Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist and popular commentator on Malaysian politics and society. He was a key organiser and spokesperson in the Bersih movement and a host of other protest groups and events. He has a PhD from the University of Essex on Malaysia’s electoral system and party politics. Chin Huat is currently a Professor and the Deputy Head (Strategy) for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Kuala Lumpur Office.

Tell us about your family background. What were your earliest memories of your political awakening?

I grew up in the small town of Kampar, Perak from a middle-class family. My parents ran a sundry shop. I’m the youngest of six, none of my siblings was political. The most political thing that they had done then was perhaps my eldest brother Kok Lam buying Aliran magazines which drew my attention. This was in late 80s because I finished my high school in 1990, but I was probably awakened politically much earlier through different sources. I read a lot of newspapers and Chiense classics in primary and junior high schools. More formally, about 13-14, I actually signed up for a free-of-charge correspondence school from Taiwan. I took journalism, but they have compulsory electives, and one of those I chose was ‘democracy and the rule of law’, which gave me almost like a formal introduction on political science. During form 4, I attended trainings on consumer activism with the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) and as cadet journalists with Sinchew Jit Poh. One of my juniors recalled that I organised them to do a picket at the school canteen for selling junk food with unpermitted colourings. I remember only doing a product survey to identify colourings listed on snacks sold in the canteen, not the protest. Haha.

You must have followed the democratisation developments in Taiwan quite closely then?

Yeah that’s later, but I’ve been following much more than that. I think the turning point in my life, where political awakening is concerned, was 1989, the year the students were killed in Tiananmen and months later the Berlin War fell. I was only 16. These two events sort of mould how I look at things. Many years later, I came to know about another June 4, 1989, when the Polish Solidarity Movement won every openly-contested seats in the Lower House and 99 out of the Senate’s 100 seats. I see myself as a child of 1989. When I went to Form 6, I studied economics and learn more formally about free market, planned economy and so on.

How old were you when Ops Lalang happened?

I was in high school. 1987 so 14 (years old). Ops Lalang, I read about it from the newspapers. You read about the detention of all these famous or brave people but it didn’t really affect you who lived in a small town. You didn’t actually feel the national storm. Looking back, I think it showed how successful the government was in discouraging people from staying away from domestic politics. In contrast, international news actually came in much more lively to you because you read the developments day by day and you could follow closely what’s happened.

After Form 6, you went to university. Can you walk us through your university days?

I went to UM 1993 to study economics. Then, one of my good friends was Tek Soon, whom I knew during the cadet reporter training and who is now an academic in UM. I remember that one day in 1996, while he drove me around on his bike, we complained that we lived in a boring time. After the BN’s (Barisan Nasional) landslide in 1995, everything looked so stable and settled. Then just a year later (from the bike ride), you had the East Asian economic crisis and then Reformasi, so things changed very fast. Like what some wise guy puts it, history is a bad driver who does not give signals when making turns. During my time in university, the activism was very mild. The strongest thing we had was probably in my third year in 1996, a students’ sit-in in protest of rising fees. That’s probably the only thing.

Were you involved in any association or student activism?

I spent four years in my residential college (hostel). I was very active in the Kinabalu Residential College, but not active at the campus level. As hostels have limited rooms, so every year, some senior need to move out to give way to freshies. Only active seniors get to stay on. I managed to stay four years in the same room, in the same bed. That tells you a bit about how active I was and my influence in the hostel. I became the treasurer in the hostel’s students’ representative council in my third year.

What happened after the orientation week gave me the first taste of Malaysian politics in campus. For some peculiar reasons, that year, none of the five super-seniors running the hostel’s orientation programme was Chinese. The committee chief was Thiru, an economics student who later retired as an Airforce captain. But I mingled well with my Indian and Malay seniors. Before coming to university, we heard the horror stories of ragging but it was very mild. You only got called up early in the morning, got yelled at if you moved slowly, and had to walk down the hill for about two kilometres from hostel to the university hall and faculty areas.

So, when the orientation week was over, we were relieved. Then, the senior students returned and they wanted to socialise and form strong bonding with juniors of the same ethnic or state background. This happened in almost every ethnic group, just different in intensity. It was how people found assurance and solidarity when feeling insecure in a new environment. The Indians’ one was probably most intense. For a week after the formal orientation, Chinese juniors were called into some seniors’ rooms, asked to sing or answer questions, and got scolded if they were uncooperative or ‘cocky’. Then on the last night, the seniors apologised and said all these were to break down the barriers and egoism so that we could all become closer.

It started with an instruction or advice that we should mingle together and sit together when having meals in the hostel cafeteria. I was a bit taken back because not even my dad would tell me whom should I mix with. To subtly undermine their plan of having an all pure-Chinese group, the first night I joined them, I asked my roommate to come along. Izhan is half Chinese, a quarter of northern Indian, one eighth Arab and one eighth Malay, but constitutionally a Malay. When we were allocated rooms after the orientation programme, most of us got to choose our roommates. Most would choose someone of the same ethnic background for conveniences in daily life for having similar preferences or restrictions. I asked Izhan to be my roommate as we had a good chat before.

I was not the only rebellious one. Somehow, the Chinese freshies at the Kinabalu Residential College in that batch included quite some non-conformists, both boys and girls. Teck Soon, some boys and I didn’t like to be controlled. This was not the university life we dreamed of. Other boys felt that the communal socialisation was just a plot for the seniors who were still single to court the junior girls. Several English-educated girls also did not find the Mandarin-medium socialisation comfortable.

So, out of around 100 odd Chinese students, around 20 emerged as a rebellious minority who ignored the seniors. Socially, most of us fixed with like-minded Indians and Malay friends, many were in the hostel’s choir team or students in the Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) programme. Politically, the two groups clashed when the hostel’s students’ representative council election was held several weeks after.

The UM hostels employed a form of the ‘Limited Vote’ system for the three top posts: president, secretary and treasurer. For these three posts, every student had only one vote, and the one with highest votes became president, the second secretary, and the third treasurer. The system was designed to force some degree of inclusion by preventing the largest group from winning all posts, but this was outsmarted by allocation and mobilisation of votes by ethnicity. To maximise their gains, the Malay seniors would ‘allow’ only two Malay candidates to contest and take the offices of President and Secretary. To avoid over-concentration of votes on one candidate until the other failed to win the second or even the third place, Malay students living in specific floors were asked to ask to vote for specific candidates, such that only a minority of independent voters would dictate which of the Malay candidates would emerge top. The Chinese and the Indians would send their respective candidates who in most cases would hope to win only their own ethnic base. So, the Chinese would normally take the Treasurer’s post.

And the Chinese seniors did it the conventional way. They gathered all Chinese students and asked us to vote for the Chinese candidate. We the rebels had our own meeting and decided that we would only vote for the Chinese candidate if he would go out to campaign for votes beyond the Chinese. For us, to vote for him just because he was a Chinese would be racist, never mind students of other ethnic community might be doing the same. When the Chinese candidate (a third-year senior) did not show up in the ‘meet the candidates’ event, we decided to back the Indian candidate, Thiru (the head of the orientation committee) who was popular beyond his Indian base. Thiru made history to be the first ethnic-Indian secretary. In my fourth year, the history repeated. My Chinese juniors felt no insecurity that they must have a Chinese representative to protect their interest, despite having two capable third-year leaders. They decided to back another popular and inclusive Indian candidate, Balan, who followed Thiru’s footsteps and became the second Secretary of ethnic Indian origin.

Back to my first year, the Chinese seniors were angry that we the ‘rebels’ supported Thiru over ‘our own candidate’. We were seen as traitors. But they could not portray me as ‘a traitor who does not know his cultural root’, because very likely I have a better command in Chinese and better understanding of Chinese culture and history than most of them. The rebels in my batch gradually moved out in the following years. But those of us who stayed on managed to gradually change the mindset of insecurity and eliminate the culture of ragging amongst Chinese students. Instead of scolding juniors, seniors would build social bonds with them by assisting them on their needs.

When was the first time you joined or organised a protest or movement?

When Reformasi happened in 1998, I was a masters’ student in psychology at UKM and also a columnist at Nanyang Siang Pao and writing up for high-profile interviews conducted by its chief leader writer, Mr Teoh Kian Hoon, a self-made intellectual who did not get to university but read much more widely than many PhDs. I contributed to Nanyang’s op-ed page, starting in form 6 and became more frequently in my university years. In the ancient years, we sent in handwritten manuscripts. Because I wrote in traditional characters, and my style sounded more like an adult, he thought I was in my forties before meeting at the first time. Tek Soon and I got to know him and a Nanyang senior manager, Ong Chong Lim, who later went into publishing business and published my first book “Because I care”.

On May 20, 1998, Mr Teoh offered me a column, “Because I care”. Around the same time in May 1998, Mr Teoh started his high-profile interview series “Kian Hoon Salon” and he roped me in to do the write-up.

