Sarah Irdina is a co-founder of MISI Solidariti, a youth-led collective to empower society through the value of direct action in Malaysian activism . As a 20 year-old student back in July 2021, she helped to organise the Lawan rally – for which she was detained overnight and her home raided. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the environment that you grew up in?

My name is Sarah. I am 22 years old this year and I go to the University of Nottingham Malaysia. I am the oldest child out of three siblings. I grew up in Sungai Buloh, Selangor and I went to a public school, SK Merbau Sempak. My mom is an English teacher there. I went to SMK Saujana Utama for my high school, and then I went to study foundation and now degree.

Were you political growing up? What was your exposure to politics or activism like?

Leading up to university, I think I’ve always wanted to, like, participate. I was just very angry growing up. When I was 18, I volunteered with the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO). Teach marginalised communities, teach languages, do their drives, get petitions, and stuff like that. I didn’t really know [anything and] I thought that was just it. But I met friends like Viktor (Emil Malek Chew) who wanted to organise a pride rally.

I was one of his close friends at the time [so] we’re like okay, let’s do it. At that time, I didn’t really know what I was getting into, honestly. It was just like “Oh, we’re organising an event? Okay, we’re organising an event.” So we organised the event called “Valentine’s for All”, we did it in two weeks, got a full house turnout, and that’s the start of MISI Solidariti (MS). I was doing a lot of the logistics and I also handled a zine project where the participants got to write and express stuff on paper. The venue was a workspace which can be rented as event space, the owners were queer-friendly, so we knew it’s a safe space. The event was also when I started knowing Mat [Mohammad Alshatri], who talked about police rights, and other activists.

This was right before the pandemic. MISI properly started during the pandemic. I just knew friends and also around that time, I emceed the Women’s March. It was so random, like someone approached me, “Oh Sarah, do you want to emcee?” And I was like “Uhh, okay.” These opportunities came and I just tried to say yes. All of that happened in early 2020, I was 19 then.

Sarah alongside PSM and other NGOs opposing the contract system for medical frontliners in front of Parliament

Sarah alongside PSM and other NGOs opposing the contract system for medical frontliners in front of Parliament.

In September 2020, I started my internship with Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM). The last two months of 2020 is (really) when MS started. We started doing the police brutality stuff, we were campaigning for the IPCMC (Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission), that’s the first thing we did when we actually came together and started to have people over. At that point in time, we only had five people just doing these infographics and we tried to coordinate and reach out as much as we could. For the Save Pos Lanai Campaign, we raised about RM 36,000 in two and a half days. We went to Pos Lanai with PSM because they were helping them out with the legal battle. We really engaged the community, we got all our materials, we did a video, we did interviews, we did everything we could. We went there for a couple of days and then we went back, and then we just kind of coordinated this campaign with PSM. Right now, the legal battle is still ongoing with the state government. 2021 was a big year, there were the Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan (JPKK) and Migran Juga Manusia as well, where we did an installation performance putting shoes together in collaboration with other organisations.

Focusing a bit more on protesting, what was your first experience with protests? Was it being asked to emcee the Women’s March?

No, I’ve come to protests before. I went to the Women’s March the year before that after finding it out online, then I went to a climate rally too, but that was the first time that I emceed it. It was nerve-wracking at the start because I’ve never emceed a march but I got briefed on what I’m going to do, how to control the crowd and so on, so it went pretty fine. Like as soon as I [got] into the rhythm, it was actually fine. It was just very nerve-wracking [leading] up to it.

What was the next thing you were involved in for protest?

We organised the online Labour Day with PSM. That one also happened while we were in lockdown. I was supposed to emcee but I fell asleep! At that time, I was working at SUARAM and we had the SSR (Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat) meeting the night before that. This was 2021 too and Enam Tuntutan happened at Dataran Merdeka the day before. It was a very, very long day and I just passed out, but it was fine. They had another emcee. I emceed the year after that.

That one, MISI helped organise, [it] was not just emceeing. We did promotions, we did the posters and so on building up to the Labour Day itself. We were very involved. Beyond emceeing, we did infographics. MISI Solidariti does a lot of infographics. [PSM] kind of just went, social media, MISI you do. So we did a lot of that, trying to gain traction for the thing.

Sarah standing on the far left, being the MC at a May Day rally in Kuala Lumpur

Sarah standing on the far left, being the MC at a May Day rally in Kuala Lumpur.

How central do you think the role of social media and the graphics you designed to the mobilisation on these fronts?

I think in terms of youth, very. Because we really do get a lot of engagements for our posts and especially [leading] up to Lawan. [Even] before that, our posts [went] viral a lot. I think what makes our social media special compared to others is because we don’t just do social media, we actually organise beyond that. Our whole thing is about direct action and we want to make that as accessible as possible because like I said, we felt like people just get to do this only if you know someone. So that was a very big [motivator]. We want to get other people involved and we don’t want to just be doing this on our own. That’s how our organisation got bigger and bigger and a bit overwhelming, so it was very fast-paced. People really wanted to participate in direct action, it’s just that there were no avenues that were accessible. So what we did [was] very, very simple infographics and then have a call to action after that. That’s just really what we mostly do, that is like what MISI mainly does. We put that call to action so [that] people can channel their anger, especially during the pandemic because everyone’s just so angry.

