Qyira Yusri is education director and co-founder of Undi18, an organisation which aims to bring about Malaysian youth political empowerment, voter education and electoral reform. Qyira previously held positions in a number of prominent education-based civil society organisations. She is currently a public policy consultant in a regional firm.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your family background. Was your family political and what were some of your first political exposures growing up?
My name is Qyira Yusri. I’m the Co-Founder and Programmes Director for Undi18. I’m 29 years old. I was born in KL but I spent most of my formative years in Miri, Sarawak. This is significant for me because it shaped a lot of how I view Malaysia and also being Malaysian as a Semenanjung person living in Sarawak. My parents were not political at all. My mom was a civil servant, she’s a government teacher teaching special kids and then my dad was a well, we moved to Sarawak. He’s oil and gas engineer, I think it’s very clear. So all throughout my life, I know elections happen, I know my parents walk out to vote every five years and they come back, they will just say like oh, we voted but we can’t tell you who we voted because undi adalah rahsia blah, blah, blah but that was the extent of the political conversation.
I think my first exposure to thinking about serving others so to say was seeing my mom, and I said this in other interviews as well. She’s a teacher and she teaches, official language in the system it’s pendidikan khas, but it’s teaching disabled kids lah, especially mentally disabled. One of my key memories of growing up in Miri was following my mom after school because my mom’s a soccer mom kind of vibe, like she drives us around to all our classes and schools and my dad was working. So you go to the local PPD office and my mom will say mana elaun anak murid saya? And then she would face racism, sexism. My mom is a Chinese convert and she doesn’t cover her hair, and then she’s Semenanjung. So there’s always bad blood there lah, cikgu balik Semenanjung lah, cikgu you know you are too noisy, nanti ada lah elaun tu datang and so on and so on. My mom was like, I mean if you know me, I think a lot of my behaviour is inspired by my mom. So for me, I was like how can you not give money to these families, to these kids and why is it so hard? I was 15, I was just like why is this so hard to just help them? And it’s not even a lot, you know. To a lot of us, it’s only RM100 something je, but RM100 is life or death to a lot of them.
And then we moved to Saudi when I was Form Five. My dad got a new job, we moved to Saudi and that was when the Arab Spring happened, I think. So I share all this, like my life because it does shape how I see the world. So for the first time, I went to an international school, I went to a private school, but all my classmates were Arabs. And they were wealthy Arabs for sure because they could go to international school in Saudi. But they were from war torn countries, so they escaped. They were the people that managed to escape Syria, Palestine, Libya, and then the conversation about Arab politics and Arab Spring was very, it was every day. We talk about it every day.
What did you study?
I studied communications and gender studies at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Michigan. It was a transfer programme so I was only there for two years. In the US, I was not involved in any of these Malaysian societies actually until I — okay this I never said publicly before, but until I had a boyfriend from my university. He was in the Malaysian studies thing, he said eh, you should join, we got Malaysian food all the time. I was like oh, okay I can join. So I got very active. I had a position eventually, because I’m Qyira. I was very kiasu. So I went in and then I remember thinking how come we only do fun stuff? Like Malaysian night lah, makan-makan lah, things like that.
And then I think there was a random day that somebody from the Malaysian government, either Embassy or Education Malaysia reached out to us saying that there’s going to be a programme happening in Chicago, can you guys send representatives. And then WMU, we have like maybe 20, 30 plus Malaysians but we are all not active as Malaysians, if you get what I mean. Half of us are like white-washed as heck, you know. So nobody wants to go back to Malaysia, we’re all private students, no scholars unlike many other places in the US where we call like, Kampung Malaysia, Kampung Melayu. I think Ohio (State University) is one of it, your (Ooi Kok Hin) university. So for us it’s like, why should we bother going to this kind of Malaysian government events right? But then I went and I got very interested, I became very active. I was very impressed meeting so many people who was interested to go back to Malaysia because I was like, why? Why do you want to go back? And then I met them and I was okay, I get their logic. And then of course in my final semester, I helped develop a student organisation for all Malaysians in the US and that’s when I met Tharma (Pillai) who eventually was my Co-Founder for Undi18.
What was the name of that organisation?
NAMSA, The National Assembly for Malaysian Students in America. So I was a President of my regional group and then Tharma was the President of his regional group, and then there was another guy but I think he wasn’t that politically interested. So two of us we talked a lot, we debated as friends in our friend groups, in our friend chats, and then I think for us, when Donald Trump became President in the final year we were in the US was a huge, it was a pivotal moment for us in terms of like, what does it mean for us to be Malaysians in America? What does it mean for us to be a Malaysian diaspora overseas? And it’s not my first time living abroad, but at the same time it’s a very different mindset. So I was talking to Tharma about this and then we did our research lah oh because you know we don’t vote at 18. We don’t think about elections until we’re way past graduation and way past like you know deep in our career.
