Many of our friends do not really know what we do in our daily lives. I cannot really explain it either, at least in a manner that would sound normal to an everyday person. In simple terms, I am a researcher, and Andrew is a teacher.
However, a big portion of our daily lives is dedicated to something else - that is to stand in the gap for those who need an extra hand to defend their fundamental rights. Along with a dedicated group of people with various expertise and background, we provide technical and legal advice so people could better understand reports, laws and guidelines, we provide resources for organizing campaigns, we help write statements to authorities, political leaders and to the press, we create social media content to spread public awareness, and empower disenfranchised people by helping them understand that they have the right to defend their fundamental rights. Most of us do all these in the expense of our personal time and resources, which is stretched out most of the time because we run on zero budget. In simple terms, we are activists.
Since there are many who will be very quick to judge activists like us as being politically motivated in a political party context, please allow me to clarify.
Andrew and I are non-partisan in our political inclination but that doesn't make us apolitical. The politics that we subscribe to are the politics of the fundamental rights of the everyday people. Especially those who lack the agency and capacity to speak up and be heard when injustice is done upon them. In the past, Andrew and I have rejected offers to enter political parties even when there were persuasions that it's from the inside that we can truly affect a change. We don’t disregard the good works done by many of them who has chosen that path, but Andrew and I believe that our place is with the people, not in a party.
Hence, this is what brought us to the parliament yesterday. We’ve stood alongside Penang’s traditional inshore fishermen for several years now, since we left our lives in KL to return home in Penang. First was with the fishing community in Tanjong Tokong when they faced the devastating impacts from the Sri Tanjung Pinang (STP) reclamation, and now with the fishermen in the south of Penang island, as their fishing ground is about to be buried under 4,500 acres of reclaimed land.
Many questioned why we are anti-development. Well, that cannot be further from the truth. What we are against is BAD development - one that leaves the vulnerable group of people and the environment far worse than what they were before. You basically can tell that it is a good development when it is inclusive and sustainable, and a bad development when exclusive (benefiting only the privileged) and irreversibly destructive to nature. I don't usually explain things in such a clear binary, black and white way - but for the sake of conciseness, this is what I can say for now.
The fishermen have fought against this mega reclamation project since 2017, and as the outcome of their voices, the EIA for this project has been rejected. However, it came back again re-enforcing a false narrative that most fishermen agreed to the project when in fact that was a misleading statement. The NGOs then joined forces to assist the fisher folks to mobilize a campaign against the project because the public were still in the dark about it. Since then, the public awareness and support for the fishing community had increased tremendously after they’ve gained better understanding about this project and the serious implications of it. The online petition to the Prime Minister to cancel the reclamation has collected at least 46,000 signatures to date. But despite all that, the Department of Environment approved the EIA in a matter of just a few weeks after public feedback (which was held during the fasting month of Ramadhan) – despite hundreds of letters sent from the public raising their concern on the wide-ranging problems potentially caused by the project and rejecting the reclamation.
Therefore, the fishermen had no choice to but elevate this matter to nationwide attention. They traveled all the way from Kedah, Penang and Perak from midnight in order to arrive at the parliament yesterday morning to show the political leaders that they are not backing down. And alongside with them, there are many more of us like Andrew and I who took time to travel down with them, and more people and NGOs from KL and Selangor came to join us at the parliament in solidarity that morning. The fisherfolks came with high spirits, waving their Penang Tolak Tambak flags and hoisting the posters and banners high, chanting their protests under the hot sun outside the road to parliament. Some of the fishermen even brought their wives along, and some of these aunties can’t walk far but they took slow and perhaps painful steps to join their husbands that morning.
The rally wasn’t even race-based as many had been led to believe, as those who were there would attest to the fact that the people present at the rally was representative of what Malaysia is about – young and old, from all races and background, we were all there for the same cause. This peaceful rally by the fisher folks made a historical mark for being the largest one of its kind recorded in Malaysia’s modern history. You’ll probably read news about this rally on social media, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything written on printed newspapers (except for The Sun, Guang Ming and Sin Chew). This meant that many more Malaysians who do not read news online but only on printed newspapers will still be in the dark about this matter. Yes, media blackout still exists in Malaysia Baru in subtle ways.
The journey on social justice for Andrew and I began from the earlier days of Bersih Rally 2.0 – when many Malaysians saw it as a futile and disruptive protest attended only by a bunch of troublemakers. People are only realizing now that the relentless work that Bersih had done over the years was an integral part in GE14's unprecedented outcome. And in this cause today, albeit at a small scale, we’re still met with heavy criticisms – from being labelled as extremists and luddites, to being slandered as oppositions who are trying to bring down the government (I mean, seriously?). We've come to accept that all these are forms of ‘occupational hazards’ and there isn’t much that can be done about it, so it is waste of time to stoop to their level and retaliate. These strong accusations come from people who have vested interest, so it is not surprising that they say what they say about us so they could bring us down.
Suffice to say that our conscience is clear, and we aren’t going to stop doing what we do in defending and protecting what truly matters. As individuals, we can only do so much, which is why we are extremely grateful to have so many people joining us as comrades along the way. It is extremely encouraging that more people are beginning to demand for a more sustainable future for Penang and Malaysia as a whole. And in more ways than one, they have become an ‘activist’ in their own rights because the future belongs to every Malaysian.