MISI has always been doing social media. When I said we do the call to action, it’s like with IPCMC, we actually made the website [for] people [to] send the emails. Like, they just click to mass spam emails. So we organised the website, we tried to talk, and then we had a lot of sessions. I think the main thing we worked on throughout this whole thing was really police brutality.

Tell us about the dynamics in MISI because what you described is not exactly a protest organisation, but a youth collective that’s pretty central in terms of its mobilisation. Were people excited to protest, were they hesitant, what were the attitudes within the organisation?

At that point of time, we were just still starting out. We’ve been around for like half a year [before] we started being really active. When we started posting and getting viral, people really [took interest in MISI]. We had to close the sign up sheet. I was the administrative officer, so I [conducted] the interviews. The interviews were selective in terms of wanting to keep a safe space. As much as we want to make it accessible to everyone to join, we need to make it a safe space, right? [So] we were just checking who you are, and then we were just checking what are your values, and then we include the question of how you feel about protests and how you feel about being taken [by the police]. That one is just for safekeeping so we know who we take care of in our organisation. I would say half of the people wanted to be in the frontlines, and then half wanted to work in the background.

Generally, there was an orientation towards, as you mentioned, direct action. Were people happy [with MISI’s direction]?

Yeah, everyone wanted to participate in organising. It’s just that because some people are on scholarship, some people just don’t want their family to know, so we make sure we know that. We have a database to make sure that we do the risk assessments and we make sure everybody does risk assessment so [that] we don’t slip there. So that is why the first time Sharon [Wah] got called, it really shooked [us]. In MS, it wasn’t me first [to get called by the police], it was her because she was a part of the panel for the Chili Powder & Thinner. The one where Anna Har, Sevan [Doraisamy], and Mat got called. And Amin Landak because he was the cartoonist. We had a whole meeting about risk assessment because we really, as much [possible], just want to keep people safe. That is very much our utmost priority. It’s one thing to be in the frontlines and really do it, but it’s more important to take care of yourself.

I suppose this experience helped to build some resilience when it was leading up to Lawan. Do you think the organisation was more prepared because it had some of these experiences?

Yeah but like, it’s one thing to be prepared [and] it’s one thing to actually be in that situation. People still get scared even though we prepared for it, people still get more and more cautious. Especially [after] my arrest, everybody was just like “Yo, we all need to take a break.” It was very scary for everyone and everyone was genuinely scared.

This despite the fact that you had contacts in SUARAM and lawyers?

Yeah because it’s like, for me it’s fine. I don’t have a scholarship. But for other people, they have their family [who] don’t want them to be in this. There’s a lot of people in the organisation, I would say about 30% to 40% of the people in the organisation, who would not want their family to know. Even when they participate in protests and so on, they would wear a mask, they wouldn’t expose themselves or anything.

Just a bit more on some of these details about the organisation. How many people were in MISI and what were they like?

It was very small, [then] it built up, built up, built up especially up to the height of it. We had about 50 people at one point, and then maybe around eight people per working group. Usually, one person is in three working groups at the same time. I was in four. We had members across Malaysia, some I have never even met; mostly university students and multiracial. But the leadership was based in Nottingham because the co-founders were a bunch of friends who started it there.

I think Lawan was definitely the peak of it but [even] before Lawan, maybe two months before, we already had a lot of people. Because how we operate is, we have working groups. We had seven working groups just working on seven different projects. And then, we are all doing this for free. Nobody is getting remunerations [so] it was just not sustainable. It’s not sustainable at all, especially [seeing how] we are retiring MISI Solidariti right now because it was just not sustainable. We are all doing this just purely out of passion, purely out of anger and that’s the only thing that was fueling the organisation. Right now, people are so jaded. People are just burnt out and they don’t have that energy they had before, so it ran out. To be able to organise, especially when it was very fast-paced, was very hard. It’s still very hard now. This is a dilemma in all organisations, right? They want to achieve very big goals and then it’s urgent, it’s desperate, so they don’t have time to be sustainable [and to] create a whole framework. We didn’t think about it either because we were very high on that energy.

You mentioned earlier about interviewing people and creating a safe space for those who actually participate in the organisation. In terms of different ideological strands within MISI Solidariti itself, how do you negotiate differences?

In the interview, we really make sure you’re not homophobic, you’re not xenophobic, and we would ask your opinions on current stances. Basically by signing up, you are most likely a progressive. You don’t have to be like, very left or anything. As long as you’re there, we’re fine. Everyone in the organisation is mostly centre-left. The most thing to the right is like, you’re a liberal. And then we have a lot of internal workshops where we talk about values, we have inductions, especially when we have waves that come in. Let’s say we do recruitment once a month, we would have about seven people joining every month. I was the administrative officer and I organised the induction. We don’t really talk about ideology, but we talk about how the organisation works, our values, what does direct action mean, what does intersectionality mean and so on.

