Tired of the official Merdeka celebrations? Then read about this unusual event that brought together a range of NGOs in Penang and left many wondering whether they had witnessed the genesis of a broader, more cohesive civil society movement. Anil Netto has the story.
It took weeks of hard work and endless rounds of planning meetings. In the end it was all worth it as the Pesta Rakyat Merdeka left a lasting impression on those who were a part of it.
A group of 25 civil society groups had harnessed their resources and come together on 24 June 2007 for a most meaningful celebration to mark 50 years of Merdeka and 44 years of Malaysia.
Held at the foyer of the venerable Dewan Sri Pinang auditorium, the inaugural Pesta Rakyat Merdeka had something for everyone – a civil society exhibition, musical, dance and cultural performances, a forum and films, and a “soapbox” for activists to highlight their causes. Some 200 people turned up for the launch while waves of others – old and young, of all ethnic groups, including migrant workers – came and went during the day.
Dato’ Toh Kin Woon, a Penang state executive council member who has been supportive of the role of civil society groups, opened the event (see his accompanying opening address). This was followed by a captivating performance by a young dance troupe from the Temple of Fine Arts, interweaving the cultures of the main ethnic groups into a mesmerising tapestry of colour and music. A truly outstanding Malaysian performance.
A whole range of causes
Toh then officially opened the exhibition, which depicted some of the human rights struggles that the groups were involved in. Among them were campaigns to abolish the ISA and the UUCA (University and University Colleges Act), the gender equality campaign as well as the struggle in support of migrant workers, disabled persons, those with HIV and AIDS, and other marginalised groups. The Penang Bar also set up a booth to raise awareness of the services provided by its Legal Aid Centre.
Environmental groups also made their presence felt. Exhibits highlighted people-centred agriculture and the anti-pesticide campaign, the struggle to preserve the local environment and heritage, and the recycling campaign, which included practical tips to achieve ‘zero waste’ at home. The Tanjung Bungah Residents Association raised concern over hire-rise projects, hill cutting and beach-front encroachment.
Many flocked to check out the Gerakbudaya booth, which put on sale a range of alternative, independent and critical books that are rarely seen in Malaysian bookshops.
A people’s walk through history
While the exhibition continued, some of the crowd made their way to a forum inside themed ‘Milestones of Penang’. The forum, capably moderated by Tan Pek Leng, looked at independence and what it has meant for ordinary people, with a particular focus on Penang.
Historian and author Cheah Boon Kheng spoke about the early politics and local elections in Penang. Political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu touched on the fragile state of ethnic relations and other conflict areas over the years since Independence. Conservationist Ahmad Chik, a Penang Heritage Trust committee member, then took us on a fascinating pictorial tour of heritage conservation efforts in Penang.
Rounding off the forum was MTUC Penang Division chairman Abdul Razak Abdul Hamid. He spoke passionately about how the process of industrialisation has left many workers earning sub-poverty line wages and highlighted the MTUC’s eight-year long campaign for a minimum wage.
Something for everyone
After the forum, half a dozen independent films, including award-winning ones, were screened looking at a range of issues from the Broga incinerator (Alice Lives Here) to the plight of refugee children (The Invisible Children). The others were Paradise Bus, Twelve 11, The Tapper and the Law, and Sustainable Penang. Coincidentally, soon after the Pesta, the government announced the scrapping of the Broga project after a sustained civil society campaign had hounded the project proponents.
While the films were being screened, NGO activists took turns to speak about their work in the foyer outside. Their talks raised awareness not only among the public but also among activists themselves who may not have been familiar with the work of their counterparts in other NGOs. One of the speakers, Noorlaila Othman, the wife of an ISA detainee who has been detained since 2002, had the audience hanging on to her every word as she tearfully implored them to consider the suffering this oppressive law has caused not only to the detainees but to their families as well.
Musical and cultural performances punctuated the soap-box presentations. A youthful nasyid group captivated the crowd with their soothing renditions, specially chosen to fit the Merdeka theme. Migrant workers from Flores and Sumatra, their faces lit with the joy of being part of the event, took to the floor and introduced their lively local dances to Malaysians.
Choirs from the Persatuan Seni dan Kebudayaan Pulau Pinang (Penang Culture and Arts Association) and the Persatuan Kebudayaan Rakyat Pulau Pinang (Penang People’s Cultural Association) joined forces in a harmonious blend of voices.
