Hunger strikers want new leadership to address Covid-19 demands

·4-min read
Hunger strikers want new leadership to address Covid-19 demands
Hunger strikers want new leadership to address Covid-19 demands

When activist and strategic communications consultant Nathaniel Tan began a hunger strike on August 4 due to the country’s political instability, he was adamant about maintaining it until the government took concrete action against the pandemic.

However, due to lack of manpower and the resignation of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the strike stopped on August 16 before any of the demands were met.

Both Tan and Gerakan Belia Se-Punjabi Malaysia (GBSM) president Gurpreet Singh, who also participated in the relay hunger strike which lasted nearly 13 days, told Malaysiakini that although Muhyiddin’s resignation was not an indication of the demands being met, it was a hopeful beginning for change.

“Our focus of the strike was for change and to demonstrate a different variety of civil disobedience and actions that can cause some pressure onto the government.

“Even though Muhyiddin’s resignation did not mean we got all the change that we wanted, we thought it was a hopeful beginning for changes to come.

“We thought it would be a good time to stop (after Muhyiddin stepped down) and perhaps concentrate our efforts on a more virtual strike,” said Gurpreet, adding that the virtual strike has been a success so far and was a more sustainable method in the long run.

The virtual strike included fasting from the inside of your home, either on a liquid diet, consuming a small meal a day or eating only salt, water and lemon for a certain period of time.

Gurpreet was the second person to participate in the strike at 5pm when he took over on August 9, after Tan fasted for five days on the walkway of a commercial block in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.

The baton was then passed to Gurpreet, who carried on the strike in front of rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia’s (Suaram) office in Petaling Jaya.

Gurpreet Singh
Gurpreet Singh

Gurpreet said that his actions were not politically motivated and that he was only trying to “embody the struggles of the rakyat”.

“During my hunger strike, I wanted to feel and be a symbol that the government could look at to signify that the people are suffering.

“Many people have lost their jobs and go to bed hungry every night. So to embody that kind of symbolism was important to us,” he said.

Both Tan and Gurpreet spent their time during the strike actively pushing for the five demands to be met which included putting decision-making power in Covid-19-related matters to the experts, RM500 million funding towards hospitals, transparent data-sharing, and protection for frontliners who expose the realities on the ground.

However, Gurpreet said that the strike came with its own challenges.

“I think the biggest challenge was trying to explain to people why the strike was important, on why we need to raise awareness and not normalise 20,000 Covid-19 cases.

“Malaysia has started normalising these numbers and it is quite scary,” he said.

Despite wanting to participate in the strike for a longer period, Gurpreet was tied down with work commitments, which led to another passing of the hunger strike baton to the third participant - Teoh Jia Chern - on August 12, who set up camp outside Baba Low’s restaurant at Jalan Abdullah, Bangsar.

Teoh, an ethnographer and project coordinator, then spent his next five days helping run a food bank, offering free legal advice, helping out at the restaurant and talking to the many locals who dropped by to show their support.

Making a stand

The hunger strike movement received tremendous support from many ordinary Malaysians including from organisations such as the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH), who urged the government to accept all five demands.

Teoh said when he joined the strike, it was in solidarity with the act of making a stand.

“A hunger strike is not about performative solidarity or showing off how long you avoid food. It is about how we strike: what space do we intercept; which labours do we retract from; how does it affect those who aim to disrupt.

“It is not about what we say, it is about what we do,” he said in a statement.

He said the movement was a small step that would eventually lead to bigger things.

“I got a good burst of energy watching Tan and stepping into it as well. It is not about the 13 days, it is about the next 13 years and what do we do with all the energy and connections brought in by the strike.

“Big things take time to change. This was small in the grand scheme of things,” he said.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced a new line up of cabinet ministers including appointing Khairy Jamaluddin as the health minister, replacing Dr Adham Baba.

Many responded positively to the appointment, including the Mental Medical Association who lauded Khairy's previous achievements as the science, technology and innovation minister in charge of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme during Muhyiddin Yassin's premiership.

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