With almost 20 years of activism experience on the ground, Nalini Elumalai tells of her experience in organising the famous anti-ISA rally that gathered 60,000 people on the streets. She also shares her experience in shifting from the heavily repressive intimidation and force from Malaysian authorities, to the more peaceful mobilisations of protests in the current day.
*All photos have been provided by Nalini.
Share your background and how you got involved in movements and protests in Malaysia.
My activism started when I went to UKM for my degree in 2003. I was born and raised in Port Dickson. Only my father was actively involved in politics, he was a MIC member. I think he still is, I’m not sure. He rajin attended meetings and everything, but despite being a member for so long, he was never someone who would go after pangkat. He just wants to do his bit and he’s happy with it. So I’ve seen my dad being politically involved in that way, but we never really talked about politics in the house. Probably because we takde the awareness, or maybe my dad tak nak cakap pasal tu because we were still young kids.
But 1999, when my eldest sister went to UKM, things changed in the house because she joined the student movement there. She got involved in the jawatankuasa mahasiswa mahasiswi(JKMI), whose founding members were Arul and others. Every time she balik kampung from university, she would bring some leaflets about estate people’s issues and any issues ongoing in the country. She would bring that, put them on the table and ask if anyone is interested to read. So I read stuff and I asked her a lot of questions, but I don’t know what’s going on. She never told us she was actively involved in some organisations, she just asked us to read.
So when I joined UKM, then I know what’s going on. I was approached to join the similar group, JKMI which is a very left-leaning student group. Most of its work was outside of the campus. We were part of the struggle of plantation workers, Orang Asli, factory workers, ordinary people’s issues. So we focused more on that but also on campus, we do awareness-raising by distributing leaflets. Kalau ada isu dekat campus, we’ll raise the issue and give our perspectives from the left perspective. Like what is going on about the student union dekat university, which is controlled by the university. But most of the work was outside, like building youth groups within the community and stuff like that. So I think that’s how it all started. It was for three years I was in the student group, but I was already exposed to PSM and other NGOs.
After UKM, I was wondering what I wanted to do. You want to look for other jobs ke, you want to be an activist ke. While I was thinking all this, then I decided I want to be an activist. So after UKM, we have this NGO based in Kajang called Community Development Centre (CDC). Basically, all the people from that student group who want to continue being activists would join that NGO. Right after my graduation, I joined SUARAM in 2006 and that’s when my human rights work started. I was the campaign coordinator for the anti-ISA movement, Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA. I’m very privileged in the sense that I had so many opportunities to join so many movements and organisations that cover so many issues. I have grassroots experience from PSM, the Community Development Centre, and the student movement. I also have human rights experience from SUARAM and now, Article 19 where I am working. I’m very happy that from a very young age, I had the opportunity to be involved in different kinds of activities and organisations so I can balance myself between this and that. So that’s how it started. It’s been a long time since then, almost 17 years. But if you count from the student movement, then it’s almost 20 years including this year. It’s a long journey.
What did you graduate in?
I did Political Science. It’s not something that I asked for. I applied for Law, but [the university] didn’t give. But I never regretted it because I think it turned out in my favour. I studied to understand politics. It’s very interesting that you study something in class, but when you come out of the classroom, you see a totally different world. So it was a very good experience because whatever I’m learning in class is just theory. Also at that time, public universities ada banyak issues of you can’t talk about certain issues even though it’s a university, the place where you can debate on a lot of things. Some of my lecturers at that time were very pro-government as well, so when you question about something pun, ada masalah. But it’s a politics class! When I asked questions, I brought my experience from outside. Apa yang berlaku kat luar, then I tanya why this is happening. So memang there’s a censorship lah. You cannot ask and discuss certain things in the politics class. So for me, it’s like I learn theory dalam class, and then I go and do my practical work, then I balance myself. I know what’s going on in reality is not what I’m actually learning in the class, so it’s a good experience.
It was an interesting political moment too, post-Reformasi. Was the anti-ISA protest in 2009 the first protest you organised or did you have any other protest experience before?
I think I have organised so many protests, big and small. When I was a student, I was merely a follower. My first protest was in 2003, anti-war in Iraq. We had a protest dekat US Embassy and that was my first experience attending a protest. That was my first experience with water cannons too. We were trained by Arul and the team, and we were told you should never run. You should just stay where you are or you sit. It was the best experience because it’s your first protest and you never know what’s going to happen. At that time, the situation was even worse because we had Section 27 of Akta Polis, which basically says if more than five or seven people, you cannot gather. There were like 300, 400 people there. All the protests before 2012 were basically just pushing and pushing to abolish Section 27 so that we all can gather and enjoy our freedom of assembly and expression. So many protests before, it would be called off, police would come and kacau, you would be arrested, you would be called for investigation, you would be charged, so many things would happen back then. We had a lot of protests even at that time when you’re not allowed to gather before 2012. I think it was a very good experience.
The first protest I organised was probably under SUARAM or Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI). Because I’m the setiausaha and also the coordinator, so it’s solely my responsibility to organise. In GMI, the good thing is we had a lot of protests because ISA masa tu masih digunakan. For example, every Friday, kita akan buat protes dekat Masjid Jamek and we would call for pembebasan of the detainees and stuff like that. We did a lot of protests jalan from Sogo to SUHAKAM. There were so many protests that we do in a small scale and everything. I also have been part of the May Day rally. Just in the organising committee, but I also have been the coordinator.
I think the biggest protest my team and I have organised is the anti-ISA rally in 2009. It was huge, it was important, it was very historical because it was the first ever over 50,000 people on the streets calling for abolishment of ISA, which never happened before. Every protest that we did in a small scale before that was actually a build up to a bigger protest. During the build up, what we did was educating people more. We did so many activities until I can’t remember. All over Malaysia, we do these awareness campaigns like theatres, exhibitions, ceramahs, everything. You name it, we have done it just to get people on the street. So when I joined SUARAM, I remember I said in my team meeting that in 5 years, my goal is for ISA to go. That was in 2006. So when I started planning for the future in SUARAM, my plan was that in 5 years time, ISA has to go and I will work towards that by making sure I build a team, we have a good committee, we do a lot of activities and I fully concentrate on that.
