MALAYSIANSKINI | Just two days after the Election Commission (EC) announced that a decision to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 would be delayed to next year, a group of youth activists and their supporters ascended upon Parliament - the start of a series of actions that included calls for the resignation of former premier Muhyiddin Yassin.
Through mutual connections, the youth activists came together as Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) although the name itself, according to their spokesperson Mohd Asraf Sarafi, did not materialise until a week after the March 27 18-minute symbolic sit-down protest.
Unlike other similar movements, SSR comprises individual activists with personal affiliations to other civil society organisations.
“I am from Bersih but Bersih did not assign me to be a member of SSR,” Asraf said.
Similar sentiments were also voiced by Undi18 co-founder Qyira Yusri and Suaram coordinator Mohammad Abdullah Alshatri, together with Asraf, in a recent conversation with Malaysiakini.
“We are from different organisations but we mobilised our supporters,” Qyira said.
About a month after their first action, SSR reconvened their supporters outside the Parliament building in another symbolic "Buka Puasa Buka Parlimen" protest, in conjunction with the Ramadhan month and with no sign of a Parliament sitting - at the time still suspended under emergency laws.
This was followed by social media protest that highlighted their demands for Muhyiddin’s resignation, for Parliament to reconvene and resumption of a blanket loan moratorium to assist all who were impacted by Covid-19.
With their demands unmet and new Covid-19 cases continuing to spike, exposing the government’s failures in managing the pandemic, SSR in July launched an online “Black Flag” campaign, alongside an unconnected “White Flag” movement by concerned citizens who wished to offer urgent assistance to those in need.
With the success of the #KeluarLawan protest, the group said high-handed police action and their arrests during the vigil was unexpected, going against precedents of on-site negotiations and agreement to cooperate for any further investigations.
This was even more so as they had already called off a second street protest originally slated to be held on Aug 21, following Muhyiddin’s resignation.
All 31 vigil participants were fined RM2,000 each and the group's public plea for legal aid funds successfully raised RM92,800 in 24-hours, from 668 donators.
In the hour-long interview, Asraf, Qyira, Mohammad, Addy and Chong also opened up to Malaysiakini - in their own words - recalling their biggest fears and hope for legal reforms in Malaysia:
What has been your biggest fear?
ASRAF: I feared Covid-19. If suddenly there was to be a cluster from the protest. We really pushed for SOP enforcement, finding a trusted team to ensure crowd control.
I knew we risked facing the police, but the Covid-19 situation was what really made me feel uncomfortable. I thought about cancelling the protest but there were friends who pushed me to go ahead.
MOHAMMAD: My biggest fear was police suppression. To be arrested during or after the demonstration. I thought about preparations for the protest, ways to enforce social distancing, the need to find marshalls and other factors.
Many times in the week leading to the protest, I had second thoughts. Do I really want to go ahead with this? The next day I would feel better, but the day after that I would again reconsider.
QYIRA: For me, my fear was that I have never been called up by the police. So I was very worried about that. Three days before the protest, (youth activist) Sarah Irdina was arrested, and she is only 20 years old.
If the state can flex their powers over someone as young as her, what about the other first time protesters. Many of them do not know about the Bersih rallies or other past protests.
Police also went to Sarah’s house and I thought, what if they did that to me, are they going to give my grandmother a heart attack, or are they going to scare my sister? That was my biggest fear.
ADDY: How to manage people during a pandemic. We can’t see Covid-19, but what we can see are bad leaders. Both are our enemies.
If you could abolish one law, what would it be?
ASRAF: The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 has been around since the BN era and was not repealed under the Harapan administration.
MOHAMMAD: The Sedition Act. We have SSR members investigated for sedition, an archaic law. People can get into trouble for just a tweet.
QYIRA: Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. A friend of mine, (migrant activist) Heidi Quah, was charged under it for her exposé on conditions in our immigration detention centre.
ADDY: The Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. The act has only been amended once, and it imposes all manners of restrictions on the Orang Asli communities, preventing them from making their own decisions.
CHONG: Section 377b of the Penal Code on voluntary carnal intercourse against the order of nature.
What is the chemistry that keeps you guys together?
QYIRA: Collective anger helps haha! I think the good thing is all of us didn’t take anything personally. There have been a lot of issues that arose but no one took them personally and we raise them in the meetings.
We are very transparent with ourselves, even on social media. We are very honest about what we stand for and who we are. So young people identify with us even they may not know us.
ADDY: We make sure we bring it up at meetings. It’s also important that we don’t come on board with a firm ideological platform. We approach things in a genuine and open manner.
MOHAMMAD: There are many meetings between us, so that there is no build-up of issues or grudges. Everything we either move on or take to a larger group.
QYIRA: One example is the vigil. Not everyone attended the vigil. but when the moment of DAP rep Nalina Nair’s Instagram story went live, everyone was mobilising people, lawyers and media.
I was so surprised when I came out from the IPD because I thought there would only be a bunch of lawyers or one or two friends but so many people were there because SSR mobilised solidarity so quickly.
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