It’s interesting when you mention about those kind of activities that happen within MISI Solidariti itself because even if you go to a different collective, they might not have inductions, workshops, interviews to a certain extent, [so] it seems that [MISI] is a little bit structured in a way. How did you come about to this kind of structure and what vision actually fueled you guys?

Yes, we have a constitution. One month in, we realised we are actually starting to get people, so we gathered together and thought about how we are going to operate. We have elections as well, and the way we vote is ranked choice voting. We have open nominations and so on, and we also have an election committee. There’s a lot of things going on in MISI.

Sarah at a protest against the de-gazettement of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR)

Sarah at a protest against the de-gazettement of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR).

Earlier on you mentioned MISI being unsustainable, but with these structures in place, wouldn’t it outlast individuals who come in and out?

No, because it’s one thing to just have that structure, but I think what we don’t have is resources to take care of our members. We don’t have that. Everyone has commitments, everyone’s a student and everyone’s working. If you’re going to spend half of your time doing this, go back home, do infographics, be angry, you’re going to be tired. I am tired. And then, there’s not enough resources just to take care of ourselves. We try to, but it’s very hard to take care of people. The reason MS fell out is because the structure doesn’t have enough mechanisms for taking care of each other and people were not being taken care of. We have a lot of resources [in terms of] stuff to teach each other, but what we don’t have is how we’re going to take care of each other. And it’s not because people were [hurting each other] or anything, it’s just that MS was so fast-paced [and] turbulent for a very long period, and then [that] energy is going to run out [eventually]. Especially up to my arrest and after that, especially after the fallout of SSR, everybody just [didn’t] feel like this is a safe space anymore. Because we are organising people, you put in energy to work with these people. And when you find out that these people do not take care of their spaces—because the reason I am motivated and what inspires me is because I look up to a lot of people and I have a lot of faith that you are going to take care of the community. So when we felt like our community was not taken care of, then we [didn’t] feel as safe anymore.

You worked with MISI Solidariti which is a youth collective and then with JPPK which is slightly towards the union organising, and then of course with PSM as a political party. How did it influence or oriented your ways in looking at different forms of protests?

Even though I’m in PSM, I don’t really walk around and say I’m part of PSM. I identify myself more [as] like, I work with PSM. Even though I work with PSM, I don’t participate in much party work. I am a party member but that wouldn’t be my primary role. I’m not trying to [be a part of] gerak kerja PSM. I try to help in the background but usually in my capacity with MISI Solidariti, and I shadowed Sivarajan so we linked a lot of these opportunities to MISI Solidariti. And we didn’t do any party work with PSM, we just did organising work.

Let’s say with JPKK, because I was working as a community coordinator, we helped them campaign for the abolishment of the contract system within the government, especially for hospital cleaners and so on. That is usually how it operates. For me, because I already have a certain outlook going into it, [so] what I wanted with PSM and JPKK was really just more on how to do [organising work], and I really learned a lot. Especially with PSM, even when I interned with them, they didn’t even teach you any party things. I didn’t even do any party work, I really just participated in their organising work. One of the first things I did with PSM was Cameron Highlands, they were campaigning for the PPR. We really just never talk about [the] party [and] I’m so glad I did the internship, I learned so much. PSM would organise these Cameron people and they would book them all a bus, and then all these Cameron Highlands B40 people came to the Ministry and we all went to the Ministry, and we were all in the room. So you’re like, actually organising people and that is really what we wanted to do.

I’m just really inspired. I would say that I’m really inspired by PSM, the way they do work. And then if [MISI] had the opportunity to do it—and I guess we did it with the Pos Lanai thing, that is what we did with PSM that we really got our members to go, but then again we started in the pandemic so there were not a lot of members that were really willing to go because of safety precautions. And there was also [the lockdown] because Pos Lanai happened during the pandemic and we had papers to cross borders to Pahang. But yeah, I’m very much just inspired on how to go about organising and that is something that I would want to do with my friends and also participate with them, but not as a [PSM] party member, you know what I mean?

Transitioning now into SSR (Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat). Do you remember how it started and what was the vision then?

“Mana Undi Kami” happened, which was mainly driven by Undi18. When Mana Undi Kami started, there was a momentum where we thought we have to get together. I think Amir [Abdul Hadi] spearheaded the whole thing, but he was there at the formation and then he just took a back seat because he wanted other people to take the front seat. So basically, Viktor had a lot of conversations with Amir, then Amir was inviting us to join. They invited a lot of people from like, Demokrat Kebangsaan, Borneo Komrad, BERSIH. They were spearheading the conversation. At the start, there were about maybe 12 groups but after that, it expanded after the first official protest by SSR. I went to the meeting with Anas [Nor’azim] and Viktor, we came in our capacity as MISI Solidariti members. The meeting organizers were coming up with a list of organizations to be part of SSR, that’s how MISI became a part of SSR. Because we were doing the posters and the drawings, MISI were basically handling the SSR social media traction,and we were working alongside Undi18. But everyone was working together as well, like the social media group also comprised other organisations that can do social media, so they work with us [and] we work together. So it wasn’t really just MISI. I was a spokesperson for the first protest after SSR was properly established.

Sarah participating in the prelude protest leading up to Lawan in front of Parliament

Sarah participating in the prelude protest leading up to Lawan in front of Parliament.