So I think when ISA was abolished in 2011, it was exactly 5 years. Of course it was a political stunt from Najib but hey, ISA has been abolished. That’s the goal of the movement. When we started [the movement], people would say ISA is a political tool and there’s no way it will go. But I think it was just the confidence that the more work you do, the more people you educate, you actually can do a lot of things. The 2009 rally is a reflection of all the good work that people have done on the ground to get 50,000 people by various groups and political parties. But also, it was a one year work of planning. We started the planning in 2008, and we know the consequences of the protest can be even bigger. Over 1,000 people were arrested, tear gassed, and water cannoned. This was the situation of rallies those days that we can hardly see now, which is good. Those days, very common to have FRU, water cannon and tear gas just standby in the bigger rallies. So those were the consequences.
One of the things that we also wanted to achieve when we organised the 2009 rally was for the detainees to be released, especially those who have been detained for 8 or 9 years at that time in Kamunting Detention Centre. So after the rally in September, one of our key members who campaigned for the release of her husband had her husband released. That was the biggest success for us. We thought he wouldn’t be released until everyone else because the wife, Kak Laila, was very active [in campaigning], but he was released. And that is also a big success for us lah, at least these people were released after years of being detained. There’s so many things that happened after that. The government, from not doing anything about it, suddenly started talking about it in 2010 on amending ISA. We said no. We had a really good campaign for abolishing ISA, and almost everything has been done for the movement by everyone who was involved. I think it was one of the huge successful campaigns of civil societies in Malaysia and that rally was very important. It took us one year lah, but somehow we managed to get a lot of people on the street for the first time. I think after that, people who feared ISA, it just took away their fear. Nobody was actually in fear of ISA. So I think that is a success lah.
Who were the people behind GMI at that time? What are the roles that you played during that particular protest?
GMI committee is comprised of SUARAM as the secretariat, so I would be representing SUARAM and also, I’m the secretary of the movement. It’s like, automatic because GMI is a baby of SUARAM so we actually gave birth to it. In 2001, it was post-Reformasi, but it was still ongoing. The arrests were still happening and people like Tian Chua were arrested. Fadzil Noor, the president of PAS at that time, SUARAM and several other political parties all came together. So 80 over organisations. Some might not even exist today, but it was 80 over organisations, NGOs, communities. Everyone came together and established GMI, focused on abolishing ISA. SUARAM played an important role, and Arul was the first secretary of GMI when he was in SUARAM. After that, I just continued in 2006.
The dedicated committee that was running the entire GMI was just 7 or 8 of us. People from JIM (Jamaah Islah Malaysia), Syed Ibrahim (Syed Noh) was representing JIM. Bar Council and Human Rights Committee at that time played an important role by visiting detainees at Kamunting. We had lawyers in the team who represented all the detainees, like Edmund (Bon), Amer Hamzah (Arshad). Latheefa Koya at the time was very active. We had student groups like DEMA (Malaysia Youth and Students Democratic Movement) as part of the committee. And of course, most importantly, is the family [of the detainees] like Kak Laila. So basically, this was the team that was running GMI. The dedicated committee. Of course whenever we do something, we always have support from all the NGOs. Like Sisters in Islam were committed to supporting, Amnesty International, Chinese NGOs like that. Everyone was involved in any way they can, not necessarily by attending our weekly meetings on Wednesdays. Only the dedicated committee would meet up regularly. Others would help however they can. Political parties like PAS and PSM, DAP, PKR, they were very helpful. We always looked for their support whenever we go out of KL, for example, to Perak and Penang by reaching out to groups over there. Especially in Sabah since there were more detainees that were getting arrested in Sabah around 2011 onwards. They stopped arresting people in KL and went for those in Sabah instead.
Most important to me in the journey were the families. We handled a lot of cases, I recorded cases of torture under ISA, and stuffs like that. So, without family support, we wouldn’t get the stories from the detainees. The stories from detainees were very helpful in the campaign. We used that as a big part of the campaign to gain attention. We filed cases, for example, through Edmund or Amer, exposing all the violations [that were] happening under ISA at that time. Some of the court cases have really positive, good judgement. For example, Hishamuddin Yunus in Malek Hussin’s case, he actually said [that] the torture chambers exist during the detention of ISA detainees. That’s a huge thing for us at that time because [the] police kept denying, but we see it’s not true, and then, when the judge said it is, you know. So, there are many things when we do some thing, [whether] it’s a small scale [or] big scale, it is always important what we can gain from whatever we are planning to do lah. Even small thing that we can expose from that, we are fine with it, so that people can learn [that] there’s so many thing [that] happened. Eventually, I think Malaysian start realising how bad this law is, because it’s no more just going after politicians ke, you know? it does reduce the use of against politician but ordinary people when they get this knock on the door and say “hey, I’m gonna arrest you under ISA”, that is even more dangerous lah. And that’s why I think that campaign was even more successful, because it’s normal, ordinary people who has no idea one day ISA gonna be come after them. And they all [were] empowered in the process to talk about the issues and their husbands, and what’s going on. So, I think [in] some way, the family support group within the GMI help us to empower women [and] empower the detainees. And I think some of them still keep in touch with us, with the family support group that we had in the past. So, somehow, we are still communicating, and making sure [that] everyone is okay. This post-detention, we know what will happen lah. It’s not easy to get into the society, and also you will be excluded, you will be monitored by [the] police. So, it’s something that we also learn along the way that people need support lah.
You mentioned about a rich network. Because it’s not necessary happen within valley, within Kuala Lumpur itself, but try to engage with different groups outside of Kuala Lumpur. So, at that time, of course there’s limitation in terms of internet accessibility, different platform, and whatnot. Maybe, can you share a little bit more in terms of how you do your network? Because you mentioned about the roles of the political parties at that time, right? So, how do you engage with them, in order for you to share that?