A trio recited a Cecil Rajendra poem, which reflected on 50 years of independence and lamented the sorry state we are in.
The father-and-son duo of “singing professor” Johan Saravanamuttu (on guitar) and his son Adil (on the sax) held the audience spellbound with poignant songs including the hit ‘Pukul Tiga Pagi’, describing the terrifying knock on the door in the early hours of dawn during an ISA crackdown. A silat performance capped the day’s proceedings.
The whole idea of the Pesta was to remind people that Merdeka is much more than “founding fathers”, politicians, official symbols, and political independence.
Rather, the Pesta was all about highlighting the people’s ongoing struggle for justice, peace, and liberation over the years – a silent struggle that has been largely downplayed. This was a different kind of patriotism – a more authentic kind of loyalty and pledge of allegiance to the cause of justice and freedom in our land.
The adage “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey” couldn’t have been more apt. in describing the build-up to the event. More than the actual event, it was the process of collaborating in the planning that created a sense of camaraderie and unity of purpose among the civil society activists involved. From a handful of NGOs, the organising team gradually swelled to a couple of dozen public interest groups involved in a broad range of issues as the big day drew closer.
Each organisation sent a representative or two to participate in the organising committee meetings. Interestingly, this committee had no leadership and operated as a collective in which all suggestions were presented at the meetings and either collectively endorsed or vetoed.
More pluses than minuses
In line with the Merdeka spirit, the organising committee was keen to ensure that the event was self-financing – without funding from any external foundation or funding agency. Most of the participating NGOs contributed a few hundred ringgit each and the expenditure was kept well within the budget. All the cultural troupes, speakers at the forum and NGO volunteers provided their services voluntarily.
Remarkably, the event even generated a small surplus – despite free food being provided to all present during the Pesta!
Sure, the Pesta had a host of shortcomings including a lack of publicity. Some participants found it hard to choose between the concurrent events. Still others did not have any idea about the programme.
But the positives outweighed the negatives. For the first time in Penang, 25 public interest groups had come together to organise an event that celebrated their work and built on existing networks. Social activists, previously confined to their own specialised areas of interest – as well as the public, on the day of the event itself – had the rare opportunity of interacting with the people behind the various NGOs.
The event also revealed that the civil society movement is alive and flourishing, with some groups infused with young blood. If this same event had been attempted in Penang, say, 20 years ago, perhaps it could have only counted on at best half a dozen established public interest groups. To have 25 groups now working together is testimony to how far down the road civil society has come. It is hoped that even more residents’ groups will follow in the footsteps of TBRA and collaborate with other civil society groups.
A more compassionate world
The sheer breadth and range of NGO concerns on display at the Pesta also revealed the underbelly of our corporate-driven neo-liberal model of economic growth and development.
It is a model that has left a trail of destruction and oppression in its wake – from environmental degradation, to pesticide poisoning, to repression and the denial of basic rights, to the marginalisation of communities. It has widened the gulf between the rich and the poor while entrenching in power a close nexus of political-corporate vested interests. The effects have been disastrous, leaving many communities and segments of society suffering in silence.
At the Pesta, activists shone a light, providing an alternative vision of society – one based on justice, freedom, compassion, solidarity, and environmental stewardship rather than one driven by materialism, avarice, corruption and reckless destruction of the environment. The spirit of voluntarism on display stood in stark contrast to the kiasu (me first) mentality so prevalent in society today.
The commonly expressed hope was for the Pesta Rakyat Merdeka to become a regular feature of Independence celebrations and to build on what has been achieved. If the Pesta has opened more eyes, strengthened existing networks, harnessed resources and rejuvenated drooping spirits, then it has been a resounding success. Together, we can build a more just and compassionate world.
Some reactions from those present:
It was a good platform to express the feeling of the ISA victims since all channels of information to highlight the cruelty of the ISA have been blocked by the mainstream media. It really touched my heart because I had the chance to share my grief with others and to tell them that the struggle to abolish this cruel Act is still going on.
ISA victim’s wife and member of the Family Support Committee of the Abolish ISA Movement (GMI)
It was a very enjoyable and educational experience. I realised how little we actually know about what other Penang NGOs do. It was great to be doing something as the NGO community and not just on our own.
Everyone made a great contribution, especially the soapbox speakers and performers. We’ll probably want them back again, may be next year?
Wonderful for a first time try.
