In Kuala Lumpur on vacation... or assignment? (photos, carla vitantonio | sociecity)

In Kuala Lumpur on vacation... or assignment? (photos, carla vitantonio | sociecity)

The International Value of a Lemon in Kuala Lumpur

No shields, no gas, rien de rien, what kind of protest is this? From the Reggae-bar to groups of chador-clad women, join our own Carla Vitantonio as she inquires her way through recent political protests in the Southeast-Asian metropolis of Kuala Lumpur.

In Kuala Lumpur on vacation... or assignment? (photos, carla vitantonio | sociecity)
In Kuala Lumpur on vacation… or assignment? (photos, carla vitantonio | sociecity)

An Unexpected Day as an Activist in Malaysia

January the 12th, 2013 — the last day of the holidays in Kuala Lumpur. After 3 weeks spent around Malaysia looking for pirates, I wake up in hangover thanks to one of my “anthropological research in the field” nights.

I had heard something in the Reggae-Bar yesterday evening but nobody was able to tell me more about it, maybe because the guests of the Reggae-Bar, especially after a certain time, have better things to do than talk about politics.

Anyway, though I was shaken in the collective delirium of crazy dances and unusual meetings, I saved a little bit of integrity: I knew I would need some lucidity in order to go back, after all these months, to be a social movements reporter.

I swear this time it wasn’t my responsibility nor did I actively look for it, but it seems like I am now drenched in the biggest demonstration organized in Malaysia in the last 4 years – though somebody says the years number 8. I had heard something in the Reggae-Bar yesterday evening but nobody was able to tell me more about it, maybe because the guests of the Reggae-Bar, especially after a certain time, have better things to do than talk about politics.

Obviously, the newspapers only speak of things like security measures, police, children who are not supposed to be brought to the rally, and about the promise – allegedly made by the activists – to keep everything on a pacific level.

It’s the same song . It seems like I left Italy one week ago.

Because it is impossible to extract any good from the media, I decide I’ll get into the city center to look for these strange, almost extinguished animals – the so called activists – and interview them. Notwithstanding it’s Saturday, many shops are closed. Of course. If one reads the newspaper this individual ends up thinking that the Huns led by Attila are going to invade the town. Some tourists even confess that somebody discouraged them from wandering around the center, to avoid being in the midst of the turmoil. These activists must be pretty pissed off, I think.

I move with the circumspection which directs me automatically when I’m close to a demonstration that I reckon dangerous. My eyes are looking for the policemen – who are many – and I notice, with a little disappointment, that nobody is in riot gear. Uncovered faces, no shields, no gas, rien de rien. What is this? I thought we were getting ready for a day of urban guerrilla.

Very slowly, in the midst of the chaos of Kuaka Lumpur, I recognize them. Them, yes, the ‘feigning-chameleonic’ activists. They gather in small groups, on low stone walls, on foothpaths, in front of the cafes. They wear t-shirts in yellow, orange, green, or violet – depending on the group they are part of. On the t-shirts are printed slogans that of course I don’t understand. But I recognize some acronyms: various environmentalist NGOs, the Islamic Party, the Association for the Freedom of Palestine; in other words a nice big mess.

There’s a group of women in chador, all dressed in violet, I ask ‘excuse me do you speak any English?’ They run away with horrified faces. At the end of the day, I have no chador. I try several times but women are not going to answer. They are a big number, in groups, with their family, but every time i try to get closer they run away. The most talkative points to her husband and suggest I should ask him, but before leaving him the floor she whispers don’t worry, there’s no violence today, it’s a pacific demonstration.

Policemen are human beings. They are like you, like me. They have feelings. If tensions happen…nobody can tell how they will react. They can make mistakes.

I try to explain that it’s not the violence my matter of worry, that I don’t believe the demonstration will spoil my holiday, not least because my holiday is already over, but that I’d like to know what’s happening, just for the sake of curiosity, anthropophily, spirit of research. She smiles and bluntly pushes her husband towards me.

Me: What are you demonstrating for?
Him: For freedom!
Me: Wow great! I want freedom too. Freedom from what?
Him: Freedom of Malaysia (here I start taking him seriously). The last two elections have been rigged and corrupted. In April we will have new elections and we would like everybody to be able to run.
Me: That’s interesting. And who’s demonstrating?
Him: The opposition…the opposition parties and the civil society
Me: (Civil society! It was June the 29th 2012 when I last heard this word!) And do you think you got your point with this demonstration?
Him: Mah, I hope so, anyway there were loads of people, everything is developing in peaceful ways.
Me: It seems to me that you are all really worried about the fact that everything must be absolutely peaceful… (I bite my tongue, here it comes again, the little fussy European schoolmarm who can’t accept that in the world there are many different ways to show one’s dissent)
Him: (Patently he didn’t get my provocation) Well yes, we only want the government to listen to us. We want democracy.
Me: Democracy? Don’t you have democracy now?
Him: (seemingly embarrassed) Well yes, but we want more.