I think until 2007, it’s [a] very traditional way of doing activism kan, masa tu. We actually, literally, will be on the street giving leaflets, educating people, talking. So, like I said, we always do protests dekat Masjid Jamek, right? And after that, we actually go to SOGO to distribute leaflets. we actually [will be] talking to people. Not unlike these days kan, you talk more on social media. At that time, we actually like stand there and explaining to people [the reason] why ISA is bad. Some people have say like “oh, you all pergi mati”, all sort of things lah, you know? But for us, it’s part of ignorance and I’m not gonna blame them for believing ISA is good. So, it’s our job to educate lah. So that is [the] traditional way of doing work at that time. So memang we produced a lot of leaflets, like hardcopies, books, booklets, and stuffs like that; we’ll go and distribute [them]. So, how we do is GMI will keluarkan all this, and we send it all to our partners all over the country like Perak [or] Penang. We have our contacts, like the political parties, or NGOs. We just send to them lah. We send all the copies, they will come and get it, so they will go and distribute. So, it’s not like we have to be there in every state, but actually these partners will do the work; and they are very committed. And besides that, we try to implement the same kind of programmes in different places, like we had a theatre called Bilik Sulit, by Hishamuddin Rais . So that, we had it in KL and Penang which had lots of good response. It’s all about the 60 days [of] interrogation by SB in a dark room. What kind of questions people will ask, for example. So, we try to do that, and then exhibition, of course. We bring along all over the country. Some of our members will be there, like Kak Laila, and everyone. It’s the most important [thing] for them to go and speak. My role is basically organising everything these things and making sure it’s happening. Not really a speaker or anything, which I’m not good at it. But I think all this speaking will be done by people who are very good at it lah. [And also people] who actually need to be heard. Not my voice, but like Kak Laila’s voice, for example.
So, she was actually took off [from work] for 2 years just to focus on releasing her husband and campaigning to abolish ISA. So, people sacrificed a lot along the way for this act to be abolished. And she got a lot of support. In fact, in 2009, we brought her to [the] Geneva Human Rights Council to talk about ISA, which [has] never been done before by victim of ISA, you know. it was usually [done by] activist. But it was the first time we brought her and then she actually spoke in the Human Rights Council. So many people came and engage with her . People didn’t believe that actually Malaysia has such laws. So, it’s like exposed. And she was berani lah to do that, you know. It was very good international campaign as well, not just locally. We did a lot of profiling for detainees, we tried to reach out to international NGOs. And they were very helpful [in] coming out with reports, coming out with profiles, like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture), working on torture. So, all these NGOs [were] also very helpful in our campaign. So, it was local and international campaign.
I think GMI campaign basically [got] every possible stakeholders involved in that process. International NGOs ke, local NGOs ke, everyone who kind of interested or interest party in this whole thing, they [were] involved lah. So, I think that is also a success. I think it’s all about commitment, at the end of the day. Who will do the leaflets, can ambik, and then, distribute. But those days, those were the only ways for us to educate lah. But I think social media, even Facebook semua dah ada in 2007. It was just like people upload [their] personal things kan. Until the Middle East Revolution happened. Then, it opened up to all of us, not just NGOs and activists, but everyone start using that as an activism platform, to tell our stories and everything. That time, it changed, but we’re still using our own traditional way of doing things as well, in GMI, because we want to make sure [that] we’re still keep in touch [with] people directly, instead of just relying on social media. So, yeah, it was 2 ways of activism lah, at that time. But maybe after 2012, they are more focusing on social media.
What made all of you come together and conduct protests? Why large-scale protests and how did you come to that decision collectively?
I think it was because one, it was almost 50 years [since the implementation of ISA]. In 2009, it was 49 years, so we wanted to send a message that it shouldn’t be there anymore. That was very clear lah. It has to have an expiry date. So, that was our main aim, at that time. ISA was misused, definitely, for so many things. It was again and again, being used as a political tool, and people being arrested, people being tortured. Probably, when we expose more and more [about] the torture, made the police very defensive. So, if they do anything, we know, kind of situation. We want to stop that practise. So, the main thing is we want to get rid of ISA after 50 years It shouldn’t be there. And also, let’s test the ground, let’s test our own work. How many people is actually with us? How [many] people actually aware that this is wrong? And of course, 60,000 people on the street is a symbolic, but it’s a huge number for anti ISA campaign. So, for us, let’s test everything we have done from 1989, when SUARAM started. Let’s test what we have done so far. How much we have actually reached out to people? Let’s call this evil act as evil, openly. And let’s [have] everyone say the same thing. So, I think it’s just testing. And we’ve been doing campaigns for so many years, [so] let’s do this. That’s [the] kind of confidence that we had. Even if only 1,000 people turned out, we would have call it success as well. With the context of ISA, just remember the context of it, it’s not easy, we know, but it’s not impossible. So, that’s what we were thinking at that time. And definitely, I think we are all very committed to that. It’s a 1-year work, so it’s not easy. We did so many ceramah in so many places, to educate, to ask people to come and participate. So, we took a while because we want to do it properly also. We don’t want people [to] just come to street and protest, and go back and say “Eh, I attended”. There’s a purpose why we want to do this. And I think that’s why we took such a long time. One year preparation and stuffs like that. So yeah, I think it’s mainly [because] we don’t want to see this act anymore, it shouldn’t be there.
Can you share with us how you identified sites to conduct protests?
I think when we organise the planning, the most important part is that [the] place where we gather, has a lot of ready-made crowd. And also, it’s very public. So, definitely SOGO is one of it lah. And we want people to see. It’s already a lot of people [that] will be in SOGO. But it’s very strategic also lah. It’s nearby all these shopping complexes. And it’s also easy to walk at that street. There’s a few places like SOGO: Masjid Negara, and Masjid Jamek. [For] Masjid Negara, PAS crowd want to gather there and there were huge crowd. And they wanted to sembahyang dulu, because it was like 2 o’clock. They want to sembahyang first, and then, we gather. So, they come from the other side, and I was in SOGO. And then people were walking from Masjid Jamek. It was nice lah. It’s just that the planning was very important.
So, when we plan for protests, the most important thing is [knowing] why we plan this protest, what we’re expecting from this protest, and most important [thing] throughout the planning of the process is [that] you have to make sure [that] the protest is peaceful, [able] to send out [the] message, and is also political. So, the process is discussing [about it] lah, within the team. What is the best place to gather? Security discussion is almost every day. I have to go to PAS’ office every day after work, and then we discuss [about] security, because police and everything. It’s all discussion lah. And a lot of meetings every day. So, we discussed the planning, where to walk from where to where. And then we plan how many people will be in charge, how many unit we want to put in SOGO, how many Masjid Jamek, how many Masjid India. So, everything is planning lah. And everything we plan together with those involve, those who are bringing that resources. Like PAS ke , PSMN ke, PKR ke, everyone will be in the meeting like they will say this much people I can bring, and I can take in charge. So, every meeting we have to be there lah, and making sure everything is well-planned. So, there should be good planning in every protest. And also, there should be alternative like Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, that kind of stuff. And also, making sure that we [are] also aware there will be a consequence and be prepared for that. The consequence is basically will be arrested or will be detained overnight. Then we have SUARAM on standby at the time. We call it Urgent Arrest Team. So, we have training for the SUARAM team. Where they should be stationed, what they should be doing, who send the message to who, then there will be one person in SUARAM in-charged of getting all the information, relays it to everyone. So, we lots of work to do. And all of this will be included in the planning so that you don’t left out anything in last minute. So, every possible thing has to be discussed in the big scale kind of protest.
