middle of night, there was a message that the police were going around to the hotel room knocking and asking people whether they got yellow t-shirts. So everybody was like panic lah, hiding the t-shirts and everything but it didn’t happen. Not to us at least. It was just fear mongering.

It’s interesting because you are the first one we spoke to who was at the Tung Shin Hospital during Bersih 2 rally, where there was a big uproad about tear gas being fired into the hospital. Can you tell us more about what you remember that day?

The night before, everybody was in a room and we were like very kan cheong (nervous), checking messages and everything. My grandfather called me and asked, “Are you okay?” He probably knows that I’m going for the protest but he doesn’t want to say anything. He just said be careful ah, tomorrow you better watch out for yourself. So it’s quite touching lah that your grandfather would call you.

The next day, we went out to Petaling Street to eat breakfast very early because we were worried. We weren’t wearing the yellow t-shirts yet, but we were just walking and roaming around Petaling Street. The protest was at 2.00 pm and around 11am something, we started to see Petaling Street getting filled with a lot of people. And then somehow, when the time came, everyone managed to really gather in the Jalan Sultan area. I had a friend with me as well. This girl is a very corporate person and I don’t know why she suddenly wanted to join, but she and I walked together.

I can’t remember how I ended up in the Tung Shin Hospital area but I remember when they shot the tear gas, we were trying to hide behind the carpark. There were a lot of cars parking there and we were hiding in the back. And then we saw a lot of people running to Tung Shin Hospital, so we also ran. There were a lot of police and tear gas was everywhere. So we ran to Tung Shin Hospital but it was all closed up, we could not go in. The hospital closed the gate. But I understand that it’s a hospital and they don’t want the tear gas to go in.

Did anybody try to climb the gate or anything?

No. Because they were already closed, we didn’t try to go inside to the emergency area. But the outside area, which is open space, is really full of people. We witnessed all the police that stormed in and tried to grab people and do the arrest. Not in the hospital, but right outside it in the car park area.

Me and a few of my friends were just sitting at the corner because we were so tired already and all wet from the water cannons. Somehow, the police didn’t come to kacau but I saw from where we were hiding that they really just stormed in, grabbed and pulled the people away.

Did they beat up the people?

Not really. They grabbed people very roughly and walked away. So then, of course we don’t know what to do and we don’t know whether we should go out, eventually we just walked out and we saw there was some kind of negotiation. People are telling us don’t worry, the protest leader is negotiating, we just have to wait here and it will be done, he will open a place for us to walk out and things like that. A lot of rumours so we were just waiting lor. And I think there was rain also, so it’s very chaotic.

What happened after you attended the Bersih 2 rally?

I also went to BERSIH 3 as a participant. I think it was peaceful until after everyone dispersed. I was already on the way home when I got calls telling me that police are arresting people on the street who are still roaming around. In the Petaling Street area, there was a rumour being spread that police officers were beaten up by the protesters which made the police become so angry.

For BERSIH 1, 2 and 3 protests, you were an ordinary participant. Walk us through how your role changed for the BERSIH 4 rally.

I don’t know how it started, but I think Hui Chun and (Yap) Swee Seng took up the logistics organizing for BERSIH 4. They needed a team, so I agreed to join because they are my good friends. BERSIH 4 is the one that we stayed for 36 hours right? I remember Hui Chun told me that after she joined the BERSIH 4 organising meeting, she realised that there is one big thing that is missing, which is logistics. No one wants to take up the logistics part, so she spoke to Swee Seng and to Thomas (Fann) and she said, “let’s do it. Let’s gather a team and do the logistics.” Because it is a 36 hour protest, we do need to consider a lot of things. The team is actually quite small, 5-6 us in the core team and then there’s more volunteers.

So we were looking at a few areas. First is of course the stage. I think BERSIH 1, 2, and 3 didn’t have a big stage, people just berdiri atas and used loud hailers. But because you want to do 36 hours for BERSIH 4, you do need to have a stage, right? So we looked for the sound system and everything. That is one part. Then the second part is the medic. They need medical tents, so we need to prepare the medical tents and also the things that they require. They will give us a list of what they need: fans, chairs, tents, etc so we have to look for those things. The third thing is, because it’s 36 hours, they want to provide water for the Muslims to wash their hands for prayers [ablution], so we need to arrange for a huge tank to go into the protest streets. And of course, toilets are a big issue! Where do we put all the toilets? And then, we need to distribute drinking water. We even had to think about how people can communicate because if you are there for 36 hours, you have to have a place to charge [your device]. That thing with a lot of plugs in BERSIH’s office, it was actually DIY-made for BERSIH 4 so that we can find a plug and share it for people to charge their phone.