Aliran executive committee member
Migrant workers happy
The migrant workers were very happy with the event because it was their first experience meeting with other NGOs. The Myanmar workers were especially touched by the concern expressed by other groups and they were particularly attracted to the Legal Aid Centre’s booth.
Migrant Workers Support Centre
The event revealed that a lot of groups are involved in struggling for human rights. I think it is a good symbol of the Merdeka spirit to see all these groups fighting in the interests of the public such as the campaign against the ISA and the AUKU, those trying to save the environment, those trying to uphold the rights of the disabled, as well as the AIDS group.
Abolish ISA Movement (GMI)
Congratulations on the wonderful and fun event! Komas’ journey to and fro Penang was smooth, and it was a good experience to meet up with most of our northern comrades.
Hope to see you all at the 50-44 Merdeka coalition celebrations (in KL) in Sept! (see www.50-44.org) Looking forward to another fantastic event together!
Rakyat’s aspirations missing
The rakyat’s message and aspiration of Merdeka did not come out at all. The part about heritage was out of place, same with the topic on foreign workers… I would have expected a clear-cut alternative interpretation of history i.e. our labouring/non-politicians’ perspective of Merdeka.
Not enough publicity, either. Nonetheless, a superb effort that should be promoted. Keep it up.
Synergistic and joyful power
The Merdeka pesta was magnificent. It’s been a long time since I felt the synergistic and joyful power of Malaysian civil society sharing their concerns and their services in a forceful and creative way.
The exhibits, songs, the poetry and the forum were great. The food was generous but perhaps we can ‘think healthy’ next time and serve only fruits and juices. And an excellent bookshop on titles for progressive thinking was most welcome.
Perhaps the Pesta should become an annual event, and grow and grow. A healthy democracy can only come with a vigorous, assertive and constructive civil society. The organising groups should be congratulated for the special solidarity event. Malaysian civil society, especially that of Penang, has a world reputation. This Pesta demonstrated it again.
World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action(WABA)
Shortcomings but enjoyable
Congratulations for the successful organisation of an enjoyable and informative day.
I would, however, have been able to plan my day better if I had known – that refreshments were available from 10 am and that that there was another programme running parallel to the film shows
The above information was not featured in the publicity leaflet.
While watching the film shows, I discovered from the ‘noise interference’ (quite bearable) that there was a “live” show running concurrently outside in the foyer. I would have been able to choose among the many attractive programmes if I had had the programme with me. As it was, I ran in and out from the film show hall to the concourse trying to catch the best of both.
Having said the above, I must hasten to add that I enjoyed myself as I learnt a lot that day. I was happy to know that there were so many good people giving their time and energy to improve the lot of others, and proud that many amongst them were my friends.
The moderator was good – brief and direct, articulate, cool and kept good time.
What struck me was the way the rakyat made their views heard in such a collaborative manner. The presentation of the history of Penang at the forum provided a good view for those present. It is a view that is not widely known in our history books especially regarding May 13 and the people’s history of Penang. These views and voices should be considered by the authorities.
Head of Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM) Penang
It was a varied and multi-segmented programme with many things happening concurrently. The structure of the program sequence needs to be better coordinated.
I found the morning forum to be educational but somehow the intended message did not emerge through the four speakers. The link to Merdeka and the lessons to be learned were subdued. The participation level from the floor also left much to be desired, me included.
With so many programmes going on that day, which item was meant to be the centre piece?
I also felt that the publicity for the programme was not felt and that’s a big minus.
2. Abolish ISA Movement (GMI)
3. Aliran Kesedaran Negara (ALIRAN)
4. Amnesty International (AI) Penang
5. Citizens for Public Transport (CEPAT)
7. Gerakan Mansuhkan AUKU
8. Green Crusaders
9. Oppressed People’s Network (JERIT)
10. Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM)
11. Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat (KOMAS)
12. Legal Aid Centre (LAC) & Human Rights Subcommittee of the Penang Bar
13. Malaysian Nature Society (MNS)
14. Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC)
15. Penang Heritage Trust (PHT)
16. Han Chiang Alumni
17. Pesticide Action Network – Asia Pacific region (PAN AP)
18. Persatuan Orang Cacat Malaysia (POCAM)
19. Penang Office for Human Development (POHD)
20. Save Ourselves (SOS)
21. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
22. Tg Bungah Residents Association (TBRA)
23. The Freemedia
24. Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)
25. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA)