Thursday, 11 July 2013

What Drives These Young Malay Political Activists?

JUNE 28, 2013

He could have been in a comfortable teaching position somewhere in Malaysia, earning a decent salary, driving a Myvi and planning for a family. An everyday man charting an anonymous middle-class life, the Malaysian dream for many.

Instead, Adam Adli Abdul Halim has been arrested more times than even Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. He has been assaulted and threatened with multiple legal action, including sedition. And he is not cowed.

And what about Safwan Anang, once prisoner No 3130 2770? He could be planning for a future in the civil service, employment that would give him job security, a comfortable life for his wife and baby on the way. A young Malay man making his way up the ladder.

Instead, Safwan Anang has also been arrested a couple of times, thrown into Sungai Buloh prison with murderers and rapists after he refused to pay a RM5,000 bail. And he too, is not cowed by the authorities.

Both these 24-year-olds belong to a group of young Malay political activists who have emerged in the last few years. They have taken a confrontational approach against the government, pushing for more democratic space and freedom for students.

They do not believe in submitting written requests or making representations to their elected representatives. They protest.

They speak without fear at forums and also take part in sit-ins as they did, pitching tents at Padang Merbok in the heart of Kuala Lumpur on June 22 after the Black 505 gathering. When they were eventually evicted from those tents, they made their way to Parliament House where Adam, Safnan and others were arrested... again.

Some of the activists are affiliated to Pakatan Rakyat or close to Opposition-friendly groups like Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, Solidariti Anak-Anak Muda Malaysia and Gerakan Penuntut Akademi Bebas. Others are drawn by issues and the fact that their parents too are activists.

What is perhaps surprising is that many are the products of the New Economic Policy, the affirmative action programme designed to give Malays and other bumiputeras a leg up through quotas, scholarships and other special privileges.

So why are these Malays rising up against a system which in theory is stacked in their favour?

One reason, say pundits and political commentators, is that many Malays do not believe the NEP benefits the larger Malay population. They believe it is, instead, a vehicle abused by the elite and the politically connected to get rich.

With the gap between the have and have nots growing wider in Malaysia every year, this feeling of anger and disenchantment against the establishment has also grown.

Analyst Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Center, the country's premier polling and research outfit, also noted that many young Malay activists are products of political Islam and have family members who are active PAS or PKR members.

They believe that it is their religious duty to fight oppression and injustice and have no fear of retribution from the state from doing so.

Adam, who has become a star among young Malaysian activists, says that he is fighting against irrelevant and outdated policies and laws, such as the legislation which restricts the involvement of students in politics.

He started small, upset at the policies formulated by Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), where he was a trainee teacher.
"I felt that the policies formulated by the university administration did not take into account the feelings and opinion of the students. There was no independent student union to fight for the rights of the students," Adam told The Malaysian Insider.

He came to national prominence in December 2011 when he lowered a banner with the image of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak during a demonstration at the Umno headquarters at the Putra World Trade Center.

He was called all sorts of names by the Umno-owned media, threatened with punitive action and eventually suspended by the university for three semesters.

But the fire burning in his belly was not put out.

Since then, he and fellow activists have regularly gone to the streets to protest on a variety of issues, from the suspension of law professor Dr Abdul Aziz Bari from the Islamic University of Malaysia to the Bersih rallies for fair elections to the need for academic freedom. Now the rallying cry is the need to save democracy in the country and challenge the alleged electoral fraud that occured in the 13th general election.

Every time he is arrested, Facebook pages are flooded with messages such as "We are all Adam Adli" and hashtags like #bebaskan Adam adli.

Some writers have drawn some similarities between the likes of Adam, Safwan and other young Malay activists with a certain student leader who was arrested in 1974 leading a protest against rural poverty. Anwar Ibrahim was detained under the ISA, became an even more famous leader after his detention and was courted by both Umno and PAS.

He joined Umno from Abim (a popular Muslim-based NGO at the time) in 1982 and rose up the ranks to become the deputy prime minister before being sacked by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in September 1998.

Ibrahim of Merdeka Center said that there is every chance that today's activists could be on the main political stage in 10 years. And it is also clear that both Umno and Pakatan Rakyat are trying to build bridges with the young firebrands.

Safwan, an Islamic studies student at Universiti Malaya and chairman of Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, said that he and other activists have been labelled as pro-opposition but prefer to think of themselves as non-partisan agitators.

He says they are fighting injustices in the system and unjust laws and will carry on protesting even if there were a change in the government if that new government did not act on changes to the system to block election fraud.

Sometimes, their rage and drive even surprises the opposition. Safwan was upset with Pakatan Rakyat representatives for not boycotting the swearing-in ceremony. He and Adam were among those arrested outside the Parliament House on Monday.

In fact, in the wake of allegations of cheating at GE13, the political activists have taken the most hardline position: no end to demonstrations until there is full electoral reform.

"We will continue to pressure both PR and BN. We will continue to agitate them until the core issues are resolved," Safwan said.

His are not empty words. Recently, he became prisoner No 3130 2770 at Sungai Buloh Prison, the result of refusing to post the bail of RM5,000 after being arrested for sedition after speaking at a post-election forum.

Like other prisoners at Sungai Buloh – Anwar's home for six years – he was given a blanket and had to sleep on the floor. He spent the day reading the Quran and when his wife visited him, she was surprised to note how calm he was.

"I visited him and was proud because my husband was not a criminal. He is fighting for the truth, someone willing to sacrifice everything for justice," she wrote in, the PAS news portal.

Indeed, these young activists enjoy strong support from their family members and this net of affection and admiration drives the likes of Safwan and Adam on. They expect to be arrested and have little fear of incarceration or demonisation.

Adam said: "I have overcome my fear of the authorities… My parents understand that what I am doing is right, something which needs to be done." - June 28, 2013.

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