Even small scale [protests], we discussed every aspect thoroughly. You know how we discussed for Mayday, for example, right? Even if it’s [just] a small scale [protest]. Imagine the big scale [protest], how the discussion would’ve been. Everything needs to be discussed. There could be some strategic meetings, just couple of us will be there, so that the information doesn’t get into the police, or there’s no leak or anything. So, at that time, I don’t think we have WhatsApp. I can’t remember [but] I don’t think so. The entire process is based on trust. We trust each other that no one [is] gonna leak [the information] and everything. Because it’s very dangerous when the information goes out. Then, you have to think about other possible places. So, I think every little thing need to discuss like where we want to give food or drink, for example. Do we need someone from PBSM to be there, or doctors? Do we need lawyers [from] SUHAKAM to standby? Everything has to be discussed. So, I think planning protest for 100 people, or 10 people, or 2,000 people, I think we should take everything in an equal way, serious way. Every protest is very serious lah, because it’s political, you know? and you have to be responsible before you’recalling out people to join. You have to make sure that you are very well-prepared to face any situation. And everyone is protected in some way. And we know that in Malaysia, nowadays, you can go protest and then after that, they’ll call you for investigation.
Like ISA protest or BERSIH, you all know what happened, kan? One day before, police already starting [to] like checking hotel rooms, and arresting people for wearing that BERSIH t-shirt, and doing like very massive police checking, and roadblock like that. That happened during the ISA rally as well. And then, some of us weren’t allowed to go into KL, was like blacklisted, but who cares, you know? So, it’s like we take some risk as well lah at that time. Police know who are the organisers. Very clearly, we are the organisers. And we say that from day 1, that we are the organisers, and police know us. So, there’s nothing to run away from that. So, we are clearly taking responsibility. So, I think it’s very important lah. We organised the protest, we have to take responsibility for what we are calling for. And people should have trust. I can trust them, and I can join them, and I know I’ll be safe. We can’t guarantee 100% because we don’t know what [is] gonna happen. But when they see these faces, they know that I can trust them. So, I think we have that trust as well. Because of the experience [that we] have done so many protests, and we’ll always be in other protests as well, not just organising, but [also] participating. That’s very important lah. Like every single detail, we’ll be checking, and make sure it’s everything in the planning process. So, my checklist was very long, in every meeting. So, it’ll always be like that.
Since you’re aware of the risks, how do you negotiate with SBs?
I think in a small protest, or even in a small meeting, I can recognise police easily, because I’m also trainer, right? So, it’s just experience lah. Sometimes, I wouldn’t able to, but most of the time, I know who is SB lah. And they make it very obvious nowadays. So, it’s just funny how “intelligent” they are. In small protest, I usually just go say “hi” to them and I’ll ask them “which balai you’re from?”, and they got terkejut lah, like “how’d you know?”, [but] it’s like obvious. So, I think it comes with the experience but when I do training for people, I wouldn’t tell them to go and confront police, if you have no experience. That’s my first thing. I have experience, I know how to confront police, but I also know how to talk nicely to police; play that according to the situation. If the entire protest [is] based on very tense, and there’s so much pressure from the police, I know how to deal with that situation. If there’s protest [whereby] the police are much more calm, just very nice to us, I know how to deal with the situation. But most of the people who are not trained, or have no experience, they shouldn’t try that lah. [If] you go for training, you get training, and then you confront police, I’m okay with it. if you have no training, don’t confront police.
So, I think the risk will always be there for us as an activist, organising protests, especially. But few things [that] we have done lah, one, we have this practise of having meetings with police before the event. [But] if it’s a small event, a spontaneous protest, we don’t have the opportunity lah. But at least there’s a communication with police. They will call us anyway, right? Like “Hey, are you doing this?”, you know? Sometimes, they actually call and memang harass you lah for information. Because of experience, I can say “go and f*ck off”, right. Sorry [for] my language, but I have said that to them. You pergi cari sendiri lah. Why [are] you calling me? You don’t harass me. But I think we know how to deal with the situation depends on what scale of the protest lah. If the big scale of protest, if police ask you to come for meeting, you go. That’s what we tell. Because it’s important to have that sort of understanding with them. They don’t necessarily have to agree with us. They will say don’t do it, kan? But I’m sorry lah, we are doing it. But they know we will do it [anyway]. So, that communication is important, some sort of understanding in that process is important. So, it’s important to have that sort of communication.
I think when we had the ISA rally, the biggest scale rallies, even like for BERSIH, it’s important to have this- I don’t know, if you’re part of protest people, you’ve got like apa yang perlu dibuat semasa protest, apa yang perlu dibawak semasa [protest], I’m sure you all get this notice, kan? It’s very important. Even in that notice, we will say like if someone is provoking you, it [is] either police, or someone [who] is not from our crowd, because our protest, we have goals kan, what we want to do. So, we always tell people [to] don’t get provoked. Provocation will happen no matter what, especially in a bigger scale [protest] . [For] small scale you can handle it, you can just ask them to go. But [for] bigger scale how are you gonna identify who is the provocator, kan? So, it’s very important [for] people [to] don’t get provoked lah. So, I think that is the most important message. And we also have instruction like you only listen to people [who are] wearing certain kind of like headband ke, Unit AMAL ke. If anything, just go and tell them. So, that sort of messages is already there, as a responsible organiser. We want to make sure that everything [are] in order, and people are well-informed [of] their rights, what will happen, what will [be] the consequences, and who they can reach out to if they’re being arrested, if there is massive water cannon or tear gases, and everything. So, I think that is very important. We also give some sort of- maybe it’s more like commitment that there will be doctors, there will be people who look after you if you’re feeling sick, for example. You just have to go and reach out. So, every point, there will be people stationed, for example. So, I think that sort of messages, before protest, and during, is very important lah. That shows that you’re actually very responsible person, you know. But whatever responsibility that [are] imposed on you by the State, is not something that [is written] under the Human Rights Principles or Freedom of Assembly, because there are so many other standards that there shouldn’t be any imposition on organiser, if things get out of hands because of police. Usually, police yang masalah lah because they are the one [who] start provocation, and everything. So, I think that sort of thing is very important, that messaging. There’ll always be risk lah, it’s just you that need to be aware. And you have seen us negotiating with police during the protest, and stuff like that. That comes with experience. So, sometimes, we just see the situation lah, you know. Sometimes, it just depends [on] who you [are] talking to, and what kind [of] police officer you are dealing with on that day; it all depends on the situation. I wouldn’t say there’s no risk lah. Every political work comes with risk, comes with this police, and everything. If you just follow some of the instructions that we are giving as the organiser, that’s enough to make sure you are safe, actually.