The column and the assisting role in Kian Hoon Salon brought me the name recognition which enabled my activism. In fact, my activism was driven by my analysis. Advocacy is the natural next step after analysis. I don’t believe in complaining and not doing anything about it.

So, I was there taking notes when Mr Teoh interviewed Anwar Ibrahim at his home at Bukit Damansara after his sacking and before his arrest. I watched the political turmoil closely and wrote in support on my weekly columns. I went to some protests but was not in the forefront. Anwar was subsequently convicted by High Court in April 1999, and the conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeal in 2000. In one of these trials, likely the one in 1999, on the day of verdict, there were protesters and a big police presence surrounding the high court building near Masjid Jamek. To ease the tension between the police and protesters, I bought some roses from Chinatown and distributed them to the protesters to be passed on to the policemen.

You graduated with an economics degree, so how come the change to journalism and elections?
I always knew that I wanted to do politics; it’s just that I’m “conservative” in the sense that since my grade was good enough to choose between law and economics, and I fell in love with economics in Form 6, so I moved there. Politics was not a top course for Arts students then, still not today.

Subsequently, I did my master’s on Psychology because at some point, some personal life experience made me to question “What if people are not rational?” So, I decided to try something else, and I moved from economics to industry and organisation psychology in UKM, but eventually when I applied for the Chevening scholarship for PhD after the Suqiu episode, I knew political science was what I wanted to do.

I came back to Malaysia in August 2006 when my PhD thesis draft was 80% done. Was supposed to get an offer as researcher at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), UKM. I had worked closely with Prof Norani Othman in a project on the 2004 general election, and she thought it would be a good idea for IKMAS to have me. Unfortunately, I was only given an office space and no salary.

Then, Dr Yeoh Seng Guan of Monash University Malaysia whom I bumped into at the Malaysian Studies Conference 4 (MSC4) told me that his university has an opening for journalism lecturer. For different reasons, two persons who were offered the job did not take up the offer. Seng Guan thought that my experience in media writing – at that time, I was known generally as a columnist in Chinese – would fit the bill. Dr Sharon Bong who interviewed me think likewise. So, I got the job to teach journalism – hard news and feature – for first year students, starting 2007. As my former training in journalism was limited to what I received as Sin Chew cadet reporter in my teenage, I taught my students to analyse how news-making and news-reporting work, combining my experience in political commentary and training in social science. I turned journalism into a liberal art subject. Some students who took my class as an elective later joined the profession.

I launched my writing career in English with my column “Uncommon Sense” – a tribute to Thomas Paine’s classic “Common Sense” for the Nutgraph, founded by Jacqueline Ann Surin and Cindy Tham in 2008. Jacqueline thought I had some unconventional viewpoints to offer. My column continued throughout the journey of the Nutgraph.

Coming back to election, Prof Norani was also the one who linked me to Bersih. When PKR, PAS and DAP wanted to regroup after break-up in 2001 and relaunch their electoral reform effort starting in 2005 (called Joint Action Committee on Electoral Reform, JACER, which did not pick up any momentum), they organised a symposium on electoral reform at Pearl Point Hotel, Old Klang Road in September 2006. As a joint editor of Elections and Democracy in Malaysia, Prof Norani was invited but she was either not free or not well. She suggested my name as the substitute. When the initial group of leaders from opposition parties (including Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Mat Sabu, Dr Syed Azman, Sivarasa Rasiah, Tian Chua, Teresa Kok and Liew Chin Tong) and civil society groups (including Maria Chin, Yap Swee Seng and Sonia Randhawa) decided to build a permanent vehicle, I played the role as the resource person. Launched in October, the communique which outlined Bersih’s demands was drafted by me.

I am greatly indebted to these five persons who opened the doors for me to join Chinese political commentary, the Malaysian universities, Bersih activism, and English political commentary: Mr Teoh Kian Hoon, Prof Norani Othman, Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, Dr Sharon Bong and Jacqueline Ann Surin.

So Reformasi was your first protest involvement?

Yeah, but I wouldn’t say that I owe my political awakening to Reformasi. It was just like you were there looking for something to happen, and then it happened, you were excited, and you got involved. The purging of Anwar was a shock to many people. It wasn’t so much for me.

When Dr Mahathir claimed in March 1999 that Malaysians should be grateful to the Government, implying that they should return the favour by voting BN back to power, I rebutted in my column using a simple economic logic – the people are the boss, government and politicians are employees, elections are job interviews. So, if the incumbents do a good job, they have been paid in advance with the job contract they got, why should the bosses (voters) owe them a favour? Analogically, if you sign up for a pre-paid telco contract, and the telco company delivers, you don’t owe the company anything. When your contract ends, you can choose any telco company without feeling obligated to your previous provider.

About five months later, that idea became the ‘People are the Boss’ declaration, launched by three other political commentators in the Chinese press and me. The declaration is trilingual. It is archived at http://bosses.faithweb.com/. This prompted a heated debate between MCA parliamentarian Ong Tee Kiat and me in the Chinese newspapers’ op-ed pages. Many years later, this idea ‘People are the Boss’ was taken up by not just activists like Fahmi Reza, but even by MCA and PN. The declaration was launched on 23 August 1999 a week after the launch of Suqiu – a voters’ wish list covering 17 topics and 83 points, drafted by the then human rights activist and ex-parliamentarian Dr Kua Kia Soong – on 16 August by the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, SCAH, (renamed in 2006 as the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, KLSCAH) and other major Chinese NGOs. Because I was recruited to be Suqiu’s Executive Secretary 20 months later, some thought that the ‘People are the Boss’ declaration was part of the Suqiu initiative. They were separate campaigns. Nevertheless, when I set up Suqiu’s secretariat in May 2020, I did follow up on the BN Government and Opposition parties who supported Suqiu, at least ‘in principle’ in the spirit of “People are the Boss”.

How did it become a declaration? In Pak Chong’s Gerakbudaya old office on Jalan 11/4E (Petaling Jaya Section 11), some activists brought a group of us, commentators in the Chinese newspapers, together and said we should support Tian Chua. Then, many activists thought that the Chinse community needed to support Keadilan as a multiethnic force and Tian Chua was then its face in the Chinese community. Hence, they drafted a statement endorsing Tian Chua. Being the realist or pragmatist I am, I didn’t believe that would be effective because it’s just hard selling. So, I counter-proposed that what we really needed is to help the people – in that context, the Chinese community – to think, to look at politics much more sophisticatedly. The challenge then was – instead of endorsing a particular set of candidates over the others, how can you produce something that can empower people?.

After the reformasi, I joined the Suqiu Committee as its executive secretary. After Suqiu, I helped organise writers and public opinion against the MCA takeover of Nanyang Press, consisting of Nanyang Siang Pao and China Press, with the help of Nanyang’s rival, Sin Chew Media which controlled two dailies: Sin Chew Jit Poh and Guang Ming Daily. To the Chinese media, it was a double whammy of political control and business monopoly. The Chinese dailies were at their golden years before the takeover. The op-ed pages of the newspapers were full of critical and insightful commentaries. To warn the Chinese-speaking public against the disastrous outcome of the takeover, and to underline this could not be taken lightly as business as usual, some 90 writers and journalists quit writing for all four dailies. An advocacy group for media freedom and pluralism, Writer Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI), was born. Nor dormant, WAMI was one of the Bersih founding groups. The anti-takeover movement, with yellow ribbon as its symbol, was sort of a civil disobedience campaign against a ruling party and a media monopoly. Physical protests were rare and small.

During those years, the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI) had its protests from time to time, but I might have joined only one or twice. I did much more after my return from UK in 2006.

Before we go to 2006, can you talk about how you got into Suqiu?

The Suqiu initiative was basically a voters’ wish list or manifesto, of 83 points under 17 chapters, endorsed by some 2000 Chinese NGOs, large and small, before the 1999 election. Both the BN government – represented by Ministers from MCA, Gerakan and SUPP (Sarawak United Peoples’ Party) – and the main Opposition parties endorsed it in principle. Several months after the election, its mover – the Suqiu Committee, consisting of 13 national or statewide major Chinese NGOs – wanted to hold the parties accountable and follow up on their promises.

So, they set up a secretariat, and I was its first and last Executive Secretary. The secretariat had only another full staff member, my assistant. We had also the back up of Tan Yoke Yuan, assistant executive secretary of the SCAH, so we had a 2.5-person secretariat, if you wish. That was right after my master’s degree in industry and organisational psychology, which is basically human resource. So, I applied what I learned in my master’s course on politicians.

Why was Suqiu a big thing? Think of it this way: in 1999, the Malays demanded reform by going to the streets. The Chinese did it by endorsing a voters’ manifesto. The Chinese had developed a fear over street protests after 1969, fearing that protests would cause ethnic riots, so they didn’t do that [before the Bersih 2.0 rally]. Instead, they organised gatherings, always in-house, to express their stands.

