Aliran turns 30: A heart-warming celebration of justice

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aliran singers

It was all so different from the official Merdeka celebrations, monopolised and dominated by  members of the ruling coalition, recalls Anil Netto, of a night to remember.

Yet again, Aliran hosted a hugely successful celebratory dinner – this time to mark its 30th anniversary. Some 700 people thronged the Che Hoon Khor Moral Uplifting Hall along Macalister Road in Penang on the night of 2 September 2007. The event was held at a time when the country was still commemorating 50 years of Merdeka and 44 years of Malaysia.

Outside the hall, Aliran members and volunteers were busy helping to sell T-shirts and Aliran Monthly magazines. Young ushers directed guests to their seats as long-lost friends and activists greeted each other and the buzz of animated conversation filled the air.

It was great to see long-lost members, Aliran Monthly readers and subscribers and fellow activists from other NGOs (WCC, JIM, MTUC Penang, Amnesty, Penang Bar, WABA, POHD etc) there in a show of support and solidarity.
The event then got under way, with Aliran secretary Francis Loh welcoming the guests to the Chinese halal dinner.

Another day older…

As waiters brought out the food, they were treated to a nostalgic and inspiring multimedia presentation recalling the struggle for justice and freedom over the years and the role Aliran has played in it.

The Community Band – Josef Roy and his brothers – then livened up the proceedings with their catchy songs depicting the struggles of grassroots communities especially the estate workers and urban pioneers fighting to avoid eviction. .

Just when you thought it couldn’t get better, out popped this ‘macho man’, with T-shirt sleeves rolled up and wearing a blazing bandana wrapped around his forehead. Hey, that’s Aliran exco member Andrew Aeria…. as guest lead singer for Josef and his band, singing “Sixteen Tons”. (He must have given his mother in the audience a fright!)

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It is a song about the misery of coal mining, written by country singer Merle Travis in 1947, and depicts how workers get deeper in debt despite the hard work they put in.
The chorus goes:

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store…

That song struck a chord especially since many Malaysian workers are struggling to make ends meet in one of the most unequal societies in Asia.

All the while, the rich are making the deals and getting richer, just squeezing us dry. This Bolehland fact of life was alluded to in the reunited Aliran Singers’ version of “There’s a kind of hush”.

There’s a kind of hush,
in boh-oh-leh land, tonight,

in boh-oh-leh land
You can hear the sounds of cronies galore
You know what I mean….
So listen very carefully,
Get closer now and you will see what I mean
A nightmare it seems
The only sound that you will hear
is when they whisper in your ear
bail-out time! – forever and ever


Other songs they belted out were spoofs of popular tunes such as “Sejahtera”, “Every Move you Make, (I’ll Be Watching You)” mocking Big’s Brothers’ perpetual surveillance; and “Read Aliran”, a “commercial” promoting Aliran Monthly, which had the guests in the audience waving their own copies of the magazines.

Am I a Malaysian? 

Sandwiched in between the two performances was Aliran President P Ramakrishnan’s address  in which he talked about 30 years of Aliran’s struggle and the challenges the organisation has faced. After 50 years of nationhood, he observed, it is tragic that we still have to ask, “Who (What?) is a Malaysian?” and “Am I a Malaysian?” How sad..

Mustafa Kamal Anuar and I then took the guests down on a trip down those 50 years, highlighting the ups and downs of the struggle for justice, democracy and human rights. Along that journey were many real, concerned Malaysians, many of them little recognised, whom we could all do well to emulate as towering role models. From the workers struggling for better terms in the 1960s to the human rights activists advocating a more just society, the struggle must go on – with the help of all Malaysians.

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Johan Saravanamuttu then presented a moving solo recalling an ‘Old Man’s Dreams’. Its lyrics spoke about the disillusionment that has prompted some of the younger generation to migrate while those that remain continue to struggle for a better life, while pledging loyalty to God, King and Country. It seemed particularly apt given the prevailing socio-political climate.

Finally, the Instant Café performers, the real pros – Edwin Sumun, Nell Ng, Joanna Bessey – brought the curtain down with their trademark slapstick comedy and razor sharp wit.

It was not over though. Aliran exco members standing at the back of the darkened hall then lit candles on each table as they moved to the front of the hall before clambering on to the stage. There they led the guests in raising their lit candles – until the whole hall was a sea of flickering lights. It was a sign that we represent the light to dispel the darkness that is shrouding our land, a symbol of our commitment to the cause of justice and truth.

Showers of blessings

It was all so different from the official Merdeka celebrations, monopolised and dominated by  members of the ruling coalition. The guests at the dinner seemed to relish the “alternative” performances put up by the Community Band, the Aliran Singers, Johan and the Instant Cafe Theatre Company. Perhaps the songs and satire about the struggles of ordinary people and our trials and tribulations in trying to discover what it means to be a true Malaysian struck a chord.

They were also taken through an alternative walk through history – from the perspective of ordinary Malaysians struggling for justice, peace and compassion in our land. And that appeared to have opened the eyes of not a few people who had not been exposed to these issues.

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It seemed altogether appropriate then that, just like that first Merdeka morning in 1957 when the rain came pelting down on a newly independent land, showers of blessings should bathe the hall outside on a damp night outdoors – but a heartwarming one indeed indoors.

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Thanks for dropping by! The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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