How do you, as a trainer, negotiate on the complexities that come with the transitions of the nature of protests and assemblies in Malaysia?
It’s a good question. I think in the current situation, like after 2012, probably until 2016, I don’t know- I think PAA (Peaceful Assembly Act) when it was started, [it] still was complicated, because police took a lot of time to understand PAA. They’re also confuse, they’re also don’t know how to deal with this PAA, because this was very unnatural to them, kan? They have to facilitate. So, under the PAA, the police has the role to facilititate. It’s no more arresting. So, they also kind of get used to it, and we also kind of getting use to having police presence but [just to] facilitate you. Which is sometimes look very nice to see that police [are] actually in the traffic saying that “go this side, go this side”, and they are actually facilitating. So, that’s how police’s role should be in protest. They should be facilitating, you know. Not more than that, not less than that.
I remember a lot of people were saying like “oh, protests are not like those days, where there are a lot of police present, a lot of FRU, water cannon, tear gas…”, and I was like “dude, you don’t want to experience that all over again.”, because as society, we have to progress lah. Using water cannons and tear gas during protests is not something that [is for] looking cool, you know. It looks bad on the state. And they have to progress as a state, as well as a government. They need to to progress to facilitate protests in a better way, because it’s part of a democracy. So, when people have told me like “it’s no more fun”, it never was fun when we had a lot of FRU, water cannon, and tear gas. Because it’s actually to show how repressive the government is, how repressive the authorities on the ground, and there is no respect for human rights. So, it’s not fun, you know. You should [be] able to walk peacefully, you should [be] able to protest peacefully, how long you want to, without need[ing] to fear [that] there will be somebody [who’s] gonna come and pukul you. So, now, this situation, I think we all worked very hard towards having a protest without police interference banyak lah. We worked so hard. And I’m not saying [that] the PAA is good. I’m always gonna say we have to get rid of it because although now we have kind of spontaneous protest, but we still need to notify 5 days [prior]. Still not spontaneous, post-protest, police is still calling for an investigation, which is also unnecessary, and it shouldn’t happen. But it’s also [used as] a form of intimidation lah, like you can protest, but I’m still gonna investigate you; that kind of approach lah.
But I think when looking back from 2006 or 2003 when I started to now, I can say that I’m going to protest, and I don’t have to worry so much about heavy presence of FRU but its depends on the issue and the crowd as well. And I’m glad that at that point of time, even people came out and protest lah. And that is the message lah. “I don’t scare of you”. So, now people should never [be] scared to come out and protest. But I think there’s still the elements of intimidation and harassment. Still some police calling it illegal. It’s just they don’t understand the law, lah. And that’s the problem. And when the Lawan thing happened, they arrested them at Dataran Merdeka. It’s completely unlawful, under the PAA. They call it illegal, and the harassed took place. So, they’re very careful nowadays also to do something like that, because it’s actually not in the law. The most important in the past or present is it just claim the space lah, no matter what is the condition. Just go and claim your democracy space, you can go and claim your freedom of assembly and expression, no matter what situation. I think I’ve gone through the very depressive time as well. But things have changed for sure lah. Much better some way. We are more prepared, we are more organised, I would say. And we know that we can gather without need[ing] to worry a lot about having authorities surround us.
So, I think it’s different scenario now but I think the most important is like just we don’t need to have a lot to save for you to gather lah. Yeah, I think as long as it’s peaceful, as long as you can send your political message. When I say peaceful, it doesn’t mean that you cannot shout. People misunderstood when we say peaceful, it doesn’t mean that you cannot do other stuff. Peaceful means that the entire process is like even when you scream, it’s still peaceful, that you don’t provoke other people to do violence or anything. And educating people why you are there, what do you want to do, it’s more on that, instead of why do you wanna provoke somebody else. The most dangerous is that you provoke the crowd, like participants. That is my most worry, if you actually provoke each other. It’s not [with] the police, you know. If you provoke each other, then there is a problem. Then, the police will use against this, to say “Look, this is why we’re worried. You shouldn’t be gathering because you are provoking each other.”, that is the problem. Generally, I think Malaysians are very peaceful in that manner. I’ve seen so many protests, and I can see that they’re very peaceful in that manner lah.
Tell us more about the different forms of protest from your experience.
I think the political context, social context, is very important, when we talk about protests. For example, protest before Operasi Lalang. It’s different kan? Post Operasi Lalang is different, for sure. There’s a lot of fear, and hardly, there was a protest at that time. It’s all political context [that] is very important lah. Like when I became an activist, it’s from 2003, as I was a student. And probably until now, I can have even my own chapter to it. Probably 2003 till 2013, I would say it’s very repressive. I think I remember the last protest that had a lot of police intimidation and very repressive, probably have stop in 2013, after the election. And then after that, BERSIH 2, BERSIH rallies, 4 and 5, you hardly can see them stopping you lah. Somehow, there will be intimidation, Maria was arrested, for example. But it’s not as bad as it before, from the police side. But I’d also say the political context from 2003, till probably 2013, BN was the government, but also 2014, 2015, but I can see the political shift after that lah. But until 2013, it’s very repressive in terms of protest.