I thank him and go beyond. In front of a department store built inside an old colonial building there’s a group of yellow t-shirts.

Me: Hallo, excuse me, can I ask why are you all wearing a yellow t-shirt?
Yellow T-shirt: It’s the symbol of this day of protest.
Me: Protest against what?
Yellow T-shirt: Against the government.
Me: And what do you want?
Yellow T-shirt: We want peace.
Me: (I cant’ help, I laugh shamelessly) Thank you very much, I want peace also. But I think everybody wants it, isn’t it? Doesn’t your government want peace?
Yellow T-shirt: (He understand and laugh with me) Sorry, I don’t speak English well enough. We want free and peaceful elections, that’s it.
Me: Free from what? Free for whom?
Yellow T-shirt: We think the last elections have been rigged. We want real elections! Democracy!
Me: (Still with this democracy talk. Okay I get it)… and what about all this police?
Yellow T-shirt: All this police, it’s about controlling us.
Me: Do you think there will be any turmoil?
Yellow T-shirt: I can’t know that. Policemen are human beings. They are like you, like me. They have feelings. If tensions happen…nobody can tell how they will react. They can make mistakes.
Me: (Flabergasted by this new point of view on the police, that slightly reminds me the best Pasolini, the one before Saviano [1] started ranting on newspapers) Yes but they are working, they represent the Law, the State. They should better not make mistakes.
Yellow T-shirt: (Giving me a great political science lesson that smarts a bit) But the State is made up by people, and the people can make mistakes.
Me: (Honestly moved. One to zero for Yellow T-shirt) All right. Anyway, I would kindly suggest that you bring a few lemons [2] with you. Just to set some boundaries to human mistakes.
Yellow T-shirt: (smiles)
One to one, ball in the center.

Little more than a year ago I was observing my first demonstrations in Asia: I was living in Seoul, and around me the big mess of “Occupy everything” was spreading, add to that workers strikes and the opposition to the Free Trade Agreement with the USA.

I was fascinated by the goals and disoriented by the ways. It seemed impossible to me that the police could enact a memorandum with the tips for a good demonstration. Even more incredible seemed the people who were actually reading it and abiding by. I was asking myself questions on civil disobedience, on the right to demonstrate, I was totally confused.

…we’re speaking about women and men, for this is what States are … they shouldn’t be abstract entities, disengaged by the people that constitute them.

I had left my heart in Europe. I wanted to go back to Italy and start again trampling on the tarmac of the Old Continent, claiming my rights in the way I was used to.

I look at myself today. I’m still playing a little bit the European schoolmarm. I will probably always play that role, I can’t help it. But I’m feeling much more comfortable here, much more relaxed. There is no single way to express dissent. For these people here, the bare fact they’re wearing the same t-shirt and they’re in the street, Saturday morning, demonstrating with their presence their disappointment, it’s a lot. And perhaps, given the actual political situation in this place, such a rally is more effective than a march in the European manner.

The truth is probably that now my heart is here, with me. To my comrades in Europe I left the right and duty to choose their ways. Here I merely observe what I see, patterns, differences. And I might have almost stopped judging (finally).

Now that I’m not interested anymore in going back, having to decide the place in the world were they do things better is not a big issue.

Suddenly a poem from Machado comes to my mind:

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar. [3]

I’m walking through the streets of KL, in the midst of smiling Yellow T-shirts asking me to take a picture with them, and I repeat myself the lesson I learned from the guy at the department store: every time we speak about States, every time, we’re speaking about women and men. For this is what States are, nothing else, and they shouldn’t be abstract entities, disengaged by the people that constitute them.

This was my starting point when I left, two years ago, and I want this to be the smell moving me along the way.

But I’ve no more time for ‘political science’ lucubrations. It’s already afternoon and my last hours in KL are waiting for me. I make my way out, en-route to the usual Reggae-Bar, because I don’t know many other places.

But before that, I must stop by my favourite temple.

There’s a trail of spiritualism I have to sort out.



[1] – Roberto Saviano is a famous Italian journalist, author of “Gomorra”, a book focused on the new mafia organizations. After this good book, though, he started writing on several newspapers showing a certain lack of tactless and sometimes a real lack of historical sense: in December 2010, for example, after a demonstration during which the police had brutally beaten some students, he took the side of the police, misinterpretating a famous -yet not so updated- text from Pasolini.

[2] – Lemons are known to soften the effects of tear gas.

[3] – English translation of this poem “Walker, your footprints/ are the way, and nothing else/ Walker, there’s no way/ the way is made by walking.”