Tell us a bit about that first SSR official protest. What was the lead up to it, what were the ideas like, what was the thinking behind wanting to do protests in the middle of a pandemic?

During the first meeting, we were already planning the big Lawan protest. We were also planning the build-up because we announced that Lawan is going to happen and we will be having a lot of actions leading up to it, so that is when we started the Kerajaan Gagal, the black flag thing, the hashtag #Lawan, that is when it started. And the motivation is, I think that time Muhyiddin (Yassin) was just really doing a bad job and many lives were endangered too.

Can you tell us a bit more about the dynamics in the meetings? It does sound like MISI would obviously be in favour of those actions, but were there voices in the room that were against the actions? How would you describe the discussions and atmosphere leading up to starting the build-up?

We had a jawatan kuasa (JK). They elected some people in the JK and Anas was representing MISI for the JK. It’s only a bit after that I joined the JK, maybe two weeks before the main Lawan protest. I was part of the logistics. It was a really big group in the meeting room. The people in the JK, they are the ones spearheading the conversation and then it’s pretty set that we are doing something. Even from the first time we met, it was very set that we will be doing a series of things for the build-up. They wanted to have a rally the scale of Bersih 2 rally, that was the bigger goal that they had but that was a very far away goal.Lawan was really big as well but there were plans to do more. But then you know, the day after we protested, Muhyiddin resigned, and the momentum died a bit. We held a vigil short while after, we were detained and there was a lot of questioning by the police where we got called in many times.In my view, shortly after that is when the momentum for big actions really died.

Do you remember any distinct voices calling for something bigger, something smaller, anything like that? How was the meeting usually being done?

Something smaller, not much. Something bigger, always. Qyira [Yusri] and Tharma [Pillai] was really pushing for more. There was Numan [Afifi], there was Dobby [Chew], and then there was Bob. Bob wanted to do everything and had many great ideas to include in the protests.

Because when we first met, we already had an objective. So to achieve this objective, then we need a set of people just to spearhead the conversations. So I think that was pretty effective because I feel like if we didn’t have that, then it’s going to be very huru-hara. I think everyone in the meeting, they are all there just to participate. So basically, the meeting would go like this: Okay, so this is what we’re going to do, and then this is what we need. Okay, who is doing logistics? I will take part in logistics. Okay, I will take [charge] of the security part. I am doing marshall. So that is how it went.

What do you remember doing a lot during that period?

There was the 18 minutes of silence during the Mana Undi Kami. And then it was the “Raya di Jalan Raya”, the online thing. And then there was the Flash Mob at Dataran Merdeka yang baca sajak meninggal tu (poetry reading). The rest of MISI members didn’t join in person, so I was joining all of these things in person representing MISI mostly with Anas. I helped organise it and we made sure that everything is there. But there’s a lot of people so I was there to like, hold the flag and mostly to participate in the action. after these things, we will meet up and discuss the next action.

I remember we parked depan Perpustakaan KL and then we just walked there holding the flag. I posted on my Twitter as well, so I was reporting what was happening. I was there throughout the whole thing for SSR – not spearheading but actively participating in the conversation.

You were involved in sit-in protests, very abrupt protests, different sorts of things and then suddenly like, large scale mobilisation. How did you actually imagine the protests would or should be?

Yeah, everything was so fast-paced. I would wake up and [suddenly] there’s a whole new thing.

By the time SSR first met, we already got the idea that we are going to do build-up actions and the discussions already started then. So what kind of stuff we’re going to do, I already imagined a very big protest at that point because we are building up to that and that is the goal. So the goal is to just get as much traction, as much attention as we could to make sure people come out on the 31st July. So at that point of time, memang I expect a very, very big thing because so many people are part of this. And then Mana Undi Kami was already big and that wasn’t even open to public, it was really just word of mouth.

Most of us thought the final Lawan protest was a pretty good turn out, but do you think the build-up events were the most effective or do you think any of them were counterproductive?

I think it was pretty good except for the Raya one, I don’t think that one worked out. That one didn’t really gain a lot of traction because I think it’s boring, because it wasn’t action. It was just trying to make sure people tweet with the hashtag Lawan to just keep on the conversation, so that was like the goal. To just keep it in everyone’s mind every week. [But] everything else, I think was pretty good. The convoy thing, we had [it] across states, it wasn’t just KL and I was part of the convoy as well. Yeah, I think everything else was pretty good. I mean, we could have done more. We could have definitely done more, but [we had a] very small amount of time and every other week, [there] was something happening. I still felt like it was very fast and I still feel like bro, this whole month just went through like that?

Sarah reading a speech at parliament to the press on the six demands of the SSR

Sarah reading a speech at parliament to the press on the six demands of the SSR.

You mentioned the convoy earlier. Where were you at that time and how did you actually manage to convince people to come with you together to go around?