With the logistics team on the eve of Bersih 4 rally (Chow Ying with walkie talkie)

So we think through everything holistically for the things that we need, organise the volunteers, which includes volunteers that direct traffic, tell people where to go, where is the toilet and then picking up rubbish, distributing the rubbish bags and everything.We recruited about 80-100 volunteers, but more people joined in later to collect rubbish and stuff. I remember the guy who supplied the audio equipments for the main stage. A political person who really supports BERSIH and he has like, a five-ton lorry. At the same time, we were told that we need to prepare Hilux in different locations also, so we have to really look into things like the loudspeaker, who is going to drive the Hilux, where would the Hilux be placed and how would we set up the stage and everything. So we scouted the area and decided that the Hilux and the lorry had to come into the surrounding area the night before, so we placed them in some parking lot, covered. When the time comes, we will walkie talkie and get them to come out to the locations.

If I remember correctly, the main stage’s setup was a little bit delayed. I can’t remember why, but there was a little bit of delay and we couldn’t come in because the police were blocking the entrance. But our team was very gung ho. When the police weren’t looking, they just pushed away the cones and said “Come in, come in, come in!” So they quickly came in and set up the stage. That was during the second part of the day because we didn’t want to set it up earlier because we don’t know whether the police will come in like BERSIH 1, 2 and 3. We were worried that if we immediately set up the stage, there would be a risk of us being dispersed and not able to sustain the 36 hours. At the beginning, it was just the leaders talking and everything. The stage came in quite late in the evening. But the medic tent was set up on that day, in the morning itself.

This was a time before Whatsapp is widely used by everyone. So how do you organise and communicate with the volunteers?

We can’t always do an open/public call for volunteers so there were times when it mostly spread by word of mouth, friends of friends. We asked volunteers to come to the Chinese Assembly Hall at a certain time. Then, we divided them into groups. So first, we need to settle the volunteers for setting up the tents. Before that, we already purchased all the materials and placed them in the Chinese Assembly Hall. That’s why Chinese Assembly Hall is really the main logistic hub for BERSIH 4 and 5, we put everything there. The day they come, we organise them and tell them this is the location that you need to bring all these materials and set it up there. They have to find the way to set up all the tents that we bought. So they come in the morning, we have the map ready, and then we just divide them into groups and they just go.

A separate briefing was held for the Hilux and the lorries etc because the things they need to do are different. This group also is driven by this one biker saying he got his buddies and he says “I need a few Hilux” and these people all come together to do their thing. The Hilux is just a Hilux right, so we need to set up the speaker and everything. So they will drive the car to the Chinese Assembly Hall and we will set up the basic one, then we tell them what to do. We have a main guy who’s an electrician that helps us do all these things. So it is really all the volunteers and all the expertise from different areas that came together to make the magic happen.

So all these equipment and materials, how do you guys purchase them? Was there a sponsor?

Some of the things like loudspeakers, we bought them. Then we have the volunteers, like the electrician, the medic team, etc telling us what we should get. The money comes from the main BERSIH Committee, they give us money and we go and buy. The tents also we go and buy. In fact, I remember we went to Tesco and Carrefour to buy those blue tents that people use. We also went to Jalan Pasar and bought so many things with Swee Seng and other volunteers.

It seems like protest organising involves a lot of trust. You trust me to get the things you need to be able to do your duties, I trust you that the list you put up is correct and all…

Yes. You fix them, then they will find their kaki-kaki to help fix as well. Even making that box (DIY extension cord) takes so long and so many people just to make the box. I say I want this because we really want to not have the issue of people running around and looking for a place to charge their phones. So the one in the BERSIH office, it’s homemade one. Not buy. And that is just one, you know. We made so many for the tents, mainly the medic tents. Each medic tent will definitely have one so people can actually go there and charge.