So I was telling Tharma you know, then we were part of a global organisation called the Malaysian Students Global Alliance, MSGA and then we discussed it and thought to ourselves, as part of our term in this organisation, why don’t we push for advocacy project and why don’t we push for Undi18? So that’s where the idea really started. And it’s very funny to me because before that, I never cared about Malaysian politics. I was very interested in American politics because it’s everywhere, right? I mean, Bernie came to my campus. My town and Ann Arbor, the other university town in Michigan, were the only two blue districts in the whole of Michigan. Everywhere else was Republican, they voted red. So I was like, you know, like what is going on, you know. So for me, I was very interested [in American politics]. I observed Black Lives Matter protest, we talked about racial issues in my classrooms, we talked about gender based violence all that, I was just thinking the whole time like I should be doing this in Malaysia, not in America. So that’s why I chose to go back. My parents were curious but supportive, also they lived in Saudi so they can’t do much. My dad was like okay, just do whatever you want, just don’t ask me for money, which is fine with me. So I went back to Malaysia, I started working education, so that’s when I started doing Undi18 full time lah. But only in 2020 we had this whole setup full time, before that we were just moonlighting.
I want to double back because I think again, the rough focus is protest so I just want to get a bit about the mood during the year leading up to Donald Trump being President and your exposure to civil action.
So actually, I’ve said this before, I’ve never protested in Malaysia until the Undi18 protest in 2021. So when I was in the US, I also never really actively—but then again right, I don’t know how to classify protest in Malaysia and the US because it’s very different context, different vibes. I feel like in Malaysia, a lot of things you do is considered a protest, while in the US, a lot of things you do is not considered a protest because it’s allowed, it’s free. So we had one instance where I think there was a professor said something racist? Something like that lah, I cannot really remember was it a Tweet he made, I don’t know. But students were so angry and they wanted to send over an open letter to ask him to resign or something, and then I remember they were like passing this petition around in class and they were asking me would you sign it and I was like, is it going to change anything? I remember asking and they were like what? You know it’s important to have your voices heard and everything. I was like okay and I remember thinking will I get in trouble if I do this because I was a foreign student and I remember talking to my friends at the time and then they were like oh we might, because they were all on scholarships you know JPA ke Mara ke whatever, they were like oh we might get in trouble so let’s not do it. Then I was just like thinking, thinking oh but I am not on scholarship. What can they do? And then my American friends in class were like what are they going to do, you paid your fees already what? And some more they were like and you’re an international student, you pay way more than us, they cannot do anything to you and I was like oh, interesting way to frame it on like how to fight back.
What was the plan when you arrived back in Malaysia? Bring us up to the point of starting Undi18 and it becoming an actual organisation.
We came back to Malaysia in 2017, didn’t think to do Undi18 full time. Never did. I worked in Teach for Malaysia, Tharma worked as an engineer and we just kept doing Undi18 like how people would run NGOs right which is part time. We didn’t have a team, we had a group of volunteers. People that reached out on social media saying eh I want to want to help because it seems cool. So this was 2017 before GE13. The focus back then was I think trying to: one, how do we create awareness; two, how do we find champions; and then three, how do we make this a movement that people can support. But then as the height of GE13 came around, you have more forums, you have more events, at the same time the government was doing TN50, I don’t know if you remember this. Transformasi Nasional, millions of ringgit went into Khairy (Jamaluddin)’s pet project and we would attend all these events that’s around Klang Valley and try to talk about Undi18. So you ask questions in forums, we would introduce ourselves to people. Very, very thick face. I couldn’t do it alone, I think if without at least two, three people then we would do it together.
So we started pitching for funding. It was passed in Parliament July 2019. By December, we secured funding to pay I think three staff members. So Tharma and I, and we could hire one more person. I remember thinking whether this is a leap that I wanted to make because it would mean leaving a secure job behind. So we were thinking, rationalising, we had a pros and cons list. I remember in my house like a mahjong paper, pros and cons. No money, no salary, got future or not, would we get blacklisted, would we get in trouble, can we apply corporate job after, and then the bottom line was we are young enough so why not.
So we quit our jobs, did it in January and we were already in discussion with, that time we didn’t do so much thing about political education or voter education, it was more about how do you work with the government because we thought that’s where we could get funding from to support them in doing like policy engagements for young people. Again because we didn’t see ourselves as activists. We don’t think about teaching people how politics works, let’s talk about policies. Also coming from like corporate mindset in that way lah.
So then anyway, we were doing all this, two months later, (Langkah) Sheraton happened. All our contacts in government gone. Nobody can give funding anymore, and we had no idea what to do. We not lost funding, we just like, there’s no programmes. Cannot do anything, we were stuck at home. I think I spent one month just binge watching Grey’s Anatomy, mental health was very bad because I couldn’t leave my house, I was living all alone by myself. My sibling was in PJ, I couldn’t see my friends, my family were abroad, and then MCO early stages, I think everyone was just scared all the time. So until June 2020 happened and then a couple of friends reached out to us from Challenger saying do you want to do an online Parliament event? Then I was like what the heck does that mean? I knew Parliament was shut down, I think I was talking about it on media and then they were like let’s just do it lah. Maybe we do a forum ke, we bincang about whether Parliament can go online and I was like wait what you do it for? Let’s just do it, let’s just do an online Parliament and then I got very motivated. We managed to fundraise quite a lot for it so we could pay everyone, [including] volunteers. We could pay everyone that was working on the project. We secured Microsoft sponsorship for 222 kids to use free Microsoft accounts for six months. We had a whole setup, it had half a million views live streaming. Globally, people were reporting about it. It’s not the first time an online sitting happened, but it’s the first time organised by grassroots youth. It’s always organised by Parliament because they had to do it, but Malaysia didn’t do it. Not because cannot do online, because Muhyiddin didn’t allow for Parliament to be held right.
