In the Jerit “Cycle for Change” campaign, Rani Rasiah describes how a group of young Malaysians stunningly overcame the odds to highlight the concerns of the working class and marginalised groups. Among the cyclists’ demands were calls for the abolition of oppressive laws and for better protection of workers including a minimum wage.
It was 11.30 am on 18 December 2008. The 500km stretch of road leading to Parliament was lined on both sides with the red-shirted teenage heroes of the Cycle for Change campaign and supporters. They waited in anticipation as one kilometre away, the ‘Prepared to be arrested’ team (Skuad berani kena tahan) of 30 adult cyclists got ready.
Tense negotiations were taking place between the police and our organisers at the point the road forked. The order from the Deputy Inspector General of Police was that absolutely no bicycles – whether cycled, pushed or carried – would be allowed. Three police districts were mobilised to ensure his instructions were met. For the Jerit organisers, not cycling to Parliament to hand over the memorandum was inconceivable.
Suddenly, the knot of negotiating policemen and organisers broke up to allow through a stream of 12 cyclists pedalling towards Parliament. Wild applause filled the air as the waiting cyclists and supporters rejoiced.
To the cyclists and organisers a historic 16-day adventure of struggle and fun had come to a successful end. To the police and their masters, it seemed as if the biggest threat to the nation had ceased.
Is it a crime to cycle?
Throughout the course of the Cycle for Change campaign the police had tried to criminalise the entire program by randomly accusing us of breaking all kinds of laws.
First, they wanted us to stop cycling, warning that we would be guilty of illegal assembly and holding a procession.
When they could not justify that, in Kulai, Johor, they stopped our cyclists in broad daylight and issued summonses stating that our bicycles did not have reflectors.
Then they said our leaflets were in contravention of the laws with regard to printing and publications, as truly we had failed to print the source of the leaflet. After we had rectified that, they were still not happy and kept pouncing on our pamphleteering teams.
When we took a break from pamphleteering, they arrested us for obstructing the police from carrying out their duties, in this case, clambering up our bus to intimidate our cyclists.
Earlier, they had detained our bicycles that were being transported by a lorry to our next stop. I guess the only illegal thing about that was they belonged to the campaign.
In all the states the northern and southern teams had been to earlier – Kedah, Penang, Perak and Johor, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan respectively – we had been constantly harassed, assaulted, intimidated and wrongfully arrested by the police. Our camera had been snatched from us and an organiser molested among various incidents.
But the Selangor CPO and the Rawang police took the cake – especially the CPO, Khalid Abu Bakar. He ordered all the cyclists and organisers, who were then seated in a restaurant having tea hosted by YB Gan Pei Nei, to be arrested for illegal assembly. Later, he announced to the media that the organisers would be charged under the Child Act for forcing unwilling under-18s to cycle impossible distances and without consent from their parents. He unleashed the FRU on angry Malaysians holding candles outside the police station to press for the immediate release of all those detained.
Eighty people aged 15 to 50 cycling single file from the north and south of the peninsula, wearing T-shirts highlighting the main issues affecting our working people – is that a crime? Indeed, there were no less than 215 arrests and detentions of cyclists and organisers in the 16 days!
Can’t the poor demand change?
The red T-shirts worn by the cyclists carried six demands, all of which were discussed in a memorandum that was handed over to the Prime Minister on 18 December 2008 at Parliament. The campaign, organised by the Oppressed People’s Network (Jerit), highlighted six main issues:
• A minimum wage act
• Adequate housing
• Repeal of draconian laws such as the ISA
• Control of prices
• No privatisation of basic amenities and services
• Local Council elections
Are these demands irksome? Could they be a thorn in the flesh to some? But they are not the result of the creative antics of some bored activists. They are borne out of the real day-to-day hardship faced by 60 per cent of the population who are victims of the low and no minimum wage policy of the government. The recession and ensuing job losses, coupled with the high prices of staple food items such as rice, have actually forced poor people to cut down on their overall food intake. The price of milk powder has resulted in children drinking kopi-o and teh-o. What is so wrong in asking for a change to this situation?
It is unfortunate that in the post-campaign days, the government and police, instead of trying to study and act on the demands of the people, seem bent on identifying the ‘mastermind’ behind this ‘major crime’, the links to groups like Hindraf, and laws under which we could be charged. Clearly, the Barisan Nasional has not learnt from 8 March 2008.
Who will save our children?
Suddenly the police and their masters want to save the children!
They wanted to save our under-18s from being exploited and abused to further the aims of certain groups. So the police ordered the children into the station, barked orders at them, called them in for documentation one by one, separated them from the abusers (organisers), lectured them separately about the illegality of the whole campaign and the likely effect on their future.
Then they roped in the welfare officers supposedly to protect and hand over the children to their parents when they arrived. Instead, these welfare officers began writing intelligence reports on them. All the while the children they wanted to save were left drying in their shirts that had been drenched when they were made to walk from the car park of the police station to the room where they were held for the night.
There were sneaky attempts to record statements from the children, and those who refused to cooperate were called devils and yelled at. Some were asked to remove the offensive red shirts. One who said she would not leave the police station until all her co-cyclists and organisers were released was screamed at and threatened. Finally, after 3.00am, they were given mats and pillows to sleep on. In so many ways, the police tried to save the children from us.
When the parents arrived the next day, they gave the police a rude awakening, demanding reasons for detaining their children.
Who are the police trying to fool? It’s not the children they are trying to save but their political masters and cronies whose policies are the cause of the hardship faced by people. This campaign was obviously causing them a great deal of discomfort and damage.
What a sham to say children should not be involved in or exposed to the issues of the campaign! As a member of a low-income household, every injustice affecting the parents translates into some form of material and emotional deprivation for the child. When a parent is unable to put three square meals on the table, there are no saviours to intervene and save the children. Children in a low-income home have to become adults quickly to understand their reality, and in many cases to start working to add to the family income.
Remember the children of plantation workers carrying oversized pails, and walking from tree to tree collecting scrap? They don’t have the luxury of growing up as children. Their parents’ plight is their plight. Their parents’ struggle became their struggle.
What about the children pining for loved ones under detention in Kamunting? If they were sincere, the government could save the children by abolishing the ISA!
Use resources to fight crime
The entire police force of the country over the 16 days seemed to have been mobilised to monitor and halt the campaign. At least 35 roadblocks in various districts from Alor Star to Rawang in the north and from Scudai to Beranang in the south - more than half of which were led by OCPDs or their deputies – were mounted. Many roadblocks were manned by up to 35 policemen. In Bagan Serai, the Light Strike Force was waiting for the cyclists.
The Special Branch followed the whole campaign in cars with photographers clicking away day and night, never losing sight of us. Patrol cars and unmarked cars hovered around the places where we stayed the night (though this round-the-clock vigil by the police failed to stop the real criminals, such as the arsonists who burnt six of our bicycles in Permatang Pauh). Even a police helicopter was used around Parliament on the last day!
The police worked with great zeal, even going beyond the call of duty. In Kanthan Baru, they produced a form meant for suspects of secret societies (which included questions on gang membership) to be filled up by every cyclist!
Why spend so much time, money and energy trying to obstruct and stop a peaceful, healthy activity by people exercising their democratic rights in a non-violent manner?
The parents waiting outside the Rawang police station spoke for all Malaysians when they gave the police an earful on how precious resources could be used to fight the many crimes plaguing the nation instead of hounding us.
The great German socialist Rosa Luxemburg famously remarked that those who do not move do not notice their chains. The cyclists of the Cycle for Change campaign bear testimony to that reality. We are glad we moved. We are glad we cycled. As we cycled for change we found the chains that bind us and we were determined to break them.
Aliran member Rani Rasiah is a Jerit coordinator.
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