Malaysia

My Bersih 3.0 story in Paris

By Vijay Balasegaram
May 04, 2012

PARIS, May 4 — It all started with a word. Which in turn inspired an idea. Which in turn inspired a nation.

I arrived in France about a year ago. Unlike most Malaysians who live in the capital, I stay and work in Grenoble, which is 575km from Paris. Nevertheless, I bought my ticket the minute I heard Paris was joining Bersih 3.0. Even though I believed in what the yellow protest stood for, I was always sceptical about how a group of people wearing yellow could ever hope to clean a corrupted election process supported by a government 55 years strong. Then, came last year’s rally. I was converted. Many people do not realise it but this is an exciting period for Malaysia. Never has there been a time in history where the ground is so fertile for change. Our generation of Malaysians have in their power to secure a free and democratic future for subsequent generations. This would be our Berlin Wall. It would be our Renaissance. A second coming. The rebirth of a free and democratic Malaysia. And it all started with a word. So, I bought my ticket.

Paris was wet. More than usual. I always thought London was the one with the piping problems but it seems even the fashion capital of the world also suffers from it. After Saturday’s experience though, I think Paris could also be rebranded as the protest capital of the world. The city does house a lot of “protestation”. As soon as I arrived at the Esplanade du Trocadéro, I was greeted by a group of green men making fun of Sarkozy and Hollande’s ignorant stand on the environment. It was Green Peace. Shortly after, it was the folks from Guinea-Bissau and their noble cause to eradicate child slavery. Then, when we were painting the Eiffel yellow, another group was waiting at the entrance to paint it red afterwards. France! The land where freedom of speech means something more than just words scribbled on a fancy piece of paper.

I think there is something symbolic about showing dissent in Paris. After all, France inspired modern democracy. It was based on these ideals Malaysia was formed and freed from imperialism. Yet close to 55-odd years or so we find ourselves in an undemocratic fix. Who would have ever thought that demand for free and fair elections is now a cause for protest. Our founding fathers must be rolling in their graves.

Hence the colour yellow. Yellow to clean out the dirty fellows. And thus, more than 60 Malaysians spread out throughout France convened on the capital on April 28, 2012 at 12.22pm with typical Malaysian sense of timing (it was supposed to be at 12pm).

The Malaysians at the Bersih rally in Paris. — Picture by Vijay BalasegaramThe Malaysians at the Bersih rally in Paris. — Picture by Vijay BalasegaramI arrived earlier than anyone else. It was cold, about 9°C, but I didn’t feel it at all. My blood was racing. Despite the biting chill, I unzipped my overcoat and took a seat facing the Green Peace protest and waited. Not for too long. Before I knew it, there was a Malaysian couple beaming at me. It rocked my world when they said they would have gone home if they did not see my yellow T-shirt. We talked about why Bersih was important to us. They were older and have stayed out of KL for much longer than I have. Age and race also separated us but they echoed my feelings like a mirror. So we stood close together. Now we were three.

Ten minutes later, I received a call from one of the event organisers. She was driving her car and carrying all manner of yellow merchandise. The roundabout in front of the esplanade was busy. She couldn’t stop for more than five minutes. We rushed over to help. All sizes of cars zipped by but it was not hard to spot her. Her car was yellow. It was only natural.

First, we had a picnic. We set up camp on the Jardins du Trocadéro, which was a long field of green leading up to the Eiffel. Some kind souls have sacrificed their night to conjure up various Malaysian dishes. Looking at the briyani and fried mee hoon, my tummy grumbled with appreciation. It was a taste long missed. Our group swelled in numbers. Some people visited for a short while just to say how proud they were to be part of the movement. Most people stayed and the atmosphere soon turned festive. Diverse would be an understatement. We had Malaysians from each layer of our complex society. Young, old and the numerous races were well represented. I learned something funny about Malaysians on that day. It seems we lose our bangsa the minute we fly out of KLIA. Instead of being Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Bidayuh and so on, we become just Malaysians. It was wonderful. 

It was also important to note that Malaysians were not alone. We had support from people from other countries as well. There were passionate supporters from France, Germany, Taiwan, Singapore, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, India and even Iraq. Looking at those smiling understanding faces, I realise that even though the situation might have been Malaysian but the cause was a definitely global. What we are facing in Malaysia stirs up the same sentiment in all men regardless of nationality or age. We all shared the same desires. And thus we protest.  

Once the tummies have been filled with food and the heart with merriment, we set out to do the serious business of dissent. Armed with flags, signboards, puppeteers and drama actors, we were going to share our voices to the thousands in Malaysia who have already made their stand.

The weather was unfortunately against us. It started to rain. The temperature plummeted and the sky kept to a moody grey. Alien weather to tropical Malaysians used to a steady temperature and one-layer clothing. Despite that, we marched out determinately on to the sturdy pavement that Paris is famed for. Heavy overcoats were unzipped to expose yellow shirts, armbands boldly tied around the upper arms and more than a few donned blazing yellow raincoats. We paid our respects to a postcard background. And finally when all Malaysians young and old were gathered along with our friends from across the globe, we joined our spirits together and chanted the word that kept the Election Commission chairman awake at night.

After all, it all started with that word. A word so simple yet so profound that it was the cause of hundreds of thousands of Malaysians taking to the streets back in the motherland. One word to unite all Malaysians regardless of age, race or religion. One word to clean them all... Bersih!

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.