In the Telegram group, it was managed by us. We had our admin, it was [redacted]. [They were] the ones handling the Telegram, making sure all this info [was shared]. There were a lot of subscribers on Telegram and that was the main point of contact from the organisers to the [people on the ground]. And I’m pretty sure probably hundreds of them are just SBs in there. The convoy also, the police joined with us. They were helping us convoy around, they really motorcycled around with us. So we had a meetup point and then the meetup point changed because [there was] too much police there, because the police was monitoring the Telegram group to find out our wherabouts. So we would have stops/meetup points everywhere and there would be a person staying at the stop and making sure okay, we park there, this is what time we are going to move, also conveyed through the telegram group We didn’t even have to go down from the car. There’s just a bunch of people saying this is where we are, and they’re just going to text in the group okay, we’re going to start now, and that is when we put the black flag out and then we started the convoy. And then the police started joining us. It was like that in other states as well.

But my friend in MS also [who] was in another state in Perak got hold up, kena saman. The police in KL, they are used to dissent. The ones that are in other states, they are not up to negotiation. So police treatment were different. Macam in KL, you can negotiate with them lah. Then again, we have people to negotiate with them and that’s a very, very big role throughout all of this as well. Like, we have this middle person speaking for us to the police and so on. That’s the only way we could go on as well lah. We have people like Mat, Nalini, Sevan, they are the ones negotiating on our behalf. Because if they don’t negotiate, then we’re not going to be there. There is compliance, but there is an extent of this compliance. Because if you comply everything, then [they’re] not going to do anything, right. But that treatment is also just in KL, it’s not like that in other states. In other states it’s just, apa korang buat ni?

Do you think harsher police response tends to create more mobilisation through anger?

I think yeah. Probably. Because every time somebody kena, we are going to post it up. We’re going to say this is how much kena saman, siapa nak derma. definitely we want to stand up for people yang kena. For me, that is my logic. Like bro, someone kena, we have to tell. This government is already doing a terrible job, and then they’re doing another type of like [intimidation]. So it’s hand in hand. We really care for our community, that is why we’re doing this. We want to make sure that our community is taken care of. And at one point, our community is just not taken care of, and that is the whole motivation of Lawan and that is the whole motivation of Kerajaan Gagal. And it’s very important to us that we are putting out evidence that the state is not taking care of the people.

In terms of that last Lawan, can you just walk us through that day? Because I think it’s a pretty significant day for most of us who took part in it, so walk us through the day of that big Lawan protest.

I was not there. I just got out of jail at 3am. But basically, two days before that, we were on a podcast. So it’s very known that I am the organiser and it’s very known that I am spearheading MS. I mean, it’s on my profile. And that’s what the IO told me oh, we know you.

It was that night before that, we had this space session where people were just asking like okay, what do we do when we’re there? Do you have any questions about safety precautions? And then we’re going to answer. It was just ask anything for Lawan and we’ll let you know. So we were the organisers, there was Numan, Tharma, and me. Basically, just anyone who wanted to ask questions can raise their hands and then someone was moderating [the session].

So I was playing that role all the way up to the night of my arrest. The next day when I woke up, because when I got arrested is the day before. Dah lah I was handling all the logistics. Memang we already know some people are gonna get called that day by Dang Wangi. So this was the day before, we already know. So I didn’t know that I was supposed to come, like I mean, it was not known. It was only known on the day itself, the morning of the 30th [July]. Lawan happened on 31st. So in that morning, I just woke up. My mom called me hello, Sarah. Kat rumah ni ada polis. [I was like] what? Excuse me? I thought it was just some of the harassment that they’ve been doing to the organisers, because they would go to someone’s house, even their parents house, dia orang boleh pergi rumah dekat Kedah, dia orang boleh pergi visit. So at that point, we already had some risk precaution forwarded to everyone but you never expect it to happen to you. I never did, you know. [The police] went to my ex-stepfather’s house, because of my IC address is there. . And then he’s like oh, she’s not here. And they were from Bukit Aman, they were not from Dang Wangi. So they were already prepared to come to my house and arrest me right there, right then. If I was at my house, I would have just been arrested. Like, you’re under arrest, we’re gonna go to the balai, finish questioning you, we’re gonna send you to lock up. So I keep on repeating holy shit, if I was at home, I would have not like have the time to prepare for that situation (not that I have much, especially the shock of the arrest) and I didn’t even think that I was going to get arrested. Like, why are they doing this? Why can’t they just like, liaise with the Dang Wangi people? But when I got the call, I was very scared. Even while [on] the call, I was texting the group hello they are at my mom’s house, blah blah blah and the group told me to say that I will give the IO’s number to my lawyer, which was Cia Yee. I think it was Cia Yee. But it’s probably Cia Yee that talked to the IO, or it was Raj who just tried to negotiate. But it was different people lah, but at the police station it was Cia Yee. Someone was trying to negotiate [to] meet me at Dang Wangi with everyone else. Because if not, they were asking me where does my aunt live. Saya kata oh, nanti saya tanya lawyer. And he was like, angry because he went to two houses in the morning, right. From Bukit Aman they came to Sungai Buloh. That is a long drive. And then from Sungai Buloh, went to another house in Sungai Buloh. And then have to drive to Dang Wangi, so they were very pissed off. When they see me, they were very pissed off. Before I went, I was just very panicky so I was trying to get another phone, I was trying to prepare [for the raid]. My ex-boyfriend was helping me take away all my stuff and then my aunt was putting the stuff away for me, like put at another friend’s house. So my electronics were not there because I’m scared that they would raid lah. I was told to do that as well as part of just, taking care of myself lah. And then going there, in that car ride before Dang Wangi, he stopped and then I puked beside the road– I was very anxious. Why am I here and why do they sound so scary? I wouldn’t be so scared if I was just with everyone else, because everyone else was like, getting questioned. So I thought ah like, I really hope that’s the case. But the second I realised that that wasn’t the case was when we all walked in, because we all walked in at the same time. The IO from Bukit Aman was waiting for me at the gate, he was like Sarah Irdina, meh sini. Because [everyone else] were answering for Dang Wangi and I was answering to Bukit Aman. They were the HQ right, and they said we have been directed to arrest you.