DIY Extension Cord

And then, toilets! The main organiser said we need toilets. Initially we said “Aiya, you can go to the kopitiam lah.” But they say “No, we need toilets because it’s 36 hours. For cleanliness and hygiene purposes, we need toilets.” So okay fine, we’ll look for toilets. But you need to put the toilet somewhere, right? The portable toilets, we can rent no problem. But we need to put it somewhere and we need to put it the day before, because you cannot take care of the toilet on that day itself. So we were really struggling to find a place where we could put the toilet because if we put it a day before, then our location and plans would be exposed. So we wanted to put it in a private place and the best would be the church next to Dataran Merdeka. We go through some friends to try and get St Mary’s Church, but they can’t give us. It was quite a disappointment because the location was perfect for us. In the end, it was still a church that allowed us. The church on top of the hill near Jalan Masjid Jamek.

They allowed us to use the space to put the toilets there. But the thing is, the toilet is away from the main route of the protest, so people don’t know that there’s a toilet there. Initially, we placed one or two volunteers to help with toilet navigation, but a lot of people ended up organically becoming volunteers to say “Hey, we have a toilet here.” Things happened very organically, people who know that there’s a toilet, they sendiri buat placards and say there’s toilet there. So it was sorted out.

The last big thing is the huge water tank that needs to come in front of Dataran Merdeka for them to wash. The tank did not manage to come in because it is really big and the roads in the town are so small and narrow, the huge lorry couldn’t come in. I remember it’s me and Swee Seng in the command room where we kept communicating with the lorry driver. We were asking people, can you go there and see whether and which the road is big enough. I almost wanted to give up, it was too difficult, but Swee Seng is really persistent. He really asked people to go around and see whether this way can, whether that way can, looking at the map, looking at all this and try to have that tank come in. But eventually, it really cannot because it’s just too huge. I don’t know why we got such a big truck, but we didn’t order it. Someone sponsored it.

How big is it? Like the lorry tank carrying minyak Petronas?

Yeah! Can you imagine? Even if they can masuk, they just cannot turn. The Chee Cheong Kai (Petaling Street) area, the road is so narrow. We really tried our very best but really cannot. In the end, we just say the water tank has to go back out. So how do you wash your hands? We have a lot of sponsors of mineral water. So I think eventually, they used mineral water to wash hands for the prayers. And the mineral water sponsor is crazy. People just call and say I have hundreds of boxes, where should I send the mineral water to? Up to a stage where I really don’t know where to send them anymore because you need manpower to unload the water bottles. I think a big chunk of the last portion went to Chinese Assembly Hall, which filled up the whole area. People really wanted to contribute in whichever way they could for the protest, especially with sponsoring the water.

Is the command room in the Chinese Assembly Hall?

For logistics, yes but for security, I think it’s somewhere else. I don’t know where.

So the command room is broken up into different places?

Yes. Logistics is in the Chinese Assembly Hall because it is big and more strategic for us to move things.

If we were to give people a sense of the cost involved in organising a big protest and what kind of preparations are needed, what would your estimate be?

It’s very difficult to estimate, but I’m sure [the main committee] do have a financial account at that time. Maybe a ballpark figure could be around RM 80,000 but not for overall. Only for us logistics. And this is for a major rally, smaller ones will be less. In fact, the toilet also, we pay for the rent.

You underwent a drastic transition from an ordinary participant to someone organizing the logistics. What went through your mind during this big transition?

The fact that I was a participant in BERSIH 1, 2, 3, I felt very much involved in BERSIH in a sense. When I was asked to help out in logistics, I was very excited about it and it was my first time doing it. We wanted to do everything we can to make sure that the protest runs well and to take care of things that we need to take care of. So I don’t know what things ran through my mind, but I did feel that it is a commitment that I want to do and it’s something that I felt important to do.

On the day of the protest

Was there a point where you felt overwhelmed or anxious?

No lah actually. I was eager to do it because of the community and I see that everyone comes in, they need someone to organise them, they need someone to tell them what to do and we have already planned everything. And then, we can see that they themselves are so committed, so it becomes like a thing that we all do together.

So that was BERSIH 4. How about BERSIH 5?

Because BERSIH 4 and 5 were really led by the NGO and there were not really a lot of political parties (involved), they called us back to do BERSIH 5.

