Archive for April, 2012

Why Occupy Dataran Merdeka?

As the Occupy Dataran protest camp continues through its fifth day and grows in size, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a look at the reasons for occupying given by the people who have been part of the action. The quotes here have been taken from posts on Twitter and Facebook over the past few days. Some of them have were originally in English, others have been translated from the Malay by me.

The protest camp began straight after an anti-PTPTN (the Malaysian student loan scheme) protest, so it is not surprising to see that education has been a big issue for discussion. Some arguments for the action specifically reference the abolishment of PTPTN while placing it in the context of government responsibility and/or a human rights discourse:

“We need to understand why students are forced to take out a PTPTN loan. Education is a human right.”

“If there’s no PTPTN, how do the poor pay for their fees? When we say ‘abolish’, what is the alternative? We need to be clear about this.”

“When we say abolish PTPTN, we want to propose to the government that the responsibility of providing education is the responsibility of the government.”

“From an Islamic perspective, education must be given to everybody. Healthcare must be given to everybody”

While other participants have articulated that they do not necessarily want to abolish PTPTN but still support the occupy action for other reasons closely linked to the education system. These reasons include the conditions of the current PTPTN scheme and the current system of preferential treatment for bumiputeras (Malays and non-Muslim indigenous populations):

“In my opinion, those that have already taken out a loan need to pay it back. However, I don’t agree with the administrative fees that costs thousands.”

“I don’t agree with abolishing PTPTN. Before talking about free education, we should first fight for equal access”

“Most non-bumiputeras have no choice but to take PTPTN because affordable public uni not accessible.”

While there does seem to be a lot of focus on education issues, other protestors have articulated their reasons for occupation in more broader concepts of democracy and class struggle:

“A new world that is not capitalist is possible.”

“A message of protest to all governments – including the opposition.”

“We need to open democratic space where all people can discuss and deliberate.”

“#OccupyDataran represents a truly grassroots movement rebelling against every system of representative democracy dominated by an elite class. It is a class struggle.”

“#OccupyDataran represents a truly people based consensus decision making process that we want as an ideal versus the top-down representative democracy we are seeing.”

“#OccupyDataran represents the power of citizen action. To hell with bad governance and the bullshit nonsense we have been seeing.”

“#OccupyDataran represents a rebellion in our system of representative democracy that no longer represents some of us. Its a movement for a better way.”

Why do I #occupydataran when I believe PTPTN should be reformed not abolished as long as free education doesn’t exist?

I #occupydataran in solidarity with students who are unafraid to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

I #occupydataran because there are no democratic public spaces. Reclaiming Dataran Merdeka, the symbolic birthplace of democracy, means reclaiming democracy.

I #occupydataran because it is a platform to imagine a new form of democracy without hierarchies and everyone can participate in decision-making. This is differs greatly to the current system where only leaders at the top are involved in decision-making.

It would seem possible that what differentiates the protestors in regards to the reasons they emphasise for occupying Dataran Merdeka is their background in the movement – that is, whether they came from the regular weekly Occupy Dataran assemblies and actions or if they come from a background of activism in the student movement. This is a distinction that seems to have been brought to the fore earlier today on the #OccupyDataran Facebook page:

Many don’t see that the protest camp at Dataran Merdeka is actually occupied by two different movements: the #OccupyDataran movement (a leaderless, grassroots movement) and the Malaysia Bangkit movement (led by Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM)).

The Malaysia Bangkit movement that consists of students from various universities is occupying the square to demand the abolishment of PTPTN and demand free education.

The #OccupyDataran movement that consists of youth, citizens of KL and students from a variety of backgrounds is occupying the square to reclaim Dataran Merdeka as an open and democratic space for people to gather, discuss and explore the true meaning of democracy beyond the representative system, to redefine democratic participation beyond the ballot box, to imagine a new political culture beyond race, ideology and political affiliation, and also to hang out, spend the night and dream together at Dataran Merdeka.

We do this through the KL People’s Assembly, a platform that is open, egalitarian and democratic, for ordinary people to share ideas, highlight problems, seek alternatives, propose solutions, and make decisions about any issue collectively through consensus and a participatory democratic process that we have been using every night we have occupied Dataran Merdeka.

Two movements exist and co-exist together in the same space, occupying the same square.

I should repeat again that as I’m writing this from Sydney, I’m quite removed from the action and so I am only writing based on my interpretation of fragments gleaned from Twitter, Facebook and conversations with friends. If you’ve been involved and are occupying for reasons that I haven’t covered, feel free to add them in a comment.

To follow what’s going on at Dataran Merdeka as it happens, check out #OccupyDataran’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Bonus readings:

‘Dataran Merdeka’ students stay put (Free Malaysia Today)

Occupy Dataran: From ‘Lil Acorns Grow Mighty Oaks (The People’s Parliament blog)

Occupy Dataran Protest Camp

Today was the third day of the Occupy Dataran protest camp at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), Kuala Lumpur. The camp started on Saturday (April 14) after students and youth marched through the streets of Kuala Lumpur protesting for the abolishment of PTPTN (the Malaysian version of student loans) and the establishment of free tertiary education.

Occupy Dataran started last July as the KL manifestation of the Take The Square Movement, inspired by occupations of public space in Spain and Tel Aviv. The first Occupy Dataran was held on July 30, last year, and the first official KL People’s Assembly was held the following week on August 6. As many occupiers in KL, including myself, love to point out to everyone we can, the first Occupy Dataran was held 7 weeks before Occupy Wall Street began (but unfortunately the Malaysian media still refers to Occupy Dataran as a local offshoot of Occupy Wall St, merely expressing solidarity with the Occupy Wall St movement). Since then, Occupy Dataran has been a weekly assembly at Dataran Merdeka (or various other public spaces depending on how the police are feeling on the night) as a platform for experimentation with participatory democracy based on the popular assembly model. Apart from the assembly, the weekly gathering often involves a Really Really Free Market (Pasar Percuma), Speakers’ Corner, People’s University (Universiti Rakyat), workshops, music and other activities.