Cia Yee was walking in with me. The IO people was really trying to like, separate me from everyone else. [He said] awak mari sini, saya cari awak dari pagi tadi sampai sekarang, so he was really pissed. He was really, really pissed. So there’s three people from Bukit Aman, one a bit older guy, one the main guys, Inspector Kabir, and then there’s this lady who I guess was there for the diversity (or actually, they need a women to arrest a women). For the like, I will touch you if they need anything, you know. I think that’s why she’s there lah, you know, because that is what it felt like up until I was at the lock up.

And then I went in to the room and then they didn’t let Cia Yee in. He was out there trying to like, [negotiate]. But the police, at one point only, they let Cia Yee in. So the first thing they said to me like okay, and I sat there in front of them, they said saya akan bacakan hak awak. Hak orang ditangkap. But Cia Yee said no, because I’m pretty sure Cia Yee thought it was ridiculous also. And I was like okay, I trust you Cia Yee. I’m pretty sure he thought he could negotiate as well, but yeah, I was really assured by Cia Yee. After that, in my head, assured by Cia YeeI was like okay, okay, I’m gonna get out after this, right after this. And then they start baca waran tangkap, and then they question me about a lot of stuff, and at the end there okay, kita orang akan bawak awak ke Jinjang. Then they handcuffed me. handcuffs. They were supposed to put me in Dang Wangi but they had a COVID outbreak, some disease happening there.

It’s a very important moment as well because, in a way, you started off with the police brutality campaign, and suddenly it’s a real-life experience. How was the detention like?

Yeah, very brutalised the first brush. [It was] terrible. Like, it only clicked with me when I got handcuffs on. Cia Yee was like, perlu ke handcuffs? She’s a 20-year-old girl, what are you guys doing? And then the police was just like, you know, saya tak nak buat ni dekat awak. Usually lah, they always say that. They said that throughout me just seeing them, like even up to my release. IO Kabir would come at 3am kata oh, saya dah cakap dah dengan bos saya, so kita akan lepaskan awak. So, he was claiming all credits. He was really angry at me at the start, and he was just upset at me most of the time. The mood change happened an hour or two before my release.

So basically, after getting handcuffed, I just started crying. I cried the whole day until 3am. And then they raided my house, and I was there. I had to help them raid my house. So basically, Cia Yee knows that I am going to get arrested, so Cia Yee already let everyone know that I am getting arrested, and then basically, my ex went to my house and even got more stuff out and informed my aunt, so that was that. So by the time I arrived at the house, there was really nothing. And then, they just went to my room. My aunt was crying saying “Sarah, like you need to sell out someone. Is there nothing else you can do? Like, just answer the question.” Because they were basically harassing my family, they were just telling my family that she doesn’t want to cooperate, what do I do, this is what I have to do. They kept on saying that to my family, and then my family is like, why do you not want to cooperate, and I’m like [confused]. I was just like, oh my god lah. And then my mom was crying, but my mom was in Sungai Buloh, she was crying in Sungai Buloh. And then my aunt was crying because she saw me in handcuffs. But my family like, this was macam the only point of time when my mom was very worried. She just kind of doesn’t care because I’m very stubborn and I just kind of do anything I want, so at one point she just gave up and let me do anything I want. So she never really said anything up until that point because she was very worried. Because a mom lah right, your daughter is in jail. [She was] like berhenti dah lah buat semua ni. But that was the only time lah. And then after that, she was fine. I think she got retraumatised when I got detained.

So basically, continuing to the arrest, after raiding my house, it was the car trip to Jinjang. In the car trip, they [were] just marah-ing me lah. They were like ye ye je awak tak ada laptop. Saya kata saya tak ada laptop. Dia kata, awak pergi universiti macam mana? Ada IT lab, saya tak ada duit. But I did use my own SIM card because I couldn’t get any other way because they called me on my SIM card. Because my mom gave them my number. My mom sold me out. Because she was not prepared lah, right, she basically handed me to the police. But my mom was scared also, lah. Like they were really intimidating my mom, like just blaming me throughout the whole thing, and my mom macam she was not really engaged with what I was doing, she kind of just like know oh, another protest ah?

When you look back on it, do you think they did all of this to you to essentially try and stop the protest?