Do you remember the gathering of Chinese political and social leaders at the Tian Hou Temple Kuala Lumpur in 1987, which preceded the Operasi Lalang mass arrest? That gathering was to register Chinese community‘s protest against the deployment of Chinese-illiterate headmasters and senior office holders to Chinese-medium primary schools. The gathering was entirely peaceful. No waving of Chinese swords. No threat of violence. No street protest. Only speeches. Only a united stand against a controversial government policy. But that was used as a pretext of communal tensions for Mahathir to launch his Operasi Lalang. Notably, Anwar Ibrahim was the Education Minister.

In-house gatherings, passing of resolutions and endorsing joint statements – that’s how political mobilisation in Chinese politics worked. Here you have the Chinese parties – MCA and GERAKAN on one side, DAP on the other side. Of course, the Chinese associations. They mobilised and are in turn moved by the public opinion in the Chinese-speaking public sphere. At the grassroot level, many Chinese associations were run by MCA members. Nevertheless, they could be quite critical of the government because they felt that the government had been discriminating against the Chinese community. So there’s always this tussle at the grassroot level over what they should do – supporting the government in exchange of accommodation? Or, criticizing the government to stop more encroachments on the minorities?

The 1970 was a low tide for the Chinese, who felt defeated after 1969, not just because of the May 13 riot, but also the post-riot new political order, the NEP (New Economic Policy) and other pro-Malay policies. So, one response to the post-1969 changes was the revival of the Chinese independent school starting from Perak in the 70s. Strengthening one’s cultural identity gave a sense of solidarity and security at a time of marginalisation and uncertainty.

But the Chinese did not give up on changing state policies from within. In 1982, Dong Jiao Zong (the Chinese education umbrella groups) sent four of their representatives into GERAKAN wanting to “correct” BN, but the story was they got “corrected” by BN. The most famous amongst the quartet was Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon who later rose to be Gerakan’s last Chief Minister of Penang. The quartet’s failure to ‘mellow’ BN from within led to leaders of Dong Jiao Zong and other Chinese associations to advocate for a two-coalition system, namely, to encourage opposition parties to form a second multiethnic coalition as an alternative to BN for voters to choose from. The first opposition coalition – Gagasan Rakyat-Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (APU) – with both DAP and PAS indirectly linked by Tengku Razaleigh’s Semangat 46 became a reality after the Operasi Lalang, the deregistration of UMNO and the 1988 Judiciary Crisis.

Coming back to 1998-99, Reformasi presented a similar circumstance like 1987-88. It was the second chance for the “Two-Coalition System” Project, However, the Chinese were very cautious because Anwar was largely seen as a Malay nationalist and Islamist. They remembered his controversial policy on the Chinese primary schools in 1987. Despite his efforts to project a moderate image after becoming DPM, there were a sort of widespread scepticism on him. Therefore, Anwar’s support in the Chinese community was then limited to NGO activists like Tian Chua, Low Chee Chong and others, and DAP. DAP tried to move the mainstream opinion in Chinese community towards Anwar, but with quite limited impact then.

In the Chinese community, the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall at that time was the most progressive civil society leader. Its wanted to do something on the upcoming 1999 general election. Led by lawyer Ser Choon Ing, its Civil Rights Committee (CRC) started with this idea to have dialogues with various political parties for their manifestos to include demands in institutional and policy reforms from civil society. Now, to have dialogues with others, you have to prepare your own script. That script developed into Suqiu, the author was human rights activist and former MP, Dr Kua Kia Soong. It’s a whole list of various demands, 83 points under 17 headings. About two-third of these demands – like women’s rights, workers’ rights, rights for Orang Asal/Asli, environment, repeal of draconian laws, electoral reform – are not group-specific or related to the Chinese cultural, educational or economic interests.

Can you explain what the word “Suqiu” is?

Suqiu 诉求 is the transliteration of the Chinese word, ‘appeal’, in the sense of ‘aspiration’ or ‘preference’. It is neither as assertive as ‘demand’ nor as timid as ‘plea’. Neither offensive nor submissive – that was how Suqiu perceived itself to be in dealing with the government. Translation is a challenge. In English, ‘appeal’ can be interpreted as ‘plea’. In Malay, “rayuan” is ‘plea’. Perhaps it is best not to translate it. Suqiu is just Suqiu.

After surviving the Reformasi wave in the 1999 general election, Mahathir expected the Chinese community to forget about Suqiu, and that Suqiu was ‘concurred in principle’ (原则上认同)by the Cabinet represented by MCA, Gerakan and SUPP ministers. Mahathir hated the idea that citizens can pick between parties and negotiate for the best bargain. And after the Anwar’s conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal in April 2000, Mahathir also needed a bogeyman to scare and rally the Malays, or at least, to distract public attention from Anwar’s case. As a prelude, Utusan Malaysia frontpaged a pro-MCA businessman David Chua’s call for the Bumiputera special privileges to be abolished, which he later claimed to be misrepresented.

Suqiu became the idea target when its celebrated the first anniversary on August 16, a Wednesday. All political parties including UMNO were invited but only representatives from DAP, Keadilana, PAS, and on BN’s side, Gerakan, attended the birthday party. Utusan Malaysia saw blood in the presence of PAS’ Subky Latif, and spilled its Thursday frontpage with a wild accusation that Suqiu was questioning the Malays’ rights amidst Malays’ political division. The character assignation was straightforward: Suqiu the Chinese threat, and PAS the Malay traitor.

On Friday (August 18), UMNO Youth Vice Chief Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir led twenty over supporters marched to SCAH where the Suqiu secretariat was housed and demanded Suqiu to drop its entire demand, or they would burn down the KLSCAH building. The Suqiu leadership responded to UMNO’s thuggery calmly, inviting them for a dialogue which they refused. Two weeks later (August 30 night), Dr Mahathir escalated the charge in his national day speech, by comparing Suqiu with the Communists and the Al-Maunah insurgents who raided a military camp in July. At the height of tension, when the NGO I worked for became the ‘enemy of the state’, some rumours had it that the Government was preparing for an Ops Lalang-style arrest, and I was on the list. I was 27 then.

UMNO Youth and Mahathir’s excessive attack however backfired. Especially for the Chinese community, BN was so hypocritical that it claimed to ‘concur in principle’ with Suqiu only to make it a bogeyman a year later. Subsequently, needing a sort of settlement, Mahathir had to come down off his high horse by having a dialogue with Suqiu leadership on September 20. Instead of a dialogue, the meeting was in fact two monologues by both sides as there was no discussion after Mahathir and our leader spoke. As one of the Suqiu’s 20 delegates, I met Dr Mahathir in person for the first time. I would meet him again in 2017 to sell him some institutional reforms. I don’t think he remembered who I was in 2000, as I was a nobody.

UMNO resumed and escalated its attack on Suqiu after losing the Lunas by-election to PKR in November 29, 2000, exactly a year after the 1999 poll. This time, Ibrahim Ali aided in the game by threatening that there might be riots if Suqiu did not back down. UMNO Youth Chief Hishamuddin Hussein and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s special officer Khairy Jamaluddin played ‘good cops’ to persuade our leaders to give in. After a week of lengthy negotiations during the Christmas break, sometimes into midnight, we eventually agreed to ‘put aside’ seven out of the 83 points which UMNO claimed to be sensitive concerning intercommunal equality – which the secretariat I led never championed in that eight months knowing there was no favourable condition for that to happen.

The deal was signed on January 5, 2001. UMNO ended the attack after claiming victory. On the other hand, Suqiu’s credibility was damaged, seen as ‘having surrendered’ to intimidation by UMNO. Some youth groups even sent wreaths to our office in protest. I left Suqiu at the end of March, not in protest because I was part of the decision circle and I was collectively responsible for the decision to back down. I left because I knew, regardless of the issue — we could be championing for labours’ right, indigenous right, or environment — once you were successful, UMNO would come down hard on you and our leadership would not be able to withstand the pressure. When I did my PhD the following year, I wanted to seek an intellectual revenge: how could we break this communal game? That was why I did my PhD on electoral system and not on topics like Islam or Chinese associations.

So that was the first time you were in civil society full-time?

Yes, that was a full-time job, arguably my first after university. I worked for 11 months, from May 2000 till March 2001.

We were accused of provoking the Malays by demanding deep policy reforms like end of the quota system. That and other six points that we were forced to “put aside” in January 2001 were indeed part of Suqiu’s 17 parts and 83 points. There is nothing wrong to have big dreams. However, operationally speaking, the Suqiu secretariat under me never pushed for stuffs like ending the quota system because the society is not ready. Instead, I deliberately sent the signal that we could and should work on matters of common interests.

A case in point: one of the earliest press statements – if not the first – written by me for Suqiu
was on free speech in mosques. The Government then prohibited opposition politicians from giving speeches in mosques, basically aiming at PAS. The Suqiu statement highlighted level playing field, telling the Government: if you want to stop that, stop politicians from all parties, not just those from the Opposition.

That is also why most Suqiu statements were trilingual. My consideration was very straight forward: Suqiu needed to show that we were not just talking about Chinese issues. We were not a Chinese NGO for ethnic Chinese. We were a Malaysian NGO with an ethnic Chinese origin and base. I don’t believe in double speaks. The three versions of the same statement would have the same statement.