Now, I think the year before when the Lawan arrest happen at the dataran merdeka, I still see the police, they didn’t allow lawyers to go and represent them, and it’s completely tak boleh, you know? They shouldn’t. So, before I got to Dang Wangi, I was told that police are not allowing the lawyers to go in. So, I got there a bit, and then I asked everyone “Did you manage to go in?”, I saw lawyers there, and they say they cannot. I just go and scold the police who arrested them. And he actually allow the 2 lawyers to go in after that, to represent them. And good that they went, because we were told that they actually [was] asked to sign a form, to disallow them from representing lawyer. So, it’s very bad lah. It’s still happening and in current context. But then, it’s something that they know it’s wrong for them to do that.
Probably the way we protest, the way we do things have changed, [but] the police remained the same. Some still think it’s illegal to protest without informing them, they’re still confused about PAA and how it has to be implemented, they’re still very intolerant towards protest, they’re very intolerant towards different opinions, in a protest way, the expression. They’re still very intolerant lah, in my opinion.
Generally, they don’t want anyone to protest lah, to be honest. They just want to make sure [that] there’s so-called public order. Because in police punya perspective, if somebody is protesting, the government is in danger. Especially these government right, are very insecure in their power, they always will gonna use a repressive laws because they are very insecure in administration. So, police is the alat that will make sure that it’s under control. So, every time there’s a protest against government, they are very defensive and they will say ”The other side [is] gonna make use of it to say hopeless government.”. So, the police is gonna use anything that [is] possible to make sure there’s no protest. So, they’re very scared of it. Their point of view is any protests is actually against government, and it will make the government look bad. In our opinion, democracy is all about being check-and-balance of the government, and being critical of government; it’s the best way to make sure your government do work. So, it’s always the different perspective [that] is the one to bring that clashes. And we have told this to [the] police very clearly. we know why we are different, and we know our perspectives is different, and they always say “No, but kita punya kerja [is to] make sure semua under control…”. Then, you control untuk apa, you know? You nak democracy untuk progress ke, atau you nak democracy tak nak progress? You nak bantu siapa? you nak bantu rakyat or you nak bantu kerajaan? And then, we have told them how different we are in these perspectives, but we also told them [that] your job is to make sure public order [is maintained], but your job is also [to] make sure that we can peacefully protest, and it’s also your duty to make sure that we have the rights to do that. And they don’t understand human rights. That’s the biggest problem.
The problem with police is that they don’t even respect human rights. They don’t understand the freedom of expression, including freedom of assembly. So, freedom of expression is a huge spectrum of it. Everything can be [considered as] expression. People shout during protest pun is [considered as] expression. The only thing they have to see is whether that expression [is] bringing harm to others, or not, which is not. Then, it’s okay, it’s still freedom of expression. So, what I’m saying is [that] even in protest, you only have to see if the protest is being harmful or not. If the protest is actually undermining the rights of others or not. There’s always two different opinions. If I say this is okay, there will [also] be [other] people [who] say this is not okay. Where you [can] find the balance is whether there is harm or not. So, if there’s no harm, then it’s freedom of expression. If there is harm, then [the] police have some responsibility to make sure that the people who are bringing the harm is deal with it separately. So, even [if there’s] provocation during the protest, it is in the law, in PAA, that they have to deal with the provocation separately. If you see some people are provoking within protest, like kalau [ada] 5 orang, you just bring the 5 orang, separately, and you deal with them. You don’t cancel the entire thing. Just like the festival, kan? Just because one person says something, you cannot ban the whole thing. That exactly applies to protest as well. The most important in protest is also the intention of the protest. It’s to do what? So, if my intention from the beginning is [that] I just want to say, for example, jangan naikkan harga barang, and it will be peaceful, that is the intention. and it’s very important also…
There are differences in how we organise things nowadays, we rely so much on social media for mobilising unlike those days. We go place-to-place, town-to-town, gather people, do ceramah. We don’t do that anymore. So that is different from the organising side. In terms of are we still fighting authorities? Yes, we’re still fighting authorities. Are we still wasting our time arguing with police? Yes, we’re still doing that. Is it still repressive? Yes, it is still repressive because I’ve been called for investigation after the protest. So as I said, the other side hasn’t changed, and we are getting more creative with what we want to do. But it all comes with context lah.
Because a lot of things were mention kan… so, I ada 3 soalan, kita boleh go through one by one. I guess we will start with the first 2 [questions] lah. Can you walk us through… like you pick a protest that you organised, or you participate, sama ada BERSIH ataupun ISA, you narrate us through a day. So, contohnya, orang yang tak pernah ni, pagi atau malam tu, you buat apa? The day itself, you buat apa? And then, after that? Lepas tu kita nak document kan pengalaman each person.
Oh, okay. Nobody [has] ever asked me that. I’m also the coordinator of Gabungan Marhaen. Basically, a grassroots network. Okay, I think if I’m an organiser, for example, if I’m organising spontaneous protest, so let’s say there’s a community facing eviction, it’s a spontaneous protest because you cannot wait 5 day notice then you. By that time, rumah sudah dirobohkan. In that situation, what normally we do [is] first of all, we will have a bit strategic discussion lah. We know immediately we need to do a protest. So, we discuss with the committee and community, where we want to do the protest, what time we want to gather, and then who is preparing memorandum, and then who is informing media, and how many people can participate. These are very basic information.
So, when we discuss with the community, for example, siapa buat placards? All these we discuss. So, the placard, the banner, the community will do. Cause for us, it’s very important [that] the empowering process also happen at the same time when a community is gonna do their first class action, for example. So, we ask them to do their own placards and everything. So, probably if eviction is tomorrow, today is all about preparing this. So, my job usually is the one who actually send out the notice to everyone [that] eviction is happening. So, I’m the point person. Gonna talk to media, gonna talk to community, in charge person. We’re going to send out to all the networks that we have, that this is happening tomorrow, everyone tolong turun. So, usually that will be me sending out the information. So, the entire day until malam, it will be busy because most of the time, one, I send out the press release, I send to media, I prepare the memorandum. .
