I felt my eyes start to sting for the first time. It was about 1pm when the Malaysian Federal Reserve Unit fired, once again, what was unmistakably tear gas. I started to see white plumes of smoke form in the distance, and I remember reaching quickly in my bag at that moment, for anything that I was told could help counteract the tear gas—salt, towels, masks, etc. It was boiling, the sun was merciless, and there was absolutely no shade. Then, all of a sudden, there was a loud noise and everyone around us started yelling and booing. Another shot of tear gas. People started to pick up and throw stones at the policemen, while others even attempted to jump the barricade, feeling emboldened because of the strength of the crowd. I looked at my father, as he grabbed my arm and said, “run.”
It was August 29th, and I was back in Malaysia for summer break. Although I was born in Singapore, I spent my entire life in Malaysia and am deeply rooted to my Malaysian upbringing. My parents would always tell me that immigrating to Malaysia was one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. Furthermore, growing up in Malaysia showed me that living in harmony with a diverse range of races and faces was possible, and living in this sort of cultural kaleidoscope molded me into a very open-minded individual. I’ve always had a passionate attachment to Malaysia and although I have been studying abroad for the past few years, my loyalty to Malaysia has been and always will remain resolute. As I transition through life, I find myself asking, what can I do for my community in Malaysia? What can I bring back and how can I help?
During that summer break, I decided that I would participate in Malaysia’s 4th Bersih rally. “Bersih” in Malay loosely translates to “clean” in English. The Bersih movement was a call for clean, free and fair electoral reform in Malaysia. Over the past few years, there have been many allegations of corruption and discrepancies in the Malaysian electoral system that heavily favor the ruling political party, which has been in power since Malaysia achieved its independence in 1957. Due to this, a huge divide between the government and citizens of the country has deepened. Although the rally was a protest of the last resort, every other attempt to bring about change in Malaysia had been exhausted. There was no other method to redress the grievances Malaysians faced. The only remaining option was to exercise our right to assemble, and for that very reason I decided that I shouldn’t waste it.
The Bersih rally was a time when I truly served the community to which I am connected. Besides being given the opportunity to participate in one of the best movements of change in this country, it gave me the chance to access and participate in this public rally as a means of expressing my relationship with Malaysia. It brought me a sense of national pride as I understood that I was a part of something greater than myself, and I was honored to stand for my nation.
Around 250,000 people gathered in the city capital of Malaysia on the day of the rally. Although I think it’s great that the Bersih rally woke people up to the need for electoral reform, the event consequently resulted in the demonization of the police. I witnessed first hand the violence instigated between the police and other protesters at the rally, the majority of which was the fault of the police. As a result, many Malaysian protesters were arrested during the rally and have died in police custody over these past months. Worse, the majority of the protesters were Malaysian youth. The police force’s ruthless tactics of firing tear gas and water cannons had placed young people’s lives in danger.
Unfortunately, there has been little change in the way elections are held in Malaysia in the aftermath of the rally, and there are still many allegations of corruption and fraud in the electoral system. However, there is hope: hundreds and thousands of Malaysians are still continuing to fight for change in the country, fighting for their voices to be heard and fighting for their voting representation. And I will join them in this fight for change. I’d readily do it again—and again and again—until we see the positive changes Malaysia needs.
Born in Singapore and raised in Malaysia, Dayana believes she is the luckiest girl on this planet. As an Economics and Psychology major in the class of 2018 at Smith College, Dayana hopes to change the way social institutions predetermine failure for social groups. Having witnessed this herself, her goal is to equip individuals with the knowledge that they too are powerful and can achieve just as much as anyone else. As she transitions through life, she desires to discover more about accepting various ways and perspectives of life.