Yeah, I think they were just trying to send out a warning. But I think it was a very bad move, especially because it was me, it was a girl. I think the fact that I’m a 20 year old girl played a big role. I’m pretty sure the motives are definitely for intimidation. For like, you are all going to get arrested if you all come. Even during SSR, everybody’s picture was getting taken. All of that is very scary.

You did not come to the protest but did you imagine or get updates on what happened at the protest?

Yeah, I got updates and then my friends who have never gone for protests came to [the] protest. Like, we came to protest because of you. So everybody was just sending pictures because the only reason I didn’t go was that I was just very tired. And because I didn’t have a SIM card, because they took away my SIM card, so I’m like if I go, how am I going to get in contact with my friends? What if they came and took me? Yeah, stuff like that. So that’s the only reason I didn’t go, because I got released at like, 3am what. And I was crying the whole night.

The first protest that you actually organised was during COVID. There’s a lot of risk going on with the protest during COVID, so maybe you can share with us what’s your pertimbangan on that. Before that, the violence in protest was coming from the police directly, but then there’s different kinds of risks happening at that time.

For me, because I was very carefree (I wasn’t worried for myself in terms of violence from the police), I would say that throughout the whole thing I was just very carefree. I was just doing anything, because I thought it could never be me, you know. I always thought it wouldn’t happen to me. I do my own risk assessments as well, but then again I’m carefree because I’m privileged that like, I don’t have to care about scholarship, I don’t go to a public uni so I don’t face certain risk where once they identify you, then the uni can take action on you and so on, but Nottingham doesn’t care. My lecturers even reached out to me like, are you okay, send me good messages…Because it was a very, very big learning opportunity that like oh, how do we handle all of this. And for a lot of people, like even for Qyira and Tharma, it’s like new to them, but they were very confident about it as well, and you need that confidence to organise a big scale protest. If everyone just macam yeah, we have never organised, then it’s not going to go. But everyone was just very passionate and everyone just wanted to do something.

Sarah at the post-Lawan candle light vigil with the SSR members

Sarah at the post-Lawan candle light vigil with the SSR members. Credit: Jit

Considering what happened throughout the protest and the arrest and trauma that came with it, do you still think protests are worth it?

Yeah, definitely. I think it was just a lot to learn because I was definitely the youngest in the committee. Every time I go, I just give input, when I have questions, and then I just participate in the conversations, but I really am not spearheading any of it because for me, there’s a lot for me to learn. And I did learn a lot, you know, from Asraf, from Addy because they all have done this before.

Whether it’s worth it [or not], yeah. You know how there’s a lot of people that say that “oh, you’re not going to do anything. It’s just one protest, things are not going to change.” But I very much do not believe that.

I think every single action contributes to change, and change is gradual, and small things/actions always contribute to that. If you tell me that this protest doesn’t do anything, then if there is no dissent at all, if there are no dissenting voices, then how would that reality look like? That reality would look more daunting, if anything. So I don’t believe that. I think people are definitely very, very disillusioned with Malaysian politics because there were a lot of points in history where people protest. And then with BERSIH, people were really in it. And then I guess like from there, the rhythm wasn’t as strong. And then there’s like a very big conversation about protess bukan budaya kita all that, which is very non reflective of the reality so now people are not accepting of this protest. So to have Lawan happened was a big change to that pattern. You need disruption, you need to challenge the status quo. No matter what you say, no matter if it’s pandemic or anything, you know if you remain complacent it’s just going to be worse.

And I think my vision about protest is just about making sure your voice is there, it’s not about changing this system overnight. And I never pictured it that way, I never even pictured that the government is gonna do it, I do not have those expectations at all. My expectations when I do these things is just like you know, I am suffering, my friends are suffering, my community is not taken care of, and this is why I do it. And you know ultimately, because if your community is taken care of, then you are taken care of. It’s not like you are a saviour, you are anything, you’re really just kind of doing this for yourself and your care for others. It’s a form of self-care, in my opinion. Like for me, I was very carefree and not a lot of people have that capacity–that privilege to go on about it very carefree-ly like I did until I went to jail. So if you have the capacity to do that, then why don’t you do it because it doesn’t matter what, [whether] big changes happen [or not]. Because obviously the people who are going to these protests, a lot of them have their own risks. Everyone is taking a risk, but you know you are taking that risk for your community– and that is worth it. Because there are people who can’t show up, so you’re doing this for people who can’t show up because their risks are much, much bigger. So it’s up to you to help your community lah because if you take care of your community, then that’s the only way you are going to be taken care of.

I think every small change, like it doesn’t even have to be a protest, like I appreciate everything MISI did, I appreciate everything people do on an every day [basis], you know. Because protests for me, it’s a bigger scale of action to empower people. The every-day resistance, small scale protests, it doesn’t really get a lot of attention. So these big protests get a lot of attention. People who believe that protests don’t work are mostly disillusioned, people don’t want to participate anymore. And my friends are very, very young also, they’re also disillusioned. With older people, we kind of get it because they say “aku pergi protes dulu semua, still jadi macam ni kan.” You get jaded that way, and then the reason you get jaded is also because your community is not taken care of lah. That is really the reason that you are tired, that is the reason you are burnt out because the momentum went up, up, up, up then there’s really no mechanisms of the community really engaging with each other. So I think that is really just the biggest problem when organising. To keep that momentum you really need to have a framework where you really need to take care of each other, because I really think that’s the problem to why organisations or movements die.

Okay fun fact, do you know PSM has like these retreats/sessions where they all just have a therapist that comes with them, and then they talk about their struggles? So that is community care. I was like holy shit, I’ve never seen this happen anywhere. And then they started talking about their life problems to build solidarity with each other, so they really have that sense of camaraderie.

I don’t think protest is the main thing that contributes to change. What is the main thing is really just community organising. And I think that is where we don’t really have to have big scale protests to facilitate change I think the stronger your community, the more easily you protest. People will just go. Like I said, the B40 people in Cameron Highlands, they were empowered. They all just come here with a bus and they all just go to the [Ministry]. So when your community is empowered, you don’t actually have to go through a lot of these problems during organising. You know why it’s so hard to organise for a protest? It’s because people don’t believe and then your whole thing about organising a protest is just to make people believe. Because your demographic, they are not in that mindset to like, take care of each other. They’re just angry. So that is what happened with Lawan lah. And that is why people who participate like in BERSIH, I’m pretty sure they’re jaded because of the same reasons. You’re very fueled by anger, you’re not fueled by care, and it’s very different when you’re fueled by care. Because I have participated in all these community organisations and it comes very easy when people are empowered, when people work together, when people take care of their communities, it comes so easily. PSM is a very good example of having these things, and they have protests every other day. And these things, it comes very, very easily because the community is empowered, because they do the work.

The biggest thing that I learned throughout working with PSM is that you’re not even talking for the people. I’ve never heard Sivarajan talk as if he’s spearheading, no. He just goes there, updates them this is what’s happening. He never represented [them]. He was just there macam oh, we are helping you out in terms of communication because they takde line and then these people will go out once a week to answer Sivarajan’s call to get the updates. So PSM, because they are leftists, that is their framework. Their framework is to empower people through community organising. It’s not like NGO work. NGO work is like, you focus on a certain [issue]. But this one is like, really their ideology and then, this is what their praxis looks like for them. You don’t get to see that a lot, you know. And for me, it’s very different when you have that certain framework to work with. And then when I participate, it’s very much like oh, you’re doing this for them. That’s a very, very jarring difference, and that is something that I appreciate more and that is something that I feel like, people are participating and that is what’s most important lah.

People say that “only the youths are angry”. I think this is a very echo-chambery observation. I do not agree with that. Like only the youth are the dissenting voices. That is not true. I think there’s too much highlight on youth, if anything, but there’s always highlight on youth, right. Youth is just such a big thing. But these organisings, they don’t get traction because it’s not trendy. It’s not pompous. It’s not like you get a hashtag out of it, you know. I’ve been doing this and then I would tweet about the Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak, people don’t really care. The things that people care about based on our traction in MISI Solidariti are really just things that are big. Because our community is very individualistic, so I think how I would go about it differently is to do more community work. And that is essentially why we have direct action as one of our (MS) main pillar. Direct action, community organising that’s just strengthening your community. You don’t have to go to Pahang to work, no. You can just start it in your own neighbourhood. Get your friends together. And these are the things that you don’t have to know about organising. You have a community you care about, get them together, start [something]. There are communities like this in PPR, they have much more tiny communities, everyone knows each other and then they would have like these [community] gardens, so there’s a sense of community there.

And then the people who are jaded, the people who are on Twitter, they do not have this. Like, it’s very clear that the way people talk is they do not have a sense of community, they don’t think that the community is what’s important. Because you have to do something big to make change. Because I would want to ask lah the people who are criticising protests. If you’re so upset that you think protest is not working out, then what do you think is going to work out? And you hate NGOs, you hate community organising. And you know, our government is very great. I do not agree when people say that our government is stupid, no. They’re very, very smart and you do not underestimate their organising. Their organising is very, very good, that is why this narrative is out there. Especially PAS, you don’t underestimate PAS’ organising. If anything, we have something to learn from them because their grassroots are very strong. So you have to understand that if your community support is strong, that is where you receive support. And not a lot of people see that, they kind of just dismiss PAS. And of course it’s easy to dismiss them but you know what, at the end of the day, they are the ones that are gonna be in power. You know why? Because they have very strong [support]. And then with the wave of Islamisation, they really work with that. Because it wasn’t that strong, and it’s strong because they made it strong, because they do it with policy, they do it with action. And these people, they are in the community, they are the ones saying all this random stuff. So you can be upset about them all day, all night but you have to understand why does this happen.

And I think, if I would want to do something, it’s really just to empower the community. I really wish PSM documents these things and really, really talk about the community but they have so much to improve in that area.. They are too busy and they don’t have the resources. Not everybody is free. I would love to help out, but I am not free. So if there is something about change, it starts from your own community. And if people start understanding that that is the problem, then your community doesn’t even have to be endangered, to be marginalised. And the truth is, if you are not rich, 100% it could happen to you. If you get in problems with police, then who’s going to take care of you? If you don’t have community, then who’s going to take care of you? You’re gonna raise bail money on your own? And that is how social inequalities start because essentially, your community is not taken care of.