So anyway, we were doing all this and then my motivation came back. Parlimen Digital pushed us back into the scene, I think. And then a lot of the bigger NGOs started reaching out to us say oh you guys are organised, actually. You guys have a structure, you guys have registration. That time, we could register ourselves already lah after when PH came into power. We changed our names a little bit, we didn’t put the word Undi18. But yeah, we managed to get registered and then we managed to hire more staff members, hire interns after that, and then we realised that okay, we need to pivot how we do things and we need to push very aggressively into voter education. So that’s when we started doing voter education programmes lah.
So that only really started after Sheraton?
Yes, July 2020.
It’s kind of ironic given that you had the space for it prior to that. So do you think that there was suddenly an urgency to reclaim that space now that it was gone? Or the feeling of it being gone was there?
I think it’s not so much about the space, but maybe that is an academic way to say it right? I would say my feelings at that time was like, we were just so angry that Muhyiddin was not allowing anything to happen. So not so much just about democracy and Parliament, but also about I was so angry that going grocery shopping means that I would have to fear the police. I was so angry that you know, just by walking outside, if I don’t wear a mask, I will get fined. And I was just so angry at the whole double standards situation that was happening. You see in the news where young people were getting fined like 10,000 what bullshit lah right.
So after Parlimen Digital, I think things led to another, slowly the discussion of a new youth political party came about right. This is so significant in the process because it was the first time I was meeting people like Amir (Abd Hadi), very well-known street protester right. That was actually my first time having a conversation with Saddiq. Even though we work together on Undi18, I work with the Ministry, not with him directly. My first time meeting like Amir, Tarmizi (Anuwar). I met Dobby (Chew) much later. So this early stage, only two, three reps per group. So my first time into CSO politics and navigating that. Because we were never part of any coalition before right. So it’s very new to us where we don’t call the shots as well for Tharma and I. Then we met the people that was exiled from BERSATU like Saddiq’s team and then also people from like, PKR all thinking what should we do next. And then a lot more NGO people were talking about should we form a political party?
And for the record, this was happening end of 2020?
Yes. I think around August, September onwards. I think also Parlimen Digital gave a lot of people the idea where like oh it’s possible for non-partisan people to talk about politics and parliament. I mean, Parlimen Digital lah but still. Because everyone came to us saying that can we form a non-partisan party and I’m like what the heck does that mean? Because oh you did it with Parlimen Digital what with all these kids? And I said yeah, because it’s simulation. I remember being in a lot of these meetings thinking that the real world doesn’t work like Parlimen Digital, but yet a lot of these elder activists were like no it’s possible, Undi18 did it. We can get people who are not interested in politics to become politicians, to run for parliament. And I was like no, you can’t, it doesn’t work this way. Just because you have one successful event, you cannot assume everyone want to be politician. In fact, people join our programmes because they don’t want to be politician, they want to learn about politics.
So I remember feeling very angry and very frustrated. I think it was the first time I was telling Tharma like oh, this is what it feels like to be invited for your thoughts but no one actually listening to you, you know. Because they want to hear from us because we did something very cool like Parlimen Digital and they think that because of that, we will automatically support their idea of making all our 200 kids into politicians, especially a lot of the independent left-leaning candidates lah or parties even or groups. So I said no lah, let’s not do this. Let’s focus on our programmes. But then when Saddiq’s idea came along and I was thinking oh, this makes a bit more sense because he never hid the fact that it will be partisan right. And then of course in the early stages, there was a lot of NGO people joining in as well and not just political NGO. The education sector, tech sector, startup and I was like oh, this is a very cool group. So I think even though a lot of us end up not joining MUDA, we all became quite good friends afterwards. So for me, that was very interesting. I keep in touch with Amir and all that lah. So that brings us to 2021 where again, MCO got worse and worse, Muhyiddin’s regime got worse and worse.
I don’t remember is it before or after Sabah election, I think after, EC (Election Commission) announced implementation of Undi18 was going to be delayed. And I remember sitting in this room in my office with my team thinking oh, maybe we should do a statement about this. Let’s call our contacts in the Prime Minister’s Office or in EC and see what we can do.
So the thinking at the time was a statement and not go out on the street?
A statement, lobbying because we don’t know how to go to street. I don’t even know people to call to go the street, you know and it MCO. And then I remember I think after lunch, Amir called me and he was like kat mana tu and then I said kat office lah. He said petang ni pukul 5 kita jumpa kat sini and I said what are you talking about? He was like Qyira, I know you tak suka demo-demo ni, tapi you tak ada pilihan dah sekarang. You tak demo, we will do it for you so you better come. I hung up the phone, I call Tharma and Tharma was like what’s going on? And I remember I pulled him to our office and then I was saying that there was Amir and he wants to do a protest and he was like very averse to it that time. He was like how you even protest, cannot risk it, we cannot be getting arrested, we have no idea to navigate all this. Because we had no lawyers, we don’t know anyone and he’s like no lah, don’t be crazy lah semua, and then I said yeah but if you don’t go to the meeting, they will do something and it cannot be that we are not there. They’re doing this for us, you know. So he was okay lah, let’s go to the meeting and see how.