In BERSIH 5, we had two logistics hubs. One is still in the Chinese Assembly Hall, the other one is in the Hokkien Associations. I was placed at the Hokkien Associations and we used the same modus operandi. We had the same guy doing the main stage lorry and we had the same group of Hilux people. For BERSIH 5, there is one more point in Bangsar and that is where things are a bit not stable lah. We parked all the cars at a few parking lots we found in a few places. In fact, we parked our main stage at a private parking spot next to DBKL because we wanted to put the main stage in front of the DBKL area, not the Dataran side. So we parked the main stage around there the night before, and all the rest of the Hilux in Jalan Sultan, Masjid Jamek and a few places. We already identified the places that they need to come out and park, so everybody was like “Okay done” and went back to sleep.

The next day, we are supposed to get into the town. We didn’t stay overnight in town so I remember I went out very early. About 6am something, I already reached the Hokkien Associations. By seven something, I’m expecting the rest of the team to be arriving, but everybody started calling and saying that there’s no way they could come into town. Apparently, the police blocked everywhere. So for us logistics, we couldn’t do much. We just have to wait for the people to gather and wait for the command centre to tell us what to do next. But at seven something, I also received a call that our main stage was confiscated by the police. So the Hilux was parked there but the next morning, the wheel was locked by the police and they are going to take the car back to the police station in Dang Wangi. The Hilux and the van together with all the equipment!

So I went to the police station to check out what happened. The police just say that the car and the van have to stay here until 24 hours or whatever. Eventually, we found out that it’s because of the number plate. BERSIH 4 and BERSIH 5, we used the same car. They already captured the number plate in BERSIH 4 so when they went around in a night rounding, they saw the number plate and they locked it! So we had to tell the guys that we don’t have the main stage, “The main stage is gone already, we had to look for an alternative.” And there’s really no alternative, all the rest of the Hilux also finding difficulty coming out and going to the locations they were supposed to so there was a huge delay in terms of the programme.

And then, there was a huge delay in Bangsar as well. The Hilux couldn’t get to them. One thing is because our driver is also late. I was very mad with that driver, I don’t know why he was late. He’s supposed to be there at the designated time but he was late, so there was a huge delay and we had to immediately find other ways. We took out some of the loud hailers from the Hilux and had to just find some ways to pull this off. A few of the delayed Hilux eventually managed to come out, but things were a bit chaotic. In fact, we received a command from the command centre that we are supposed to place a Hilux in Jalan Ampang near KLCC. It said to place a Hilux at the Public Bank area. We don’t know what is happening, but since the command centre asked us to do so, we sent a Hilux there to wait at the Public Bank in Jalan Ampang. The driver guy was telling me, “There’s no one here, why you want me to stay there?” I said until we tell you what to do, you just stay there.

So he stayed there until after lunch when we got a directive from the command centre again asking us to move all the vans to the KLCC area in front of certain places. So we said okay, whichever Hilux is available, please move there. So they moved there, and that is when the crowd started to move to KLCC. I also got a call saying please bring the people in Masjid Jamek and Jalan Sultan area to move to KLCC, so we started moving.

When I came out from the Hokkien Association, I saw the late Haris Ibrahim on one of our Hilux telling people, “Jalan-jalan! Kita pergi KLCC!” So I also got onto the Hilux. At the traffic light area heading towards KLCC, suddenly, a group of black shirt people stormed onto our Hilux. And you know who it was? Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Mukhriz. They really stormed onto our Hilux with all the bodyguards pushing us around. I was like, this is our Hilux, we need to go there. But they already stormed into our Hillux and set up the loudspeaker and everything. So I checked with the command centre, which consists of the decision-makers, whether it’s okay. In fact, Siti Hasmah also was together with them. She didn’t stand on the Hilux and she was asked to sit inside, but the car is actually quite messy and dirty. I was like, what am I supposed to do? In that situation, I really can’t stop them from coming up and there were so many people cheering. So I say “Look, this car has these main people here and they are going to move to converge with you guys there.” Then I left the car.

What did the command centre reply?

I can’t remember whether they say let them have the car, but I don’t hear anything saying to stop them. I mean, they literally pushed us out. His bodyguard is big. And it’s not one or two of them, you know, it’s like a whole chunk from behind just coming in and pushing us out of the car. And then, the three of them stood on the car.At that point in time, the sound system wasn’t ready yet so it took us a little bit of time to set it up. Afer we set it up, they started talking and the car started slowly moving, and that’s when I left the car. I remember I was holding petrol as a backup for the generator and I didn’t want to leave that bomb on the car, so I was holding that petrol, walking down and then finding a place to just sit down and relax, and let them finish the whole thing.

So what actually happened after those protests? For BERSIH 4 and 5, we always discuss the preparations leading up to the day and then during the day itself, but what did you have to do after it ended?

Before going into that, for BERSIH 5, because there was a change of location, we had to move all of our medic tents that were set up earlier and some of it really cannot move because it’s just too heavy. But there was one team, I can’t remember which one, I must really commend them because they actually moved the tent from Jalan Sultan area to KLCC. I think they requested an ambulance and asked whether they could put the logistics materials inside and move to KLCC, so this is their level of commitment. They didn’t abandon the tent, they actually moved it.

For post-protest duties in BERSIH 4, the volunteers for the rubbish collection were fantastic. You don’t need to say anything, everybody just took initiative to collect all the rubbish. So they collect all the rubbish and pack them into many, many bags, and then the rubbish collector will come and pick up all the bags along the way. It was very clean. BERSIH 5, we eventually moved to KLCC but I think in terms of rubbish, there was no issue.

After the protest, there’s a lot of work to be done because you accumulated lot of stuff. The tents, the loudspeakers, all these things need to be moved and stored somewhere. You need to properly arrange them. BERSIH 4 had a lot of things and we put them in the Chinese Assembly for a while. I remember Thomas’ friend has a warehouse where we also arranged people to send things there. We eventually cleared most of them out. We have t-shirts and we have a lot of merchandise for the protest as well. All these are things that you have to handle at the end of it, so logistics is really the backend. The team really took care of all this. Of course after the main protest, the main Committee will have their press conference and all that but you don’t see our faces there.

Did you interact with the Steering Committee?

Not directly, not much. I think to them, the message, the security, all these are important at the front, but maybe these are all quite petty things, so they just leave it to you. You just do it and decide. But of course some of us joined the meetings, because we need to know what is the programme and what are the things that they require from us. This is as far as our synchronisation with the main organising team goes. I never joined those meetings, I think Hui Chun is the one that joined the meetings. But we do have a programme, the locations and what time the programme would start.

How much time do you think you dedicated to do all this? Because it feels like almost like a full-time job to organize these logistical stuff and the aftercare.

I think the really intense period is the last two or three weeks (before the day of the protest) where we start to do the preparations in terms of getting the materials, looking for locations, coordinating with the medic group and things like that. But the beginning of mobilisations, organising the volunteers, making sure they are safe, it’s mainly the main group.

I had also been arrested temporarily before. The Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, had a trip to Universiti Malaya. At that time, they had repressions on Ai Weiwei so we wanted to do a protest with the Civil Rights Committee and the youth group. We were thinking security must be very tight. We wanted to have a message to say release Ai Weiwei, so we did a simple white t-shirt with 释放艾未未 (release Ai Weiwei) or something like that. Each person wears one word so when the car passes by, we would take off our outside shirt and it would show the message. I remember we were planning it in Gerakbudaya, Pak Chong area, at that middle corner house. What time we have to go in, where we have to stay, where the car will go past. We have to take the Malaysia little flag to camouflage and make sure they don’t realise we are there to protest but to welcome him. So on the day itself, everybody is on time and everything is well in accordance to the plan. We were there inside, we came in early to UM and we have all the things there already. We had someone scout outside and say okay, he’s coming in already, so we were getting around at that place where we were supposed to stand and take off our shirts. And then suddenly, I think it’s China police, they realised and they informed the local police and they came and arrested us before we even opened (our shirts). We found out that maybe because some of us wore the outside (shirt) too transparent, so they could see the word inside. These people are very sensitive, you know. Very, very sensitive. So before we could even do that, we already failed. They arrested all of us, put us into the Black Maria and brought us away. So that is a failed protest.

I got my Black Maria moment and they sent us all to the police station. I don’t think it’s an arrest. They just put us in a room and we sat there until the whole event was over, then they released us. When we were inside the room, we saw the police operation room and we saw (written) on the whiteboard to look out for at-risks and everything. We were of course not part of it, it’s the Falun Gong and all that. I think if it wasn’t because of the China police, the Malaysia police wouldn’t know. At that time, Chin Huat was around but he didn’t wear the shirt and he was not part of the protest. So when we were arrested, he told me shout the slogan, so we shout the slogan. Because after all, you already failed, right? Might as well make something out of it, so we shouted for a few rounds.

What about your anti-death penalty protests?

We did a few candlelight vigils in front of the Singapore Embassy. I think the biggest one is the Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam case. He is a Malaysian, he has an IQ of 69. Last minute, we filed a lot of applications wanting to save him, but they executed him. That was the biggest protest because the Indian Lawyer Association and MIC also joined in. The protest in front of the Singapore Embassy was relatively non-eventful. You just do your thing, and then when they realise and they want to kickstart their protocol, we already done and disperse already. But I think by now, they are more alert because we have done it so many times.

These kinds of protests infront of embassies, normally police won’t kacau you much?

No, they won’t. It’s the Singapore Embassy’s own security that will come and kacau. The police don’t really because it’s not a lot of people. 10, maybe 15 at most.

Do you feel the protest movement has left an impact on your life?

I think so. Of course, it’s an experience that is really unforgettable and it also changed the way I look at democracy as well. I mean in the past, I wasn’t exposed to things like that. Not that I was ever against protest because otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone to the first BERSIH protest. It’s just that it is a point that opened me up to BERSIH, democratisation, voicing your opinions, things like that.

Do you think the movement has left any societal or political impact? Did the protests generate the intended effect you thought they would?

I think protest is mainly to make a point. In terms of change, there’s a lot of work after that to make the actual changes. Like the protests we do in front of the Singapore Embassy, we know that it won’t save him and it won’t change anything. But we do want to make our stance clear. After many rounds of this kind of protest in front of the Singapore Embassy, I think people can see and start to reflect on why this group of people are so insistent on abolishing the death penalty? Why they are always going there to do candlelight vigils? So it is for making a point [that it is not okay to do this], and it is for people to see that we are making this point and why you should look at it as well.

And meanwhile, of course BERSIH’s impact is huge. It really draws a lot of middleground people, I feel. Like recently, we went for dinner and there was this woman from a really atas, big time developer family. When we had a conversation, she said that she joined BERSIH 4 for 36 hours. So we were like eh, quite surprised lah. She said oh, we are against corruption and it is a very peaceful protest. So even people like them that you don’t really expect will come out, they actually come out. To a lot of them, even my aunty in Batu Pahat and other places, they usually are very afraid of protests. But the 36 hours one, they actually came out to join and they enjoyed it. They had a lot of good things to say about it, so it does have that kind of impact. It draws people and it changes their perception about protests or rallies on the streets.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Maybe we won’t be able to really thank everyone who contributes in every small way, but if I’m able to find out who these people are, I would like to really personally thank them for the little things that they do. I think it is not just the glory of the political leaders or other people. They got the glory of course, but to really make these things happen, it is a lot of people doing the little things 螺栓 (nuts and bolts) that actually make the whole thing happen.

What lessons do you wish to impart to future activists or protest organisers?

I do think that for every protest to work, you need to have a plan. A plan in the sense that you need to know what you want, to what extent do you want it, how to execute, and when to put a stop to it. Because otherwise, if not handled carefully, the protest can become violent and the narrative will change. It can start off with good intentions and with many people’s support, but if you don’t plan it nicely, it may end up with people condemning the protest. But of course (planning from) the ground up is important too as it is the democratic way of doing things.

Last question. After the protests, how did you end up in the BERSIH Steering Committee from 2018 to 2023?

After the 2018 general election and the change of government, I thought, “Okay, things are quite done.” Then suddenly, Thomas called me up and said, “Can you be the treasurer for BERSIH?” To be honest, I didn’t think twice and I said yes. So I ended up in the Steering Committee. Frankly, for the past five years as a BERSIH committee member, I really learned a lot of things. I felt that it is like doing a whole master’s degree without paying for the university fees. A lot of things I learned and opened my eyes up. Political things like confidence and supply agreement, strategic things like building the middle so you don’t push things to an extreme, technical things like institutional reforms, AGC, political financing, anti-hopping, why they all are so important. So I learned all of these things, and I’m glad that I can contribute in the little ways that I can. I’m happy to be part of all this.

With the 2020-2023 Bersih Steering Committee and NGO friends at an event in Parliament of Malaysia.