And then, on the day itself, so my work is like I check everyone, every network. Who is coming tomorrow? Who can come tomorrow? That is the work that will be going on the entire day lah. Just checking who is coming [and] what is happening. But also at the same time, we also have to alert everyone [on] what is happening in the kampung, for example. If police are coming, they will tell me. So, my work is just to distribute the information. So, it’s a lot of work, you know. It’s a normal spontaneous protest case lah. Sometimes, it can be few days. But if [it’s] a long protest, let’s say the protest May Day in 1 month, then will be a lot of meeting if I’m the coordinator of the entire programme, for example the May Day, then every week there’ll be meeting. So, I’ll be in charge of checking every persons in charge of each tasks, what has been done, and stuffs like that. Usually, one day before protest, I’ll always calm lah. I’m always ready for it. the most important thing I do [is] I’ll tell my family about the protest, I’ll tell where I’m going to be, what the worst case scenario that could happen, and just keep [them] updated lah. So, that is very important to me. So, I’m just preparing the protest, like if I need to bring press statements, and everything. I just make sure I have already done all that, and just checking with who is coming and stuffs like that. So, I’ll try to go to sleep kalau boleh early, usually it won’t happen. So, I’ll just sleep when I want to sleep, then I’ll wake up, I go for protest and just see on the day, [like what] kind of situation. I just sit there and observe lah; how the police punya body language, how they are behaving, how many people they are stationed. Then, we will talk about it lah.
Everytime in protest, even as a participant [where] I’m not the organiser, I’ll always observe what police are doing, what police are wearing, where is the SBs are standing. That’s something that is natural to me because I’ve been doing this for many years. So, I’ll always make sure that I can recognise some police within our crowd. So I’ll just go and say like “Hello. Dari balai mana?”. Then I say “Until kita gather, you jangan datang berdiri dekat kita. You pergi jauh.”, because they shouldn’t be there anyway. That’s normal but if I’m an organiser, and it’s a big scale protest, I’ll be a lot of nervous because it’s big thing, so many people are come, like the ISA rally was so nervous because first time for me in a bigger scale punya protest, and also we are asking so many people to come. And it’s a huge task that I have to follow up everyone, and that time there is no other things, it’s only phone, you call. And that time also because you can’t call everyone because it’s jammed, and everything. So, it’s nervous but excited lah. Honestly, I’m always excited to be on the street, and I just enjoy the day lah. And enjoy being with the crowd and just sending a message to the government very clearly.
You mentioned something very interesting about you berdiri tepi, then you observe the police semua kan, I noticed the recurring team in this interview [on] how to deal with police semua, so maybe for our future listener, reader, how will you advise a young first time protester [on] macam mana dia nak deal dengan police? So contohnya, okay you need to identify the rank of the police, so what will you recommend kan? Macam okay, speak to the OCPD or macam mana kan… When to play soft? When to be firm? And how to negotiate? Adakah you terima the ultimatum they give? Especially eviction kan, I suppose sometimes they want to demolish the thing, but you all stand firm, but until at one point tu then you terpaksa ask the residents okay tak pe, we fight another day. Ataupun keras jugak, kita stay.
We fight lah. Because rumah dirobohkan, we can’t say “come, we fight next day”, it’s rumah. Eviction is always very emotional to me especially rumah. And it’s very emotional because rumah yang dirobohkan is bukan rumah orang kaya, it’s rumah orang miskin. People demolishing your only house, and you are poor, is very emotional. And the only thing we want to do that day is protect as many houses as we can. So, we do our people chain, we stand there no matter what happen. So, we try to protect whatever we can do lah. So, that is something that to me is very important lah. The evictions is totally different experience, and imagine your house being demolished kan? I don’t think anyone would stand there and watching it.
To be honest, practical answer, I would never advise first timer protester to go and talk to OCPD, without knowing who is OCPD. My advice is go for a training first and get yourself educated. We have trainers, go learn the ranking, go and learn how to deal with it, and then go to more protest, then you learn. You learn from experience, like you start talking to lower ranking officers very nicely. Because I don’t know- my approach, I never score lower ranking officers, I only score higher ranking officers. Because lower ranking officers terima arahan. We are completely different. We actually be nice to the lower ranking officers because sometimes, they are nice to us. They will tell us. Some of the protest, when I don’t get access to go talk to OCPD or anyone, actually the SBs who know me for many years, in especially Dang Wangi, they’ll come and ask me “Nalini, you nak apa?”. I said, “I nak cakap dengan OCPD. Boleh bawak tak?”. They actually bring me, you know? They said, “Okay, kita bawak you.”. And among the police, the way they treat SB also different.
So, among the police pun ada banyak differences. So, the way they see SB pun different, the way they talk to SB among the police- so, they have their own issues that only if you know, then you understand lah. So, like myself, Arul, or Sevan, the police kenal our face lah. I’m not saying like I tengah boost myself but that is the reality lah. The police know our face. So, it’s easy because I was never rude to them, unless they really behave bad lah dekat orang, and then I go and confront them. So, when the lower ranking officer, I tried to make friends lah, so that I can get access. I genuinely being nice to them. I bukan buat I nak access but I genuinely nice to them. So, the only people I confront in police is the higher ranking officers. So, I think I have my own ways. Not necessarily everyone do the same.
Sometimes, the lower ranking officers behave worse than the higher ranking officers in some context. But all I’m saying is that it depends on the situation lah. Just try to jangan [be] too friendly with [the] police. Police is not your friend. They are authority, so you should know how to how to talk to them, and you shouldn’t be very friendly. Then, the crowd will see you as “Eh, kenapa dia tengah borak-borak dengan police? Like so friendly.”. Then, the crowd will have some sort of doubt on you like who [is] this person? Dia dengan kita ke, dia dengan mereka? So, you need to balance.
I never listen when they say like “Oh, hari ni okay je.”, but sometimes when they say “protest hari ni okay je”, that’s the protest you kena arrested. So, never trust police. They have their own way and we know that as well. So, I think it’s very important [to] go for training, get educated, get informed, and then you nak pergi cakap, then go ahead. Because you will have confidence. And don’t do things without confident lah. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be brave, I’m saying people should be smart, especially when you’re dealing with authorities. It’s not just about berani. If you’re not being smart, you kena tangkap lah. And then they will say like you were distracting tugas polis. Easy for them to use the Penal Code against you saying that “dia mengganggu tugas saya”, which they will. It depends lah.
I have one more question. Just now, you mentioned [that] mobilisation has changed. Dulu tak ada internet, so pergi town-to-town, flyer-
Internet ada. Social media tak de.
Maybe can you elaborate on that? Macam how it changed for you as organiser but also for participant? I mean, I assume on some sense, social media might be help[ful] to get attraction semua, so orang yang tak semestinya in your circle, but when they see the hashtag, or viral. Tapi at the same time, it means semua orang dapat tengok lah, termasuk polis. Ataupun maybe you can elaborate kalau keperluan untuk signal, or those encrypted communication, or what not kan?