Writing trilingual press statements also forces you to think more inclusively, cross-culturally. When you wrote statements in BM with a Malay-speaking audience in mind, you would automatically ask: is this angle appealing to them? If not, you won’t just modify the BM version, you had to modify other versions too to be congruent. And I normally started with writing the English draft, then translated into BM and finally Chinese. Why? My English command was the weakest while Chinese was my strongest language. Whatever I could write in English, I would be able to translate them faithfully into BM and Chinese, but not vice versa.

The multiethnic strategic thinking of Suqiu was reflected in a campaign we assisted, the preservation of the Sungai Besi cluster of cemeteries and crematoriums. There were three Chinese cemeteries belonging to different dialect communities: Hokkien, Kwong Tong (Cantonese) and Kwangsi. There were also five other cemeteries and crematoriums nearby, serving the Hindu, Sikh, Ceylonese Buddhist, Catholic and Japanese communities. On July 17, 2020, a Monday, a group of civil society activists went to Parliament. That was probably the first time lobbying activities took place in the Parliament House. In October, I continued visiting Parliament for a while to observe how parliamentarians worked, like a self-appointed human resource manager of the voters. Santha Oorjitham reported this in the Asiaweek magazine as a new type of activism in Malaysia.

So it was your first time organising a memorandum handover of sorts?

No, naughtier than that (memorandum handover). We did a survey to corner BN parliamentarians, leaving them no room to avoid taking a stand.

The relocation of cemeteries and crematoriums was Mahathir’s pet project. He got the Gerakan’s number two, Kerk Choo Ting, a Deputy Minister, who also sat on the Board of Hokkien Association to get the Hokkien Association to agree. Kerk was one of the four gentlemen Dong Jiao Zong sent to Gerakan to correct BN in 1982 and got ‘corrected’ instead. So, the boards of the two other Chinese cemeteries were caught in dilemma and very worried. If they were to resist Mahathir’s proposal, they would face his wrath. Neither would they want to surrender the land and be seen as sellouts in the Chinese community. So they turned to the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, which was the mover and real boss behind Suqiu. The activists at the Assembly Hall like independent historian Tang Ah Chai had a discussion on how to pursue the matter.

At that time, MCA and Gerakan evaded from taking a stand and said that they would go with the majority. They hoped that the relocation would soon become a fait accompli and they would not get blamed if everyone eventually came on board. Traditionally, NGOs would go to Putrajaya to plea the Government or minister in charge. That method was however ineffective because the Government was too big to be vulnerable to pressure by any single group. If you want to find some political players to apply pressure, you should go after individual MPs because they’re vulnerable. So, instead of handing in a memorandum, we surveyed parliamentarians with five simple questions like, “do you think that economic development should prevail over spirituality?” Do you think that we need more high-rises than a green lung in Kuala Lumpur? Basically, five questions that you can only say yes if you want to be politically correct.

This was, I think, just a week after the Al-Ma’unah heist in Perak. Because no one expected parliamentary lobbyists, we got into the lobby of Dewan Rakyat smoothly. To make sure this would not be framed as a Chinese issue, our delegation included both Indian and Malay friends. This is the interesting part: MCA Ministers, including Jimmy Chua, saw us and ran away to avoid taking stand. MIC President Samy Vellu came out from the Dewan Rakyat chamber, not knowing what happened but upon seeing some Indians there, so he reached out to them and ask, “what’s the issue?” After listening to explanation by our Indian colleagues, Samy Vellu responded, “This is a people issue. I’ll take this up on Wednesday in the cabinet meeting.”

As Chinese newspapers then published next day newspaper early as their evening editions, so what transpired in Parliament hit the newstands the same evening. The Chinese newspapers reported this strong contrast in response: Samy Vellu is going to take up the cemeteries relocation case while the Chinese ministers ran away. The extremely bad press forced MCA to ask Samy Vellu to let MCA ministers handle this matter in the Wednesday cabinet meeting. On Wednesday, Samy Vellu waited for his MCA counterparts to say something, but they did not say anything. So, Samy Vellu raised the question. Mahathir was so furious as he expected that to be solved. In frustration, Mahathir called off the relocation project, and the cemetery and crematorium cluster at Sungai Besi was saved. We knew this because there was a reporter close to Samy Vellu who told us.

We were lucky to have Samy Vellu emerged as the unexpected white knight, but I would say our luck was partly because we had applied the pressure point at the right place. Protest is a strategic business.

When you were in the UK, was there anything noteworthy that contributed to your awakening process?

Yes, I learned one thing from British politics, which is now probably a part of the SOP in many protests. Before 2007, I dare to say you would not find the national flag and you would not hear the national anthem in protests. The trend of raising the national flag and singing the national anthem – often as the last act before dismissal — started somewhere around early 2007 or late 2006, when people protested over inflation. But it became a very visible feature in the Bersih 1 rally on November 10, 2007. Two weeks later (November 25), the Hindraf demonstration took it a new height – protesters withstanding water cannons while holding national flags and the portrait of Mahatma Ghandi. Previously, many activists feel hesitant to associate their protests with state symbols.

When I was at Essex University, Dr John Bartle who taught us British Political Parties told us that the Old Labour would not use Union Jack flag which, to them, represented imperialism but the New Labour boldly embraced the Union Jack so that the Tories won’t get to monopolise it and had a better connection with the voters who adored the flag. When I returned to Malayisa, I asked myself: “why should we protestors be framed as anti-establishment, or even anti-Malaysia? Since most people including the police embrace national flag and national anthem, why don’t we use the flag and the anthem to connect with them?” In their playbook, the world is black and white: protesters are bad guys, people who respect the national flag and the national anthem are good guys. Well, even if we can’t always convince the police that we are patriots like them, at least we may confuse them.

In fact, the Selangor Police made a terrible political mistake on November 9 when they charged into a group of BERSIH protesters who were singing Negaraku before dismissal. Only colonial army would find fault with citizens singing their national anthem.  The Selangor police could not explain that they were charging only when, not because, Negaraku was sung. Selangor CPO Khalid Abu Bakar denied that the charging happened during the singing that but some netizens had the scene recorded on video.

What were the protests that you joined, and the protests that you helped organise?

I basically only joined and did not organise protest until the Bersih 1 rally in 2007. The only exception was perhaps in the campaign against the MCA takeover of Nanyang Press. I remember myself tying yellow ribbons on iron fences near the MCA headquarters at Jalan Ampang. Even for Bersih 1, I wasn’t a key person in organising the rally as my task was more on narrative production and agenda setting.

My first taste of tear gas came from the Hindraf rally two weeks after the Bersih 1 rally which I joined entirely. A month after Bersih 1, I got my first arrest, for three hours, within the Parliament compound. We were protesting the extension of tenure for the then Election Commission (EC) chairperson Tan Sri Abdul Rashid, under whose chairmanship I would serve in the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) 11 years later. The date was December 11, the same day Tian Chua was charged for biting a policeman. Bersih did not actually hold a street protest. We just wanted to submit a memorandum to Parliament. Only some of us managed to be ‘smuggled’ into Parliament by parliamentarian friends, and called a press conference in the Parliament’s lobby. However, some of our friends including Dr Dzukefly Ahmad (now Health Minister) told us that they were arrested by the police on the way out. In a very sur-real fashion, the few of us who remained inside – I remember Yap Swee Seng and Gayathri Ventikeswaran – decided to pre-empt our own arrest by issuing a media statement condemning our forthcoming arrest, signed by the future arrestees. I passed the letter to an aide of YB Chong Eng to release it to the media upon our arrest.

While ready to be arrested, we still tried to leave Parliament as free persons. YB Lim Kit Siang tried to smuggle me out, with me pretending as his PA. However, a Chinese SB (special branch officer) quickly turned up, and then I quickly took out my ‘little red book’, a hard-cover copy of the Federal Constitution (published by Percetakan Nasional Sdn Bhd), solemnly declared that my only crime was defending the Constitution and then started singing Negaraku. The SB very impatiently waited for my singing to complete before arresting me. About 2-3 hours later, the police released and apologised to all of us who were arrested within the Parliament compound because we did not break any law by calling a press conference.

As journalism lecturer at Monash, I taught my student about newsworthiness. First, news must be ‘odd and unusual’. So, “dog bites man is no news. Man bites dog is news.” Now, flipped over, the criteria in picking news are just the criteria in making news. Many activists get arrested. That won’t make news. I must not let my arrest – my maiden arrest, in fact – go to waste. So I did that. I can’t control whether the police would arrest me. I can have some control on whether my arrest can make news.

Whenever I go to protest, I see myself competing with the state for defining the mainstream. I do not position myself as a fringe. Most of the time, I see myself as mainstream, of tomorrow if not of today. I go to protest to attract more people to join me, not to distance more people from me.
That, I think, is a clear difference between me and many activists. Protest is not an impulsive call, but a strategic action.

