You want to talk about 1Malaysia? This is one Malaysia: during a time of shared pain, people consoled and helped each other out regardless of race, religion or social standing, observes Oon Yeoh.
What I had written in my column last week proved to be spot on. I said the police would erect road blocks around the city, which would prompt protesters to walk to their destination.
I said police would form a blockade around Dataran Merdeka and that some protesters would try to breach it. And I said police reaction to that would be spread through social media for the world to see.
So I was right on many counts. But there were some things that surprised me. I didn’t expect so many young people. Normally, students don’t take part in such events for fear of getting into trouble with their universities. I guess idealism overtook fear on that day.
There were also lots of Chinese participants – there were incredibly few in Bersih 1.0. Their numbers increased somewhat for Bersih 2.0, but they were still in the minority. At Bersih 3.0, easily half of the crowd was Chinese.
I’m not talking about the English-speaking, Western-influenced, Malaysiakini-reading types of Chinese. There were lots of Chinese-speaking Chinese. You know, the kind that’s supposed to be focused on getting good grades, finding a good job and making lots of money. The kind who avoids trouble. They were there too.
The other thing that surprised me was the heavy use of tear gas. I can almost understand why the police might want to use tear gas to discourage people from entering Dataran Merdeka. But why did they send tear gas into places like Jalan Tun Perak where the crowd was already dispersing voluntarily?
I know because I was there to cover Ambiga’s speech. After she told the crowd to disperse, that’s what the crowd was trying to do. As I headed out through a back lane, I got my first whiff of tear gas. I always thought that all it did was make it hard for you to breathe. I didn’t know it also stings your eyes and exposed skin.
While I was stumbling around wondering how I could ease the growing burning sensation in my eyes, a Malay drinks seller with a wet towel wrapped around his head, handed me a glass of ice water and told me to rinse my face. That was much-needed relief for my eyes.
But I was still having some difficulty breathing. A Sikh man who was teary-eyed himself handed me some salt. I heard a lady in the background telling me to quickly swallow it. I’m not sure that salt actually helps ward off the effects of tear gas, but I was in too much discomfort to question it.
At that point, I had lost all sense of where I was. I just wandered around trying to figure a way out. But everywhere I went I was greeted with clouds of tear gas. I thought to myself, “here we go again, more cili padi in my eyes!”
Then I felt a drizzle on my head. But it wasn’t from the sky. Several good Samaritans were spraying water from their apartment units above to the people below. They could see our suffering and wanted to give us some relief.
With no way out, I ran into an underground parking lot, figuring the police wouldn’t shoot tear gas in there. I wasn’t the only one. The parking lot was like a refugee camp, teeming with people seeking respite. And yes, they were helping each other, sharing water, salt and handkerchiefs.
Eventually when the tear gas subsided, I emerged from my underground refuge. A friendly policeman pointed the way out. But as I headed in that direction, another scolded me in a rude and threatening manner.
I was taken aback. I was there to cover the event. I had a camera in my hand and was not wearing a yellow t-shirt. Why was he yelling at me like that?
A young Malay guy turned to me and said: “Don’t worry brother, you didn’t do anything wrong.” I shook his hand and said “you know, I think today was actually a good day”. He smiled and said “yeah, it was!”
You want to talk about 1Malaysia? This is 1Malaysia. Tear gas doesn’t discriminate. And during a time of shared pain, people consoled and helped each other out regardless of race, religion or social standing. It wasn’t so much Bersih 3.0 but the aftermath of it that gives me hope of a better tomorrow.
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.