As I’m writing here from my bedroom in Sydney, I can’t write about the events from my own observations and involvement as I normally would. So, instead I’ll try to piece together a good view of what’s going on in KL from the fragments I can glean from Twitter, Facebook, news sites and conversations with friends who are involved.

The protest camp was set up at about 4pm on Saturday afternoon after a rally organised by student groups such as Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, Malaysia Bangkit and KAMI made its way to Dataran Merdeka. Upon reaching Dataran Merdeka, the student leaders erected tents and stated their intention to camp out until the Prime Minister had responded to their demands. Regular attendees of Occupy Dataran’s KL People’s Assembly joined the student groups and the assembly model of decision making was introduced.  Since then, at least a couple of hundred students and youth have been involved (according to estimates given by my friends who are there) in the camp and the nightly assemblies. Apart from the nightly assemblies where the major decision making takes place, the protesters have also held workshops, classes, lectures, set up a Pasar Percuma, started work on piecing together a campsite library, as well as played games, and sung and played music together (which according to one report, involves an awesome rendition of Zee Avi’s Kantoi). This evening, a Universiti Dataran Merdeka session was organised, with Fahmi Reza, a designer/filmmaker/historian/lecturer (and lots of other things), leading a class in “The Democratic System of Malaysia” and another class has been scheduled for tomorrow to be lead by Dr Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer at University of Malaya.

Of course, the camp has not been without its hassles from the local authorities. Over the past three days, numerous tents have been destroyed and confiscated by the police and scuffles with the police have broken out. At about half past eleven this morning, authorities surrounded the tents and detained a student protestor before releasing him not long after. Besides the constant hassles from police and directives to leave, the protestors have remained.

Besides the opposition from police and Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), the protestors have been shown a lot of support. In the media, they have received support from Andrew Khoo, the Bar Council human rights committee chairman.. Materially, the protestors have been donated tents, food, money and other supplies from supportive individuals and groups. My head almost exploded out of confusion upon reading a tweet that the protestors had been given food donations from Pemuda UMNO and Puteri UMNO (the youth and young women’s wings of UMNO, the ruling political party for the last 55 years). The opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, have also been giving support to students at the camp, as have numerous NGOs. In the People’s Assembly held on Sunday night, the protestors decided they would accept donations and support from all sources but affirmed their commitment to non-partisanship.

To follow the events of Occupy Dataran in the words of the protestors, follow them on Twitter: (@Occupy Dataran).

Photos used in this post were taken from the #OccupyDataran Facebook page and from some of my friends.

Here are a few more:

Easter Monday Rally at Villawood

2012 marks 20 years since the introduction of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, so a protest was held at the Villawood Detention Centre in southwest Sydney on Monday. This protest was part of an Easter national convergence, where refugee supporters protested at detention centres around Australia.

The protest met at about 1pm outside Chester Hill train station. Some people held banners, tables of literature were set up and people were chanting.

At about 1:15pm we began marching toward Villawood Detention Centre, down the main street of Chester Hill, through the quiet suburban streets of Chester Hill and Villawood. People stood out the front of their shops and houses, some expressing support, others expressing disapproval but most just having a look at what was going on.

At about 2pm, we reached the outer wall of Villawood Detention Centre. Speeches were made and chants of freedom and آزادی (the Persian equivalent – apparently many of the current detainees are Persian speakers) were exchanged between protesters and detainees on the other side of the fence over 50 metres away.

At about 3pm, the group marched to an entrance on another side of the detention centre.

Not long after, the protest ended. Some people headed off toward Villawood train station while others walked back the way we had marched.

For more information on refugees and asylum seekers in Sydney and the rest of Australia check out: Refugee Action Coalition Sydney.

Bali Shirt

Today I wore my Bali shirt for the first time. Sensing a hot day amongst this tough to negotiate Australian weather I thought it was the perfect opportunity and the timing seemed right.

Apart from having a bird shit on the shirt just five minutes after leaving the house, I also felt like a dick. But that’s expected. When I wore a flanno for the first time, I felt like a dick. When I wore a flanno that wasn’t just shades of the greyscale for the first time, I felt like a dick. When I wore my assymetrical zipper hoodie for the first time, I felt like a dick. Whenever I wear shoes that aren’t 100% black, I feel like a dick.

In my new Bali shirt I went to university to hand in an essay. While I was in the area, I decided it would be a good idea to walk to Kingsford to stock up on tempe for the Easter break. Passing my way through the aural environment of Malaysian accents and Bahasa Indonesia, holding onto a bag of tempe and a copy of Buletin, I felt like a dick. More of a dick.

Walking through Kingsford in a Bali shirt, holding tempe and a Buletin, is a bit like going to a punk gig and wearing a black hoodie and a band shirt. That carefully crafted equilibrium, the culturally ambiguous identity, is shattered and a caricature emerges. And I feel like a dick.

I walk on through Kingsford and pass an Asian man wearing southern cross board shorts and a southern cross t-shirt. For a moment I feel comfortable, maybe still like a dick, but at least a comfortable dick.

I board a bus and sit down. I put the tempe in my bag, rest the Buletin on my knees and pull out a book about Indonesian fishermen in the Timor and Arafura Seas. And I feel a little bit like a cartoon character.