Completely unplanned, I emerged to be a ‘street fighter’, leading fellow protesters, in the Bersih 2 rally on July 9, 2011, a Saturday. In Thursday afternoon (July 7), Ambiga (Sreenevasan), Pak Samad (Said) and I went to Bukit Aman to negotiate with the police top brass led by IGP (Inspector-General of Police) Tan Sri Ismail Omar. The meeting kept going around in circles for nearly an hour as the Police tried to persuade us to move the rally somewhere else from Stadium Merdeka, just two days before the date. Earlier, we were already slammed by our supporters for accepting Stadium Merdeka as per Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Mizan’s advice to avoid street protests. At that time, Prime Minister Najib Razak made a generous offer for us to pick any stadium. “Don’t walk on the street. We will let you shout if you go indoors so you don’t obstruct people.” When Bersih accepted his offer and picked Stadium Merdeka, now the Police tried to get us to agree to an alternative venue two days before the rally. The police must be seeing us as idiots. Ambiga lectured them on conscience and public interests but to no avail. Finally, I decided to go point blank. I told the IGP, “Tan Sri Ismail, you may extend your hospitability on us, but it wouldn’t change anything. The show would go on this Saturday. We have our toothpaste and toothbrush in the car.” That was basically telling the Police, if you want to use ISA, go ahead, but the show will go on. We won’t budge. That brought the unproductive meeting to the end not long after.

I learned this tough posturing from game theory, from movies like Mel Gibson’s “Ransom” and also a real-life example in the 1987 Operasi Lalang: veteran Chinese education activist Cikgu Loot Ting Yee. When the detention of Dong Jiao Zong leaders created a chilling effect amongst many of his colleagues, Cikgu Loot went against the tide. He packed a simple bag and went to the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall to wait for his own detention. And the Police never came.

Within an hour after we left Bukit Aman, the Police called a press conference, showing a court injunction that they had obtained earlier to prevent 91 activists and politicians from entering the city centre. Five Bersih leaders – Ambiga, Maria (Chin), Zaid Kamarudin, Haris Ibrahim and I – were on the list. Funny enough, Yap Swee Seng who had moved to work in Bangkok for several years was also banned. It seemed that the Police’s intelligence was so outdated.

The five of us checked into Kuala Lumpur Hilton at KL Sentral on Friday afternoon so that we could be in city centre to lead the protest. KL Hilton gave us the vintage point to look at all the surrounding roads that were all dead due to the police’s roadblocks. By noon, Kuala Lumpur looked like a ghost town. We thought that the Police’s lockdown had won the battle. Then by 2pm, we were told by participants later, people suddenly emerged everywhere, from hotel rooms and office spaces that they had been hiding. Like the five of us, thousands of protesters had quietly entered the city a day earlier.

A group of protesters led by Opposition politicians – I remember Tian Chua was one of them – appeared near KL Sentral. The five of us were escorted to march through KL Sentral towards Brickfields. But soon we were met with police’ tear gases. Our crowd were broken up. Ambiga and Maria were arrested immediately. Zaid Kamaruddin was rescued by his IKRAM friends. Haris and I went into hiding in an underground construction site – likely a driveway into carpark. When the smoke dispersed and we tried to catch our breath again, we realised that we were the last two Bersih leaders left there. Other Bersih leaders came in from other directions and we had no way to know their whereabout and join force. 

Since we had Stadium Merdeka as the original gathering point, we decided that we should walk towards there until we got arrested and joined Ambiga and Maria in police detention. I pulled out my Jalur Gemilang (the national flag) and my ‘little red book’ from my backpack and started walking on Jalan Tun Sambantan towards Jalan Petaling. An unknown Indian gentleman helped me carried the other end of the flag. Harris was not far behind me. 

When we walked past the junction of Jalan Scott, under the Jalan Damansara flyover on Jalan Tun Sambanthan, I was stopped by two plain-cloth policemen who then called a uniform policeman to assist. I held the flag up my chest and declared in English, “this is the evidence of my real crime!” when one of them tried to pull my flag, I snapped as I was already very upset with the tear gas attack and arrest of comrades. I scolded him for pulling my flag, “Don’t pull my flag. you may not have respect for the flag. I do.” He was a bit stunned, probably never got scolded by a civilian before. I looked back, there was 20-30 people, Malays and Indians, watching. Then I declared in Malay, “I am detained for believing in the freedom this flag represents.” The crowd cheered. I thought I was already under detention, Amazingly, when I continued to walk forward, the police just stepped aside. I went all the way up to the end of Jalan Sultan near Stadium Merdeka, where I led the crowd singing national anthem.

That’s how I was transformed from the narrative guy to a street fighter. It happened by chance. I did not plan the act as in the earlier episode in the Parliament carpark. Later, Harris Ibrahim jokingly said that I was in a trance, ‘dirasuk’. Looking back, I made it a point to really believe in what I said. I wanted to wrestle back the mainstream narrative, so I was not going to concede all these state symbols to the government as if like was on the other side. I was its competitor, so I internalised the idea that the flag represented our constitutional patriotism. That moment when the policeman tried to pull down my flag perhaps to see what was on my yellow t-shirt, I snapped. Since we had come to this stage, and I expected to be arrested like Ambiga and Maria, why should I be diplomatic anymore? I just scolded him. That was a very spontaneous response.

The Bersih 2 rally was epic. A lot of unintended consequences. After 1969, Malaysians were told to stay away from politics because ‘politics divides us, politics is dangerous’. Bersih 2 turned that around. With communist insurgency in the background, Malaya’s independence was largely won on the negotiation table, leaving ordinary Malaysians with no feeling and memories of political camaraderie across ethnic lines. Acting like colonial forces cracking down on protesters fighting for national independence, the police unwittingly turned strangers of different ethno-religious backgrounds into comrades. In a legendary scene, a Malay gentleman insisted to stay back as the last person before helping a group of non-Malay protesters to escape from a narrow lane near Hospital Tung Shin. One version had it that this gentleman said, “if there must be bloodshed today, let it be Malay blood, not Chinese blood. We must not have another May 13.” A friend of mine, Bao Kiew An, wrote a farewell letter to his young daughters and made livelihood arrangement for his wife before going to the rally. I know many people including my students at Monash Malaysia who cried singing Negaraku on the streets, because the feeling of having a country as ‘tanah tumpahnya darahku’ was never so real. I summarise Bersih 2 with these three lines: “They locked down the city, only to lock us into solidarity. They fired water cannons and tear gas at us, only to crush our fear. We went to the streets to look for democracy, only to find a country.”

These are big major protests but I believe that in between BERSIH 1 and 2, there was 1BLACKMalaysia and you were a primary figure.

I led two episodes of creative protests.

The first was ‘1BlackMalaysia’ mocking of Najib’s 1Malaysia campaign, before Bersih 2, following the 2009 Perak Constitutional Crisis when the Pakatan Rakyat state government was toppled by party-hopping and request for new election was denied.

The second was ‘KillTheBill’ (KTB), with its name modified from Uma Truman’s movie “Kill Bill”, starting November 2011 to early 2012, in protest of the Peaceful Assembly Bill – the Bill that we wanted to kill – the Bill was part of Najib’s political transformation programme after the public backlash on his Bersih 2 crackdown. The signature prop used in these protests is yellow balloons.

KTB was a group of Bersih alumni, including CY Phang, Monny, Alven, Wah Hoo, Moree, Anis, CK, Li Huang, Jia Jun, Swee Kheng and Kim Fong. Most were ordinary citizens with no links to political parties.

Another group of Bersih supporters, Johor Yellow Flame (JYF), also organised similar activities in protest of the Bill in the south. Unlike KTB members who were mostly single, JYF had many families amongst them. Imagine how funny when Police confiscated yellow balloons from their children.

In between them, “How to Demonstrate Creatively: A Manual of Innovative Civil Disobedience in Malaysia”, published by Amir Muhammad’s Mahahari in the New Malaysian Essays 3 edited by Yin Shao Loong.

I was also a supporter of several campaigns which used creative protests to get their messages through. One of them is the “1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower” Facebook campaign in 2010, whose initial success made it to Al-Jazeera and needed off-line events to maintain public participation. On the campaign’s first monthiversary, a UTAR student organised a ‘blind-date’ cake party through Facebook at McDonald in Kampar, and the Police over-reacted by sending 14 police officers to observe the blind-date – attended by only 6 people — on the next table. Another cake-eating group of 15 people at KLCC fountain made it to the news when dispersed by the KLCC security guards for organising a ‘suspicious activity’. One way to weaken a bad system is to make it laughable. You can be angry and terrified at the same time. But it is quite impossible for people to laugh at someone or something and simultaneously feel terrified by them.

The anti-Lynas movement in Kuantan also organised creative protests to attract non-activists and expand their support base. They started with a Mother’s Day beach party at Teluk Cempedak. The following month, they had a Father’s Day march. The idea was very simple: the Lynas rare earth plant may cause deformed babies and harm children (and adults alike), so ordinary mothers and fathers are standing up against it. 

