How to change the world by saying no

Find the courage to speak and to refuse to be treated poorly

When I was young, saying no or speaking up was akin to drinking poison.

So, I took on tasks beyond my abilities, which led to burnout. I stayed silent when reprimanded for a wrong I did not commit.

People liked me for what I did for them. It felt safe to ‘people-please’, to be tucked away from the risks of conflict and disapproval.

Yet saying no (gently) is a form of healthy protest. Somewhere in the cracks and crevices between docile passivity and overt aggression, one should find the courage to speak and to refuse to be treated poorly.

Dignity is known to be the grace of an aikido practitioner. Her opponent will throw her down! Yet, she will do a feather fall. She will land on the ground noiselessly, and rise again with a dancer’s ease (see video above).

Bersih’s acting executive director, Ngeow Chow Ying, in an interview with BFM, argues that an intrinsic part of democracy is the “expression of dissent”.

Bersih protests often highlighted electoral malpractices that have prevented fair and free elections. These disclosures galvanised the public against the 1MDB scandal.

In response to the Johor sultan’s criticism that protests are not the Malaysian way, Bersih said in statement that ‘protest movements’ had in fact given birth to this country, especially when Umno founder Onn Jaafar rallied the people to protest the formation of the Malayan Union. This eventually led to the formation of the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

Imagine that! A protest movement propelled the birth of a country.

No need for malicious plotting or conniving. No need for ‘fits’, expletives or explosive outrage (even when tear gas and water cannon by, ahem, a particular party unrelated to peace-loving Malaysians at the Bersih rallies was evident).

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Onn Jaafar, the founding father of Umno, in a speech in 1949, urged the Malays to give up their limited outlook: “It is absolutely important for the Malays to obtain closer ties with the other people in this country. It is time for us to take the view wider than the kampung view. I ask of you, which will you choose? Peace or chaos, friendship, or enmity?”


Imagine Onn, in 1950, proclaiming that Malaya would be able to achieve independence in 15 years and being reprimanded by the British High Commissioner, Henry Gurney, for his statement. 

Imagine the founder of Umno proposing at the party general assembly in 1951 that membership be open to ethnic minorities.

Most members disagreed, of course, and Onn left the party to set up the non–communal Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) on 16 September 1951.

While the party failed to receive support, an Umno-MCA-MIC alliance emerged under Tunku Abdul Rahman who, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, led the country towards independence.


Now, think of this amazing possibility of words! Think of a speech-act or performative speech (or saying something) that has the potency of changing something in the world.

Consider the Syro-Phonecian woman, a non-Jew, who approached Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter (Mark 7:24-30).

But Jesus appeared to turn her down using strong language – was he testing her faith? – saying that his priority was to the children of Israel, the Jews.

The woman refused to back down and instead challenged Jesus to broaden his ministry, to be more inclusive towards people of other backgrounds. Her persistence and conviction impressed Jesus, who praised her faith.

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What we need to understand is that words – whether in biblical verses or in Malaysian history – will remain as words that we are capable of understanding conceptually. Words from a page are neatly arranged in sentences. Essays, recipes and theories are packaged in excellent paragraphs with numbered points.

However, living those paragraphs is another matter.

It is entirely something to watch Nigella Lawson sensually pouring chocolate sauce over a chocolate cake on television and quite another to bake the actual cake ourselves. (I can attest to that, having never baked in my life.)

We all know that to answer an authority figure with a quick-witted rebuttal is not the most valued practice in Malaysian society.

If we tried doing that at home or in school, we might be labelled a ‘problem child’ or a smart-mouthed brat! Imagine the consequences if you had an aunt who told you to lose some weight, and you retorted that she should try doing it herself. (Tip: Pick your battles. Best to remain quiet and think things through if you are about to explode at a crazy relative. Count from one to ten.)

Challenging a teacher for cracking a rape joke in class led to taunting and teasing, to allegations against the student who issued the challenge. It further led to a suit, to a countersuit, and finally to the uprooting of an entire family to another location far away from that teacher.

A schoolteacher like Fadli Salleh, who raised a concern on social media about the maths syllabus in primary schools, initially received a letter from the Ministry of Education threatening dismissal or demotion. Publicity about the issue, perhaps, drove the disciplinary board to drop the charges against him.

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While politicians are wrangling for seats in the upcoming general election, the rest of us are fighting our daily battles for dignity and self-respect. Consider the retired air force helicopter pilot trying to survive on a pension that has entrapped him into the poorest 40% band of society.

Yet, there are dissenting voices we are beginning now to hear.

For example, that of a student union representative of a university who recently criticised university authorities for clamping down on their forum on freedom of speech.

Or a NGO for women’s rights that has launched its #Jenayahkan Menghendap awareness campaign following the tabling in Parliament of amendments to the law to make stalking a crime.

Or the Penan and Kenyah communities in the Baram River basin, who have recorded their lived experiences in atlases that document the importance of forests and the diversity and the endangerment of species in this biodiversity hotspot.

Whether or not the general election produces a pleasant surprise, Malaysians continue to forge lives rich in meaning and fortitude. Despite the torrential rainfall and bouts of Covid infections, despite the ‘leapfrogging’ of politicians across divisions, and despite the Halloween party raids, we will remain a resilient lot. We may bicker, gossip, sign petitions, listen to and make speeches, and even demand some crumbs from the table.

That ‘chutzpah’ is one that we own! It is something that we Malaysians have to be thankful for.

Think of the possibility of words, of a speech-act, or performative speech, or the uttering of something that changes something in the world.

Speak! Say no, and find the courage to navigate the spaces between docility and overt aggression.

Fall like a feather, rise again. Because it is the Malaysian way.

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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