Went to the meeting, there were people from NGOs. The young BERSIH people were there, Asraf (Sharafi) and Addy, there was AMK, AMANAH, PSM, Demokrat, students and youth and YPolitics and all that and I remember calling Kar Mun (Loh) I said bro, it’s going to be all Malay, you better come. It must be diverse then she was okay, okay, she came and I was like it was true! Which is another problem in the activism scene also, you can be very racially divided. So I remember I was thinking who are all these people that I don’t know? And they were ranged from younger than me to like 30 plus, and then Amir called for the meeting and then he was like okay, so dia tahu this is going to be without even discussing we should protest. He started writing down the roles okay so we are going to protest tomorrow, what are we going to do, how are we going to do and I was just like what?! I remember Tian Chua was there as well. I remember Amir was saying okay so Qyira, nak buat apa? and I was like Amir, I tak pernah buat any of this you know. I was so terrified and I was so angry that I was being put on the spot, I even told him that months later. And then I remember we were allocating roles and then in every protest, there’s always someone as a commander that decides to go forward or to go next, and then there’s negotiator which is deal with police. So they were filling out names lah who to do what and then Tian Chua oh, negotiator kena letak perempuan sebab polis tak tangkap perempuan. Qyira lah. And I was like huh?! I don’t even know how to talk to the police wei. I remember Amir was like oh no, no, no, no, no, the negotiator is always Mizi (Tarmizi Anuwar) and Dobby, they will do it and I was like what is going on? I remember the whole time this was happening, Tharma and I were just like are we doing this? How do we tell our team this is something that we are doing because they are not used to it, you know. They came in thinking oh, this is a very fun organisation to work with, we do programme, do webinars, and the protest is the very next day. So we decided in that meeting to protest the very next day outside of Parliament because Parliament was shut down, so it’s like a double meaning.
To catch up on timelines, that would have been March 2021 and that was the first action?
Yes. When we protest for Undi18, Parliament was not open. At that time, I think we did not even set the name SSR (Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat) yet, but that room of people eventually became SSR.
Okay, that was something I wanted to make clear because it sounded like most of the major players were already at that meeting.
Yes. Because they are like all, I think half of them experienced street protesters and half were like new people. But that room at that time, I remember we didn’t have a name yet. We just called ourselves the Jawatankuasa Himpunan Undi18 or whatever.
How much reluctance did you feel at the time taking part because up to this point, Undi18 had never taken part in any of this. Although you had lost all your contacts after Sheraton, I think you may have reestablished some of them in the course of the pandemic in the Muhyiddin years. So what was the calculation taking part in it?
So at that point in time, I would say there was no calculation. I remember looking at Tharma, Tharma looking at me and we were just like yeah, okay, yeah, okay lah, yeah. Honestly, I think a lot of the big decisions made in this kind of situation, you have to follow your gut lah because you have no time to make pros and cons evaluations, you have no time to evaluate and predict the outcome or anticipate, you know. You have no time. It is the heat of the moment, everyone is under pressure, everyone is stressed and angry and emotional. I remember in that room everyone was shouting at each other and I’m like, we all agree right? Why are we shouting at each other? Because we are so emotional and so passionate about the issue and for the first time, I see why people protest I think, for me.
But yeah, in that room I was thinking oh, everyone is so passionate about Undi18 suddenly? But obviously the bigger issue is fighting Muhyiddin lah, but I was like okay, I see how we can do this. I see why people want to go to the streets and in that moment, I also felt very excited because I know I won’t be alone. I think that’s a key reason that I got over my reluctance and hesitation, I knew I’m not going to be alone. Bear in mind I wasn’t even close to Amir, okay. I was like who is this long hair fella pulling me into this shit, you know? And he came to me afterwards, he was like don’t worry about it, we all have experience. And he said the best way to learn is to go and protest, and then after this you will know. So I was very lucky lah my first protest wasn’t just attending a protest, it was organising one.
So I remember Undi18 became, besides the logo, we were in the media team with BERSIH. I was very good at campaigns and media engagement so I was like okay, I’ll do media. So I was working with Asraf, he was drafting everything and I was engaging media, I was getting media to come out, I was mobilising some of the youth organisations. And then when we actually went there, there were so many police waiting outside Parliament. I was like oh my god, you know. And then at the very last minute, Amir was like okay Tharma, you give a speech. Tharma was like what?! And I was like huh?! And Tharma in a split second, he was like this will change everything because we are going from being an attendee to speaking in front and all the police will look at you. And I remember telling him I said whatever you decide, I will be supportive but you have to decide now. Then he was like okay lah, let’s do it so he went to give a speech. Very first ceramah, very first talk on the street. So afterwards when I reflected on it, what helped me got over my nerves was being able to organise it, being able to systematically structure things. So I think if you ask anyone or the core boys in SSR, first of all I’m the only girl I think, I was the one doing all the list, doing all the organising, doing all the arrangements, I was secretary lah. But at the same time, that helped me process everything. I wasn’t thinking about giving a speech, I don’t have to think about the danger, so that was media. And then after one or two other actions, I evolved into being the legal point person to help organise legal support because not that I was a lawyer, but I was good at organising things, which is a skill apparently all these boys don’t have. So yeah, that was the Undi18 protest lah. I don’t remember exactly now, but I’m not sure if the next activity we did was when we coined the name SSR. I don’t remember. That was Undi18 Now. The next one is the Buka Puasa, Buka Parlimen.
You described your role, but what about Undi18’s role?
So we became like the administrative secretariat, I think. Because I think to be fair, we were the most flexible in terms of work. That time, Undi18’s team was very big like I think maybe nine or 10 people. We we running various campaigns from right to information, anti-corruption and also Undi18 lah. And at the same time, we also launched our legal campaign against the government, the lawsuit for Undi18. We worked with AmerBON firm but it was led by Gurdial (Singh Nijar) and Ambiga (Sreenevasan). So I think we became the automatic administrative secretary because one, we have an office. Two, we have staff members. So my staff could focus on the Undi18 work while Tharma and I supported SSR so to say, because we could afford to lah at that time. So I think naturally it fell on that way. Also genuinely because I cannot tahan the mess, you know. I was like guys it’s okay, I can do the Google Drive, I can do the thing, I can do, I can do. So it’s partly both of that lah. We have the resources too. I mean, Liga was Liga but Liga borrowed SUARAM’s office a lot and that time okay because like Mat (Mohammad Alshatri), Amir, Dobby was all in SUARAM which is fine and Sevan (Doraisamy) is very supportive, but they don’t run SUARAM right, so it’s I think quite kesian also. And then, we use BERSIH’S office a lot as well but again, Asraf doesn’t run BERSIH so it’s like every time it’s oh, paiseh, paiseh, borrow on their ihsan kind of thing. And also because a lot of them were like like running their own organisations, Tharma and I were. So I think in terms of time, we had the most flexibility, so we could support SSR that way lah.
Walk us through the experience of doing the rest all the way up to the big protest before the vigil, both you and Undi18’s involvement.
Well, I think there’s a few ways to categorise it. On a technical side of things, we supported in a lot of the, like I mentioned, media and legal support, so we were always in contact with the lawyer team. And then, I was always working with Rajsurian (Pillai) to constantly recruit new lawyers because I was telling Raj the next few months, there’s going to be a lot more cases coming up, you cannot do it alone. So our team, I was using their strengths. I was leveraging our team in terms of graphic design, producing social media content, a lot of the placards that you see is designed by the youth organisations. Undi18 was one of them, YPolitics as well, Demokrat as well, and I think because they are young people, so they got better creative eye lah. Even I am like, not good. I just ask my team please do a poster then wah, so nice. I remember I was like wah, cantiknya. When you work through MCO, you have to work online and that’s something that even a lot of these street protesters like Amir, they’re not used to it. He’s not used to it. He’s an uncle inside you know sometimes. So we coordinated a lot of the, and I keep saying administrative because it is I think the bedrock of SSR in that sense. And you’ve (Jeremy Lim) been in the Whatsapp group, it’s so chaotic that if there’s no forced order, it’s chaos. Nothing will get done. And we saw that afterwards right, where it’s very hard to mobilise. And I think slowly, the core team of SSR in a way was elected, so to say. The jawatankuasa. And then these people also started engaging political parties formally, so we met with PKR, DAP, PEJUANG, MUDA, and then I think over the few months, you can also see more and more political people joining the group as the movement grows. A lot of people had mixed feelings about it but I was like I’m okay. For me it’s like the more people join, the better. That was my mindset lah. So that was the technical part of things. We supported in mobilising, administration, media and legal, but I would say primarily is administration and legal lah. Tharma did a lot of the mobilising part, so I did a lot of administration and legal. So that was the technical part in terms of support, and then there’s also the factor of like a lot of new NGOs also protesting for the first time.
So I think in meeting sometimes when we discuss strategy, we have a lot of disagreements among each other because you have people literally, I’m quoting verbatim, some of these people like oh, I dah buat BERSIH one, two, three, four, five, korang tak pernah buat. So kena buat macam ni. And I was like okay, so kena banyak bersabar. So it’s navigating that kind of attitude as well. And then you have people like this, and then you have the Gen Zs who are very opinionated as well which is not a bad thing, but when you clash like this and I’m like [sighs]. I remember telling Tharma like I just muted them on my Zoom, let them sort this out themselves lah. This argument of like nak mula protest kat mana, nak nak pergi ke mana, nak tulis statement macam mana pun gaduh, you know. But I’ve learned that is the process of coalition building, so I’m not a big fan of coalitions in that sense because of that. So on a personal level, I was navigating all of that and then of course the increasing police harassment was very unpleasant. My mental health took a toll.
Could you describe a bit of that? Was it just the questioning after protest?
It was not really the questioning but the fact they came to my house multiple times at night, and they were harassing my sister because I was living away from my address on my IC. So they kept going to my house to give notice or give court order or even ask where am I. Then my sister was like I’m not involved in all these things, why are they coming to the house and it’s very scary for her. Because you have like five policemen coming to your house asking where am I and I can’t even go there because I don’t want to risk anything. So it was very stressful for me and then I think that was the only time my family was like is this worth it for you? Like, what are you doing kind of thing. And also the increasing public pressure. I think that was the year we were in the media quite often, from outside of Dang Wangi especially and I think that year, I was investigated maybe eight, nine times, I don’t remember. When you are in the moment, it’s like an adrenaline rush that brings you through it throughout investigation, throughout the questioning and also, you’re never alone.
That’s the good thing I was very relieved about SSR, we were never alone. There’s always a group or at least one, two other person. And then our lawyers at that time were very familiar with us, they were very supportive and we were very prepared. So I wasn’t afraid of the technical parts of the interrogation but every time you meet a policeman, it’s always scary because I’m like, I never know what’s going to happen. Because they can always arrest you, and the day that we were investigated for sedition, we knew that it was within their right to take our devices and we were mentally prepared for it, but you are never prepared when they actually come to you and say that we’re going to rampas your stuff. Because I’m like okay, you take my phone now because my phone is with me, but I remember he even said we can always go to your office and take your laptop and all that if this is not enough. He was threatening me like it’s not enough. Then I was like, I just smile lah, I don’t know what to do already. My lawyer was like talking, talking and I was just like I’m so glad I have a lawyer because I could not say a single [word]. I think if I talk, I would cry. I didn’t know how to respond, you know. So that was very intense for me and yeah, I don’t like being that situation lah. Last year, when the whole Kerajaan Gagal campaign was going on and then they did a turun protes and all that, and then even though I only attended, I was still called by the police and I was just like oh, I fucking hate this. I really don’t like this. And then media will ask you like oh, how is it like? The fuck, what do you think it’s like? You think it’s a party inside there like we all eat karipap and we have a conversation? No. I mean, it’s not their fault lah, I understand. I don’t blame them. But it’s just I don’t like being asked that, and I don’t like that attention as well in that sense. It’s just a lot of pressure.
I spent a lot of my time in 2021 figuring out is there a balance between my responsibility as a organisational leader and also as someone that cares about the issue and knowing that I have the privilege to do something about it, and at the same time managing my mental health. So it’s very conflicting, right. I remember thinking that oh, I shouldn’t feel stressed or depressed about this because I am not in trouble what. No one’s arresting me, no one is coming after me, but why am I feeling so stressed about this? So it was very challenging until I went therapy lah. Then it was helpful. But within that few months right, and then I think even among SSR, we didn’t talk about this. Only Dobby reached out, I think he was reaching out to everyone one by one because that’s the kind of person he is. And then only when he asked me those questions I realised I’ve been keeping all these feelings bottled up. And then he was like oh fun fact, you’re not the only one that feels this way. It’s a very normal feeling to have, stress and this kind of like mental health turmoil, so go get help. So that was for me a changing point lah and that’s why I became very close to him, but it’s not a topic that activists talk about. Self-care, the whole mental health first aid thing, whatever, we don’t talk about it, we don’t address it. I remember the night of the vigil that happened we were arrested, when we went home, I remember we immediately did a Zoom call, I think with everyone. Not everyone, like 10 of us I think. The one that were organising the vigil lah. Because Dobby didn’t go to the vigil so he was like okay, I’m calling all of you to make sure you’re okay. And then the boys were like oh we’re fine, we’re fine and then I was like, I was so zoned out. I think I was still in shock in a way and I was feeling very inferior because like everyone is fine, why am I not feeling fine? And then Dobby texted me, he said we can talk more tomorrow but make sure that you are not just keeping it to yourself kind of thing.
So going back to the main question, leading up to the 31st July, we had Undi18 people in almost all the different teams that was organising it. I think Tharma was mainly doing logistics so he was securing the mask, the hand sanitiser, the PPE, the gimmick. Our office was used to paint banners because again, there’s a reason why. It’s a bit more lowkey and it’s so near Dataran. Our office is near Dataran, near Sogo, everything, without giving away exactly where it is. So our office was used as the place to like cat banner, the logistical hub also lah, everything was put here. The morning of, we came to my office to angkat everything to go Masjid Jamek. And then even on the day itself, SUARAM through (Wong) Yan Ke, Azura (Nasron) was in charge of I think marshals, so we work together with them to coordinate with the security and legal team. We were a very small committee right and then we didn’t expect to have so many people and it was quite scary I think on the day itself to see so many people turned up. And my biggest fear wasn’t actually police intimidation because I’m like they cannot arrest everyone, that was my first thought. They cannot arrest 2,000 people right. Worst scenario Amir is arrested, I’m arrested, Tharma arrested, whatever. And our lawyers, I remember Raj was mobilising lawyers but there was a focused group of lawyers that was for us. There were lawyers on the ground that he coordinated, but there were lawyers offsite that if we were taken, these people would go.
I just remember my biggest fear was getting COVID or worse, someone else getting COVID and dying from it. I was so scared I was telling everyone give everyone a bottle of hand sanitiser, make sure everyone wears their masks. I was so scared lah. So we fundraised a lot for that. And then I was telling our marshals you guys have to be the strictest ones here and make sure there’s distancing, make sure no one tries to sabotage by like, intentionally coughing because we were seeing that happen overseas. I remember doing research on how did people overseas protest during the pandemic because it’s not just Malaysia that was protesting mah. There were issues of sabotage, there were examples. So I remember the night before, we were all sitting here and Zikri (Rahman) was here as well. We were all testing our COVID and we were all like if someone gets COVID tomorrow, everything we do will be in vain because it would be clouded lah. And no one got COVID, no cluster. No cluster is great, no one got COVID and we proved that you can protest in a pandemic. So I think that’s mainly Undi18’s role as an organisation in it. I think we played a primarily administrative role to make sure that to the best of our ability, we could minimise the health and legal risks, and also ensuring that our message get across. I don’t think the health risk is a factor that any protest organisation thought before, before Lawan because who cares right. Health in terms of like heat stroke or like teargas, but COVID? And my biggest fear that if they did teargas us, you have to open your mask. So I was like, so paranoid. Then I didn’t see any FRU and I was like okay, maybe they are not doing it. But I also think my theory is that they also don’t know how to navigate a big crowd, maybe that’s why they are not aggressive lah. But they just came after us afterwards.
I remember the investigation for the 31st July one, the police took out a thick folder then he open. It was pictures as many people have been photographed of close up shots, but everyone was wearing masks. So he was like siapa ni, siapa ni, siapa ni, siapa ni? Of course all of it I say tak tahu lah, but I was so scared because I saw people that I knew in the pictures. And these are people that were first time protesters, I could see their faces inside. And then I remember a day or two after, someone linked it to social media, some of the photos. People who were calling me, they were so scared and they have very valid reason to be scared. I was like ah fuck, fuck. I was thinking how, how, how so I remember I got people to like attack that reporter on social media to take it down and then I think he eventually take it down because I think other reporters were calling him out as well don’t be like this lah right. But flipping that folder, I was like oh my god.
Did this happen after 31st July?
Yes, I think the very next day. They called about, I think, 10 of us to investigation. I think photos, at least 50 people in the folder. And then I remember the police, at that time this IO has been questioning me a few times so we are on okay terms lah. He’s always like I’m just doing my job, don’t be scared. I mean okay lah, whatever lah. But he was helpful lah and he knows my lawyer because I always had the same lawyer, Shugan (Raman). So Qyira dengan Shugan, kita macam biasalah okay. I know you will answer this, I will type this but let’s just go through this process. But today, I have to ask you this as well so I opened [the folder]. And then his colleague came in who I’ve never met before and I remember he was like awak ada kan semalam? And then I said tak tahu and he was like tak, tak, awak pakai mask batik tu selalu and I was like looking at Shugan, Shugan was like tak tahu. And then I saw my face in it in it and then I was like hm, tak tahu, tak tahu. Then the police was like I know you will say tak tahu to everything, but you must flip it and then tell me tak tahu and I was like okay. So I just did the process lah, yeah. So I appreciate the attempt to make me feel not so nervous as well, but I also realised it’s not something everyone will get lah.
Just for recapping, it was the Undi18 Now; Buka Puasa, Buka Parlimen; Dataran the one with the bodies; and then the convoy was the one leading up to 31st?
Yes. The convoy was a legal nightmare.
Yes, because everybody’s plates. So that’s been described in a couple other interviews, but can you run through it.
It’s damn challenging to navigate, I was so stressed. After that I told everyone no more convoy. No more convoy. Dah lah I don’t drive, I have to organise this. And then the amount of lawyers to mobilise across the country, it was a pain in the ass to organise lah. Okay lah, the impact was damn power, the video damn nice but it’s so tiring.
It’s kind of like you wander into the protest thing. You’re called to meeting, you come to the meeting, but then once you’re in the meeting, you got hold into deeper and deeper and deeper into it.
Yeah. But you know me lah, Kok Hin, I got a soft spot for people. So people ask me, I will say yes one. Unfortunately. But yeah, I think like I said lah. One is the people I respect asking me to do it like Amir all that, but the same time I knew it’s also now or never for the Undi18. It’s really now or never. I remember rationalising to myself okay, what can we do? Release statement, then do interview, then what? The government will not take it seriously because we’ve done so many. Then do what? Another forum, another panel? Cannot lah, so I knew at that point I rationalised to myself was that we have no choice. So at that moment I also realised why people protest, is that you really feel like you have no choice. So I think afterwards whenever we organise protests right, it’s always around something major happened. Like I think a record high amount of death or cases or I think like royalty intervention. The day of the vigil, the morning we sent a letter to Istana to ask to buka Parlimen I think, then the night we did the vigil. That’s why Nalina Nair was wearing baju kurung at the vigil.
Do you think on the whole, all the actions by SSR that year were effective? Because again for the record, Muhyiddin did step down but in your mind, was it effective?
I think the success of SSR is not purely the political movements, but it was opening up the mind of Malaysians to the possibility of speaking up. And the consequences of it, of course. But also the fact that, I mean at that point, the last BERSIH was how many years ago, right? So I think a lot of the younger generation don’t remember protests. I certainly barely remember it, I’ve never been to one. I was either in Sarawak or Saudi. And a lot of the people that came to Lawan was 20 and above, I think. University students and above, so I think it reminds Malaysians overall, how do we get our voices heard beyond social media. Because I think at that point in time, we were very used to voicing on social media and then you see how it got so bad that you had the white flag moments, which is also part of social media because people would take pictures and say this house needs help, people go help. So it’s providing Malaysians something tangible one, to attend, two to support beyond posting on social media that I am very angry at Muhyiddin, I’m very unhappy at what’s happening. And I think for me, that is way more important than making any statement about Parliament or Muhyiddin or whatever, because it led on to I think future generations of students and young people reminding them that going to the streets is still a valid and viable option of speaking up because next we had Turun (Malaysia). And then, even the students did the Mana Kolej Kami protest right, they did it in campus itself in UKM. And how I know this is because these students kept coming back to SSR to ask for guidance or lawyer contacts, which obviously we had lah right. And funding as well, SSR funding went to Turun, went to Tangkap Azam Baki.
So SSR, even though it has sort of like stopped after the vigil, the members of it have went back to active politics so they cannot be part of a non-partisan protest group, but it has become sort of like a reference point, similar to how we use BERSIH and global movements as a reference point. So I think for that purpose in that situation, it served a purpose at that point in time. It needed to be that at that point in time. I would say that if we use the same model now to organise protest, it may not work. Maybe you don’t need that much organisation, administrative support because it’s much more easier to do things now. Back then it was like, you had to call to buy PPE. I think half the logistics team was to find safety equipment and then another half was to coordinate so many lawyers. Now every lawyer wants to help. I mean, it’s a good thing right, because the lawyers of Lawan set the bar in terms of like how to support young activists. So again, I think we’ve reminded people what are the possibilities and also what can be done if we are all on the same page lah. So for me, it’s not about, sometimes, a political objective. But then for me, Undi18 is also not just about political objective. It’s about empowering young people, it’s about reminding the government, reminding politicians that young people are not fixed deposit in whatever it is. But that’s how I perceive things lah. I don’t think other people share the same, yeah.
And so do you think Lawan was successful?
I don’t know. Because I’m sure if you ask Ismail Sabri, he would not say Lawan is the reason why he became Prime Minister. And also, yes we wanted Muhyiddin to step down, but I’m very conflicted whether Ismail Sabri becoming Prime Minister was the solution, right? And to be fair, we did discuss this internally many times. So did Lawan achieve it’s political objectives? Okay. The 31st July protest had three demands: number one, Muhyiddin step down; number two, Parliament to open; number three, welfare to be given to everyone. Muhyiddin did step down, Parliament did open eventually, I don’t think we got this third one. So on paper, it looks like we succeeded it right. But can I measure the same success as Undi18’s campaign where we lobbied for something and then we got it and we know we got it because of our campaign? I would say no. So it’s very hard for me to answer that question directly whether it was a successful tactic.
Personally, how do you feel about how much it contributed?
Not very much, to be honest. So like I said, it’s a success for inspiring people, but it was not a tactical success I think. Because the fact was, if UMNO didn’t pull out? I would say you can argue a strong relevance if UMNO supported our protest. And I remember that year, we kept going to UMNO asking support for our protest because realistically, if Muhyiddin fall, you lah be Prime Minister, so you should support us right? Indirectly lah, walaupun you are in cabinet right now. And I think behind closed doors, a lot of our UMNO contacts were like yeah, go ahead because they know if he falls, they will be in power, but they did not actively choose to do so. So I would say it’s very hard to argue that we inspired them to pull out. But that’s my realistic opinion lah.
After you’ve laid out all the costs personally, organisationally, was it worth it?
Yes. I think it has transformed Malaysia, I think it has transformed the landscape of the next generation activist. I think Undi18 was one catalyst, the legislative amendment. 2021, SSR was another catalyst to push the boundaries of, I don’t like saying this because it can be very reductive, but maybe Gen Z activism. And then on a personal level, yeah, it has really changed me as a person. I think I’m a lot more empathetic. I used to think people who protest are wasting time and I held that belief especially after America also, because sometimes a lot of them are really wasting time lah you know. But yeah, I think being personally invested, being on the side of having a cause to fight for has changed how I view political advocacy so to say. And it’s also I think transformed the way we think about working in political parties as NGOs. I don’t know about the previous generation of NGOs, but I think for our generation NGOs, we’re a lot more pragmatic in terms of being open towards political parties because we were working with Pejuang. Can you imagine? I would never imagine going to Pejuang for their support, but we had no choice. And everyone that came to the room are here because, yeah we clearly don’t like each other, okay I think we like each other lah as friends but clearly we disagree with a lot of fundamental things. Can you imagine a room where Pejuang and PSM is in one room planning a protest? And then you have the NGO people trying to navigate this. What are we doing here, right? Because we by nature repel partisanship, but 2021 was so bad, COVID was so bad that it could give us all a common enemy. And then I don’t know, look at PH-BN now. Maybe it was the possibility of working together during Lawan that they were like oh, this is something palatable. I’m just kidding. But I think it was the first glimpse of like nothing is predictable. So for me, it was worth it.