Sometimes, protests can be done in even more simplistic ways. In 2009, some of us silently stood outside the entrance of LRT and walked around Pavillion, carrying a portrait of the late Teoh Beng Hock with wording “Who killed him?” or some other messages in a clear holder. We did not disrupt anyone and were not chased out. This was done with Padma Zachariah, Hui Chun, Zhen Hui and Jared. In two other earlier episodes way before the Covid-19 years, probably 2006-7, several other activists and I protested against media censorship by reading newspapers upside down – “because news is reported upside down now, this is the only right way to read them!” – in one case, and by wearing facemask with a X sign – to symbolise silencing of broadcasters – and walking around the circles in Suria KLCC from one floor to next. These were like a combination of performance art and flash mob.

But protests, or making political statements, can also be done in more subtle ways, like fasting, saying sorry and tracing scriptures.

In 2009, some residents in the mixed neighbourhood of Section 23 at Shah Alam opposed the relocation of a Hindu temple. One claim made was that Muslims might be disturbed by the temple bell. That led to the infamous cowhead protest to threaten both the state government and the Hindus. It dawned on me that some people needed segregation to maintain their identity and they feared contact and commonalities would harm it. It was then Ramadan. When Muslims and non-Muslim would have very different daily routines, and from there, sometimes misunderstanding and conflicts happened (unrelated to the Hindu Temple). To break that segregation and promote empathy, I proposed a fasting session for non-Muslims to join Muslims. Moved by Pastor Sivin Kit and several others, the first “Fast for the Nation: Peace for Malaysia” event happened on September 16, 2009. 

In the Ramadan two years later, a Say Sorry Campaign was launched by the Save Yong Kui Vong campaign led by (Ngeow) Chow Ying. Vui Kong was a death inmate in Singapore for acting as a drug mole. Vui Kong who came from a broken family embraced Buddhist and repented for his wrongdoing in jail. He even started tracing scripture (Heart Sutra) in his cell, a religious act for repetence or bringing blessings. The Singapore Government’s standard position is not to pardon drug moles so that their fate could deter others. Pleas and pressure from foreign governments and groups are most often ineffective or even counterproductive because the Singapore Government wants to show its determination. Knowing this, the Save Vui Kong campaign is largely a soft public relationship campaign set out to win public empathy for Vui Kong from within and without Singapore and leave his fate to Singaporeans and their government. Even in Malaysia, some people were reluctant to forgive him because they want drug moles to pay for their act. We then decided to distinguish between forgiveness and clemency. So, you can forgive Vui Kong yet still support his death penalty. Or, you can both reject his plea of forgiveness and also want him dead.

Because it was Bulan Ramadan, the “Maaf Zahir Batin” (seeking each other’s forgiveness) practice of Muslims inspired us to initiate the Say Sorry campaign. Yes, this was the forerunner of the ‘Maaf Zahir Batin 365 campaign’ after the KK Mart incident this year. It was not about Vui Kong. It is to encourage seeking forgiveness from and extending forgiveness to people around us. We wanted to help Vui Kong to spread love and compassion. As for Vui Kong, we joined force with Buddhist organisation to organise “Heart Sutra tracing” activities to help Vui Kong. Thousands of copies of heart sutra (only 260 Chinee words each) traced by people all around Malaysia were collected and sent to Singapore’s Buddhist association. Unfortunately, the recipient decline to accept the gift. Despite many setbacks, Singapore Government subsequently changed its laws and Vui Kong managed to escape his death penalty.

Looking at it comparatively across these protests, what are the actions or strategies you all discussed to advance the goal?

Protest, to me, is not necessary a show of anger and frustration, but is a public advertisement without spending money buying a billboard, a newspaper space, a broadcast slot or an internet pop-up. In other words, it is a way for poor people, or people without too much resource, to get their message through and win more people to their side. If you do it well, protest may be more effective than paid advertisements, because you may move people more effectively through emoion and interaction. To reach out the wider group, you would need the help of mass media or social media to spread or viral your story. This is why success protesters must understand how newsroom works.

Of course, while the protests I like seek to touch or convince people, there are also protests that seek to obstruct, intimate or blackmail. Some people like to frame the second type of protests as
civil disobedience but their disobedience is hardly civil. Sit-in to create a scene of protest, to force some soul-searching is fine. To stop others’ activities so that they must listen to you is not fine,
no matter how strong your causes are. That’s basically a form of violence or coercion. For example, I support climate actions, but I would never support vandalism on art or heritage to stop the oil. Likewise, I don’t believe in occupying parliament or government building to stop a policy or a law that I don’t like.

It’s not just that violence is wrong. Or that such radical moves may invite harsh suppression by authoritarian governments. Even in democracies where protests enjoy great tolerance, I disagree with protests that are out to obstruct or intimidate, going beyond mocking, expressing anger or causing embarrassment. Very simple, if I am allowed to do this because I have a life-saving, overarching, pertinent cause, then I am in no position to oppose another person doing the same thing because she or he claims to be having another life-threatening, overarching, pertinent cause.

Protest is about persuasion. Not coercion. In my manual of creative protest, I formulated five rules. Rule 1, everyone can demonstrate, like AirAsia’s slogan – ‘everyone can fly’. Rule 2, politics is an inseparable part of everyday life. Rule 3, peace speaks louder than violence. Rule 4, demonstrate because you are mainstream. And Rule 5, begin with the news headlines in mind, paraphrased from management guru Steven Covey’s ‘begin with the end in mind’.

Having gone through Bersih 1 and 2, I learned how labourious it is to organise mass protests and most of the time you need the backup of political parties. This poses a serious question: if your cause is not embraced by some major political parties, then you may not be able to effectively protest and be noticed. Even participating in protests can be daunting for salaried persons because you need to take leave. This means, if you want to make your voice heard on public affairs, you might need to be rich to buy ad, or be backed by some political parties to organise protest, or even be financially independent or working as a freelancer to be able to join a protest during workdays.

1BlackMalaysia was my first attempt to test out this idea by wearing black, because I had a day job as a lecturer and could not go to Ipoh to protest against the planned removal of Pakatan Rakyat speaker Sivakumar on May 7, 2009 which was a Thursday. I thought of the idea of getting everyone angered by what happened in Perak to wear black, creating a scene. Why wearing black? I learned from the pioneer of colour-themed protests in Malaya, UMNO, whose supporters ‘berkabung’ in white in protest against the Malayan Union. Representing Bersih, I managed to get some civil society leaders to join me to call a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, but few others would believe that it could work.

I was very lucky to have the Police believing in me. They feared that my message would catch fire and they made it a self-fulfilling prophecy by arresting me. I was detained from Tuesday evening and released on Friday afternoon. The Police did not charge me on Sedition Act, on which I was probed, but only detained my computer for a year. That detention of three days and three nights popularised my cause. A new NGO called SCAR – Students of Chinhuat Against Repression – emerged and issued a press statement condemning my detention. SCAR held a picket at the gate of Monash University Malaysia. The Police over-reacted by sending 13 cars of armed police personnels. They did not know that was the work of only two students – ZH and ML – who definitely had learned well on news making. Of course, as SCAR representatives read out their statement, many academics and students stood behind the gate as spectators, many wearing black, effectively constituting a gathering in support of me. More damagingly for the police, they over-reacted on civil society friends who demonstrated in solidarity with me outside the Brickfields Police station on Wednesday night and Thursday night. On Thursday night (May 9), they did not arrest protesters, but even five lawyers who act as the protesters’ counsels. This led to a demonstration by 200 lawyers at the lobby of the Jalan Data Court Complex and subsequently a Bar Council’s EGM to censure the police. 

After my release, I continued and doubled down on the creative protests of 1BlackMalaysia. It started with an 1BlackMalaysia appreciation dinner for my civil society comrades and lawyers – I was privileged to have the backing of seven lawyers including Edmund Bon, Amer Hamzah, Latheefa Koya, Chow Ying and Richard Hwang. From black glutinous rice to black bean desserts, all dishes were black. Colour code is important as it meets the first rule of newsworthiness – odd and unusual.