I think definitely, it change, because I have two experience kan. I work with grassroot as well, but I also rely on social media for mobilising. So, when you work in a grassroot organisation like PSM, even when you do the protest, we actually will go and see the community. They will have a meeting and they will have a talk. They will ask each state berapa orang boleh bawak untuk mobilisasi. That’s still happening if you’re [in a] grassroot organisation. So, you rely on social media so much to get people to come, but also new people who actually feel that “Oh, this is a good call.”, and they will come and join. So, social media is good in a way that I don’t really have to spend a lot of time on the ground to meet everyone, to do ceramah.
Nowadays, it’s changed in a way that we have key leaders from the community, and then we ask them to go and talk to the community, because these are very clear critical leaders and they are very good. So, they can do the work. So, we don’t have to really go and do that work anymore, but these leaders from the community themselves, will do that. Unlike in social media, you don’t know who’s gonna come. At least for the organised crowd, you know who’s gonna come. But for social media, you just believe that people will come. So, dulu kita tahu, ada tiga bas akan datang dari Perak, for example. But nowadays, [in] general, we just believe and hope people will come lah. And if it’s very popular issue, then people will come, for sure.
But it all go[es] back to [the] political context. If it’s more and more repressive, even you use social media pun, orang tak kan datang. So, it goes back to how free you are and how repressive the state is lah. So, it’s very important, that context. Sometimes, people just won’t come but will support you on social media. And nowadays, we think that is okay. Because nowadays, we also measure how many shares, how much like, and that is okay, in my opinion. For me, if people are discussing issues in comments, and there is a lot of interaction, for me it’s also helpful. But most of the time, in my opinion, if you don’t show in numbers, like if you don’t visibly show how powerful you are, then there’s its also a bit problematic, in my opinion. Sometimes, you need to have physical protest, massive protest, to show how unhappy you are with certain things that happening. That’s very important. Not everything can be done on social media, in my opinion.
Even in social media, you have a conversation, but it can be misinterpreted, and there is no room for people to agree to disagree, for example. There’s no room for different opinion than your opinion. So then, it’s a problem lah. For example, when we do face-to-face meeting in community, any sort of clarifications, or people feeling doubt, or people don’t feel happy about it, people ask directly to our face. People criticise to our face, and is a there’s a space for us to explain certain things and make it very clear, our intention. And actually, we are not angry. You can show your thing but on social media, certain things cannot be done, but it’s still a very important tool for political movement, human rights movement, for interactions. But in my opinion, it should be translated in a real world lah.
Maybe of course it’s very hard to cover all the portals and work that you have done, of course GMI is one thing, and then you mention how eviction is very personal to you. It’s very intense sometimes, the confrontation might be very tiring in a way, because they can just really crush you, because you mention “oh, tu rumah orang miskin, bukan rumah orang kaya”, right? So, throughout your involvement with JERIT (Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas) especially, right? Or even CDC, for example. So, how do you observe this kind of protest? Like so-called small scale, but then of course the impact is very huge for you. Maybe you’d love to share a little bit more on that with us?
I think every protest I organised, or participate, it shaped me [into] who I am lah. Because I take this movement even small ke, besar ke, everything is important to me lah. Most important is what I’m learning from this. I think when I go to this evictions, I learn how to defend somebody’s rights, and I also learn how to be strong, for example. As an activist, I have a house, I can go and sleep, but they don’t. It also give me lot of [how] to be a better person…? I’m not even talking about being a good activist, but it’s just about being a better person, you know? I just feel that every community, every struggle, teach me new things. Every struggle teach me what I should do, what I shouldn’t do. And then, being kind, I learn from all the communities. And I think when people were talking about this unity, and all this racism, I think the only place that sometimes I can find [that] there is unity, is when I’m with the communities from different background, or different race. Because I believe that it’s not about race, but it’s about the class, it’s about being together, no matter who you are. You tengah susah, I want to be there. I want to do anything I can, to make sure that your rights are protected.
As I say, for eviction it’s totally different lah. It’s very physical, but at the same time, it’s about your livelihood, your basic [need]. And your basic [need] is taken away from you. It’s something that I cannot tolerate lah. But I think, every- like for example, BERSIH protest, teach me how to deal with police more and more. For example, how to lead groups, or to lead that massive number of people. I learnt a lot of things. But also for me, every time I do protest, I also unlearn what I learnt, so that I can always open my mind to new things, new ideas, new people. So, everything that people do, not necessarily involving me, but anything that people do for human rights, or for change, everything has impact on me, directly and indirectly, because I’m part of the movement. And if change is happening, I’ll be the happiest person, and if it’s not happening, I’ll try my best lah to do something.
I know struggle is a long term, it can take time, but it doesn’t matter to me. I do what I can, as long as I’m alive. I know I can do many things. That’s my motivation. I don’t get frustrated by so many things that [is] happening around me. It doesn’t really impact me much, because I think I’m very clear [in] what I want to do, in terms of making change. I do feel worry, I do feel like marah lah, because whatever happening, but I think it never stopped me from being whatever I’m doing. If it’d stopped me, I wouldn’t been activist now. Everything is a lesson for me. I take [it] that way, and I move on to next.
And then Nalini, if you have anything that you’d love to share [with] us, please do.
Yeah, it’s okay.
Thank you so much for your time and for generously sharing your experience also. We hope to do justice to your stories, and also interview more people who have experience in protest. And then hopefully, we’ll able to document all these oral history. Sebab banyak yang berlaku, tapi tak banyak orang cuba dokumen semua ini. And so fast lah, we’re already all 20 years, 15 years, old already.
Yeah, yeah. It’s [been a] long time already. It’s good that you guys doing this, because we always been thinking about like somebody you know to document this, because when I come across young activist, then I sort of can sense that one, they have not done homework for what happened in the past, they don’t know the history- maybe also because I think there is less documentation, but there’s no like [a] lot of documentation [that] people do. But also I feel like it’s important to know the history lah. It’s very important because I can sense that some people come with like… telling people that “oh, how come this never been done before?”, you know? Well, it actually has been done like 20 years ago, maybe? You were not born [yet], maybe? But it’s just ridiculing in a certain way, without knowing the history, I think it’s very important [for] people to know what people have done in the past. And especially during the very repressive environment where it’s almost impossible but everything was possible.