To keep the momentum of public wrath against the Perak power grab — for those who were too young, the anger was like the Sheraton Move in 2020 — I devised 1BlackCoffee protests which lasted for several weeks. As an individual – Bersih was not active then before its rebranding the following year as Bersih 2 under the leadership of Ambiga and other civil society leaders – there was no way for me to build a network. So, I needed to device a simple method for people to take the initiative, in a way like how lonewolf terrorists self-radicalise and self-activate following some common guides. The protesters in Hong Kong employed the leaderless approach in 2019 to avoid crackdown. We did it ten years earlier in the 1BlackMalaysia protests for very pragmatic considerations – while PR parties organised their own events to protest on Perak, these events were not routine and could not possibly be as they had other things to do; for protests to be routine, they must be simple and low cost to organise. Low cost in not just logistical sense, but also politically. Protesters must be able to go home safely for them to continue. So, our protests must not be disruptive, let alone violent (Creative protest Rule 3). It should be seamlessly blended into daily life so the Police cannot stop you without stopping others. (Rule 2)

The 1BlackCoffee has a very simple set of rules: every Thursday (the day Speaker Sivakumar was removed) night, wear black, go to Ipoh Old Town White Coffee (chosen for the obvious reason), order black coffee (befitting the theme 1BlackMalaysia, also distinct from the signature White Coffee). Whether to have a small placard is completely optional. It is simply to create a scene that would send a message: if you see a bunch of people wearing black gathering in Ipoh Old Town White Coffee drinking black coffee every Thursday night, you know the protest is still alive. You want people to believe that we would grow to be the majority. Rule 4 (mainstream). This is so simple, low-cost, safe, that people can choose to not join, but cannot give excuse that they cannot join. Rule 1. It is peaceful. Rule 3. If the media would report it, we can get to spread the message. Rule 5 (headlines). Can the police arrest people for drinking black coffee wearing black in the same place at the same time, without affecting normalcy? Rule 2. Obviously, the Ipoh Old Town White Coffee did not appreciate us picking their outlets, for which we set up Facebook event page for each gathering. On the first week when we started, out of the four outlets chosen, one closed for renovation and another closed for private party but was quiet inside. Again, few people thought that this would work, so many who signed up on the Facebook event page did not turn up. But because the Ipoh Old Town White Coffee believed in us and responded accordingly, we made international news.   

Where did I get this idea from? Muslim prayers. Muslims pray five time a day according to the schedules, with a standard set of rituals. Even one person can carry out the prayer. To make protest something everyone can join, it needs to be that simple yet meaningful.

Compared to 1BlackMalaysia in 2009, the KillTheBill protests two years later were more organised. And as a group, KTB saw itself on a mission of technological transfer in the business of protest: how to organise cheap and safe demonstrations.

The first KillTheBill protest happened on 26 November 2011 (Saturday) at the park behind KLCC, just before the Bar Council’s 1000-strong march against the Peaceful Assembly Bill on 29 November (Tuesday). I had a discussion with Maria (Chin) on keeping the momentum and we decided to organise it as individuals. This was not organised as Bersih as Bersih’s modus operandi was to have big rallies, and we just had one (Bersih 2) on July 9. We sent invitations to Bersih supporters and Bersih co-chair and national Laurette Pak Samad was our star participant. To avoid arrest by police or obstruction by KLCC securities, we gave a very clear instruction: no placard, no banner, only yellow balloons, which protesters could write messages, and they could bring kids. Why balloons? Balloons symbolise fun. We wanted to counter the narrative that protest was disruptive. Protest is fun. It is part of daily life. It is mainstream. Rules 2, 3 and 4. 

Addressing some participants’ potential fear of police arrest, we took the bull by the horns with a reverse psychology message: “if you were to be arrested by the police for holding balloons, congratulations, you would make it to international headlines at BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera”.  Instead of denying the risk, we educated our participants on risk and benefit assessment. Expecting that the Police’s special branch would get our message, that was of course also a message directed to them: don’t make yourself a fool! Unbelievably, four years later, a woman was indeed charged for distributing yellow balloons at a shopping mall during a visit by Najib and Rosmah. For the first KTB protest, we managed to get 400 people and dispersed after one hour.

The following week, we went back again, this time for poem recitation led by Pak Samad. When we were told off that we did not apply for permission from KLCC to recite poem, we complied and dismissed after confirming with the security guards that we would not need their permission to admire the beautiful Christmas decorations inside KLCC. So, the third week we came back to admire the Christmas decorations en mass in yellow t-shirts. Rule 2. Politics is not separated and separable from our daily life. Instead, we can multitask in protests. In one of the subsequent protests, yellow protesters travelled on an LRT coach from one place to another and ended up in KLCC. That was to constitute a ‘moving assembly’, the technical term for marching that the Bill aimed to regulate. We continued for eight weeks until the energy ran dries as the novelty is lost. In all those KLCC protests, we always encouraged participants to patron businesses there because we were pro-business and wanted to make a point – protests are good for economy. Rule 4 (mainstream).

You have been wearing black for 14 years now, that is part of your living embodiment of making protest an everyday life. Small scale or big scale, is trying to mainstream protest as a form of expression without disruption is kind of like your manifesto so to speak?

Yes. Rule 2. You cannot separate my politics from my daily life. Wearing black is not disruptive to anyone else. Because I have been wearing black since 2009, I have been protesting all time. The only way for you to stop me is to strip me, but that would be too far for the society to accept it, so you have to live with my perpetual protest.

Many people ask me why I continue to wear black after 2018 when PH came into power or after 2022 when PH helmed the government again. The underlying logic behind their question is that I wear black because I want a PH government. They get it completely wrong. I care about the rules of the game, not the winner of the game. In fact, I was not even opposed to party-hopping in 2009, because that was permitted by the rules, and Anwar courted an UMNO ADUN to hop because Najib reversed that two weeks later with defection of four ADUNs including the UMNO man. I was opposed to the Palace’s refusal of allowing fresh election because at that time PH was a majority government and voters should be allowed to decide the new winner. So, when Perak went to poll on May 5, 2013, and returned a BN government, my original cause of wanting an elected government had expired. I switched my goalpost to changing the majoritarian political system. I am now accustomed to having an all-black wardrobe. I may not be keen to change my fashion style. If Malaysia would move away from a pure First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system some day, I may celebrate by dyeing a strand of my hair yellow.

Do you feel the introduction of the Peaceful Assembly Act changed the way people protest?

The Peaceful Assembly Act did away the need for police permit. It was meant to be a liberalising move, a progress from the old provision in the Police Act that gave the police enormous power to determine who could demonstrate. The Act only required the organisers to inform the Police. Many OCPDs (Officer in-charge of Police District) still talk about police permits as if they are still living in 2011. However, without a normative affirmation of the right to peaceful assembly, the notification became the new tool for the Police to selectively obstruct the protests they do not like. This was why we organsied the KillTheBill protests to oppose it. We did not want it to be ineffective or, worse, counterproductive, in opening up the democratic space.

The Act defined the assemblies narrowly as any gathering of more than two persons. So, do we need to notify the police before going to a mamak restaurant to watch football, or shopping at supermarket? Clearly, all those gatherings beyond two persons were allowed. It only becomes an issue when you gather for a public cause. In other words, you get regulated only when you gather because you care for your country and become political. This is deeply rooted in the authoritarianism mindset that ordinary citizens should stay away from politics. Rules 1 and 2 in my creative protest manual were just fitting to challenge this anti-politics thinking.

What has happened after the PAA was the disappearance of police violence on protests. Police continued to harass protest organisers but they don’t beat them up anymore. The last occurrence of en mass police violence on protesters happened in Bersih 3. For this, I would give the credit to the Bersih 4 and 5 rallies. Both rallies, especially Bersih 4 which lasted for 34 hours, made it clear to the public that large-scale protests could be organised without any trouble. This took away the legitimacy for police’s crackdown. Greater and more sincere collaboration between the police and protest organisers became the new modus operandi. The Police must have realised the political cost of continuing violent crackdowns. Looking back, there has been a progress from Bersih 1, then Hindraf, whose protesters who would endure the pain of water cannons yet holding the national flag because they were so frustrated of their marginalisation, to Bersih 2 and Bersih 3, where police cracked down brutally, before Bersih 4 and 5 set the new norm. To everyone’s credit, Malaysia has matured.

You already walked us through your role in BERSIH 2. How has your role in subsequent Bersih rallies changed over time?

I played an active role on the streets again in the Bersih 3 rally, on April 28, 2012, leading the crowd on a four-wheel drive at the start, and helped dispersing the crowd at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman when the police started crackdown after 3pm. I was the only Bersih Steering Committee member who happened to be at that area. I was later arrested and beaten up by the police in the evening when I went back to disperse the remaining protesters near Masjid Jamek.

The crackdown on Bersih 3 was unexpected after Najib acknowledged his blunder of Bersih 2 crackdown and then declared his political liberalisation plan on September 15, 2011, the eve of Malaysia Day. Besides the PPA, this reform package included the repeal of ISA (Internal Security Act), which was later replaced by SOSMA [Special Offences (Special Measures) Act]. Earlier in August, Najib had announced the formation of a Parliamentary Special Select Committee (PSSC) on Electoral Reforms led by minister Dr Maximus Ongkili. Because the PSSC turned out to be a superficial PR exercise, Bersih called for its third rally.

Because of Najib’s conceding posture, the Police exercised unforeseen restrains and ordinary Malaysians could feel their political efficacy growing. On the eve of Bersih 3, I was shocked by what I saw at the Jalan Sultan and Jalan Petaling area. The atmosphere was festive, as if it was a New Year’s eve. Protesters filled up tables in restaurants and by the roadside before the big day. Loud chanting of slogans could be heard from time to time. At Bersih, some of us were a bit worried whether we could control the situation if the other side sends some agent provocateurs. Nothing happened, fortunately. The next day, although we’re supposed to start at 2pm but people were already there right in the morning, so we started marching around by 10 am.

We were supposed to end the rally at 4 pm but by 3pm, Ambiga announced dismissal at one end of Jalan Tun Perak Jalan Pudu, Jalan Tan Cheng Lock, and the Maybank square. However, because the crowd was huge, the message did not get through to the other end of Jalan Tun Perak nearing Merdeka Square. In hint sight, we did not plan well for dispersal of the crowd. The Police were heavily positioned around the Merdeka Square to guard it from the protesters. Not far from Jalan Tun Perak, barricades set up by the Police separated the uniform police personnels from the protesters, many of them were from PKR. Bersih’s official position was to not break the barricades but some of the protesters there probably wanted to claim a greater victory. They finally broke the barricades and that ended the Police’s restraint. It gave them the perfect excuse to go violent and went after all protesters.

I was there near the barricades were broken. I told the protesters not to push the barricades before moving away from the barricades towards the direction of DBKL on the other side of Jalan Tun Perak. Soon, the police charged towards Jalan Tun Perak from Merdeka Square, with tear gas and water cannons. Everyone ran northward onto Jalan Raja Laut and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. I retreated from Jalan Raja Laut towards Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman near Sogo. Along the way, I told protesters to disperse. At Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, some police riders passed by, and some angry protesters threw mineral waterbottles at them. I urged them to stop and said “Don’t attack police. Bersih is not against police. If you attack police, you are not friends of Bersih but enemies of Bersih.” I was very conscious of the danger caused by agent provocateurs. I was soon alerted by fellow protesters that a police car was overturned on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, closer to the direction of Jalan Tun Perak. I quickly went over and found no one got caught in the car. I did not know who turned the police car upside down. I told protesters around not to touch it. I wanted to make sure Bersih did not get blamed for vandalism it did not commit. I made sure I did my best to minimise the destructions in the mess.

When the situation was a bit calmer, I walked back to Jalan Raja Laut, took the LRT to KL-Sentral and joined the press conference called by Bersih at 5pm. Ambiga and other Steering Committee members were already there. After the press conference, Maria and I went back to the area near Masjid Jamek on my car to help disperse the remaining protesters. We were close comrades since Bersih 1 and were also closely connected to the grassroots. I recalled that KL actually became cleaner after Bersih 2 as our protesters collected rubbishes after the rally. But what I saw in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was like a war zone. I could tell that some protesters would listen to us if we advised them to disperse. When we reached Masjid Jamek, we saw police personnels and protesters were shouting at each other, and then suddenly the police charged ito the crowd. Maria managed to catch a bus and left. I went into hiding in Hotel A-One near the Old Market Square Clock Tower. After hiding in the budget hotel for about an hour, I came out and went to pick up my car parked near Reggae Mansion. I was planning to leave because there was nothing I could do.

Before I got into my car, a uniform policeman came and grabbed me. Protesters who were caught there were escorted by policemen to walk to an empty field somewhere between Merdeka Square and the St Mary’s Cathedral, where some police trucks were parked. In front of me was a guy called Shah, an Indian Muslim from Malacca who volunteered in Bersih office very briefly. Upon reaching the empty field, we were instructed to run the gauntlet of policemen. I saw Shah being hit and knew it would happen to me as I walked forward. It was like watching a horror movie happening to you. The policemen didn’t recognise me. Had they recognised me, they might not beat me, or more likely, they might beat me more badly. I heard some of them using racist slurs like pemakan babi and questioning why Chinese wanted to get into trouble.

Anyway, when they hit me, I deliberately let myself falling on the ground. They chastised me for faking injury but stopped hitting me when I stood up. I was then led to a truck where I saw protesters who were badly assaulted as if they were wounded prisoners of war. This was not unusual in rallies before Bersih 4. I knew of a Malay young man from Seberang Prai who lost one side of his eyesight in Bersih 2. Looking at my minor injury, I was very grateful that I went through this – to experience the suffering but at a much milder level, and to have a better chance to seek justice than ordinary protesters who might not have the legal means to pursue it. I felt the same way after spending three nights at a very crowded and filthy lockup at the old Brickfield Police headquarters. I wowed to myself that I would take up lockup and prison reforms as a cause someday. I still remember that wow.

But even my case did not get the attention I expected even though I immediately made medical checkup to keep a record. None of my Bersih colleagues thought that this was worth pursuing beyond complaining it in the press conference. The legal obstacle was that the police personnels who brutalised protesters would do so without their name badge, making it impossible for victims to recognise the assailants. But I was lucky because the Police unwittingly helped me again. The Police sued Bersih for not protecting their properties and failed in our responsibility as event organiser. This gave us the chance to file counterclaims. While the rest of the committee members sued the Police for failing their responsibility to facilitate a peaceful assembly, my counter claim was unique. It was about my assault by the policeman. For this, I am always grateful to my lawyer, the late Mr Ang Hean Leng from Hishamuddin and Lee. He was also a parttime lecturer at Monash Malaysia. Upon knowing that Bersih’s decision to file counter-claims, he convinced me that it would be better for us to have individual lawyers to make stronger representations in each circumstance. And when he learned about my injury, he immediately advised me to focus on this. With his excellent representation, I won the case. Neither the Police nor other Bersih leaders succeeded in the claim against each other. 

In Bersih 4, I was a proponent of the decision to make it a 34-hour event, from 2pm August 29 to 11.59pm August 30, in 2015. I engaged both opinion leaders and the public, to defend Bersih’s decision from critics from both ends, those who condemn it as dangerous or irresponsible, and those who wanted it to be extended into an ‘Occupy (Hong Kong) Central’-style on-going civil disobedience. I did not play an active role in Bersih 5 (November 19, 2016), as I focused more on challenging constituency delimitation proposal by the EC (Election Commision). The operational leaders of these two protests were Thomas (Fann) and HY (aka ‘Bruce Ong’).

In Bersih 4, the central debate was: should the rally go past 34 hours if the circumstance appeared to be favourable? Some like DAP’s Superman (Dr Hew Kuan Yau) tried to push Bersih towards the long-term occupation of some public space, ala Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Central. For them, if the 34-hour protest works out well, why should you keep your promise and disperse the crowd? They saw Bersih’s approach as being too conservative, too too middle-class and too bound by SOP (Standing Operation Procedure). They dismissed Bersih as cowards who dared not take political risk.

This is exactly where Bersih differed from most politicians as political entrepreneurs. Many politicians love political adventurism. They want to win big and are prepared to gamble. Bersih sought certainty in politics and wanted inclusive outcomes for most peoples, instead of maximum outcomes for some people. Bersih’s stance and calculus was very clear-cut. We promised protesters their safety in exchange of their participation, and used the numbers they gave us to leverage for safety – making it politically too expensive for government to crack down. In this logic, the larger the protesters’ number, the safer we would be. We wont trade our participants’ safety for bigger outcomes, like bringing down the government. Call us conservative or coward as you like. We are reformists, not political gamblers or adventurists.

In one of the last meetings before the Bersih 4 rally, Thomas Fann asked the entire steering committee a very serious question: “how many people have to die before we call off the rally?” Some may think rallies are fun or can be done impulsively. For consequentialists like Thomas and me, leaders have to make decisions thinking about everyone and the larger picture.

We all paused, and Thomas offered his answer: one person. If one person died from some conflict with the police, immediately we would call it off. Even though it might hurt Bersih whatsoever, we would do so.

You won the civil suit, is that right?

Yes. The Police were ordered to pay RM 12,000 for damages and RM 30,000 for cost. And the interesting part is when the police showed their evidence, they showed the video that I was telling people not to touch, not to attack police, amidst the chaos at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. So that goes back to what I had said, protest should not be a means of coercing others. I stand firm on that. I don’t think that any cause warrants the use of violence. I’m very much, deep down, a classical liberal, who sees violence as the worst threat to human lives.

Which support or resources were very important to you guys, whether from politicians, CSO, workers, media or so on?

I would say the most important ones are your partners in civil society – from participants, mobilisers, funders, to lawyers – on one hand, and the media – mass media and now social media — on the other hand. You need to get the story out. In the Bersih 2 rally, we expected police violence. What we feared was — what if some of our young supporters fought back against the police and we ended up in bloodsheds? Anticipating this, we gave the instruction for people to protect the national flags they carry. If you were beaten up and had your bloods shed on the flags, that’s fine. The public would be able to see clearly which side is at fault. You organise or join protest to tell a story effectively. The only weapon you should use to shoot is a camera.

Do you feel the movement of protest has left an impact on your life? Is there something that you wish to do differently or ought to do more?

I certainly think that it has empowered me. Going through all these things, I know what an individual is capable of doing. I don’t think I would change my game if I were given a second chance to do it all over. As whether you need to do more of that, it depends on the situation. For me, whether to organise or to join a protest is a strategic decision, not a decision to just express myself. That organising protests should be strategic is a requirement I hold it on to myself. I don’t expect everyone to think that way.