WELL, it was just going to be a sooner-or-later thing. Getting arrested is kinda like a serious occupational hazard for a politician, elected or otherwise, who belongs in the opposition camp in this country.
So when I was actually arrested on Sunday, 9 Nov 2008, at the candlelight vigil commemorating the first anniversary of the historic Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Election) rally, I was certainly not mentally unprepared. Especially not after the ISA (Internal Security Act) “scare” just a few weeks earlier.
I still remember my very first interview with a senior journalist from a local paper when I was about to quit my job, sell my company and join the topsy-turvy world of politics with the DAP, some 18 months ago. As the interview ended, she said she really couldn’t imagine me, this geeky, pseudo-intellectual (aka nerd), corporate personality involved in your “typical” opposition activities such as street rallies, protest demonstrations, and of course, getting arrested by the police.
She probably wasn’t far wrong, for I would pretty much be like a fish out of water in such situations. There are the personalities among opposition politicians whom you would always associate with protests and demonstrations, which almost inevitably lead to some form of controversy or other, and it is difficult to find myself taking after their footsteps.
Fish out of water (© Mikael Damkier / Dreamstime)However, I’m fully aware that there will be moments of civil disobedience that will be fully justified, and where my participation will be necessary. Taking part in a very simple candlelight vigil at an open field, organised by civil society, for the cause of abolishing the ISA and installing free and fair elections, was certainly a deserving cause — what more when it was happening right at the doorstep of my constituency, Petaling Jaya Utara.
The eight to nine hours spent at the Petaling Jaya police station were pretty much a non-event, and fellow detainees had a good time socialising and getting to know each other better. The paperwork process was painfully slow, and the “torture” was more out of boredom and tiredness than anything else.
Despite being roughed up during the arrest, which was totally uncalled for as I had protested that I would follow the police officers willingly, we were treated kindly at the station. Nevertheless, it was definitely not a glamourous experience.
Worth the risk?
Subsequent to my arrest, there was a very lively debate on my blog as to whether I should risk myself being arrested, and whether one should disobey laws, no matter how unjust they may be. A well-intentioned voter wrote that my time would be better spent in Parliament, raising issues instead of taking part in “illegal gatherings”. Others argued that we should never break the law, and the only approach would be to change it in Parliament.
I respectfully disagree with the above arguments for three simple reasons. Firstly, from a technical perspective, what constitutes an “illegal gathering” when our Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of (peaceful) assembly under Article 10? Is it as defined by the police and the government of the day, or by the spirit in which the constitution was written?
(Illustration by Nick Choo)Secondly, even if the candlelight vigil were indeed technically illegal, should unfair laws not be challenged? What if the government of the day decided to implement a law whereby all criticisms of the government would be defined as defamatory and be subjected to heavy financial penalties?
Furthermore, we must not forget the role and influence of the Bar Council march, and the Bersih and Hindraf rallies in 2007, as well as the outcome of the March 2008 general election. Without these, we would not have been able to spread awareness to the public on the government’s incompetence and corruption, and achieve such spectacular results at the ballot box. Hence, as an elected representative, I couldn’t possibly demonstrate my ingratitude by not turning up when I could, or by running at the first sight of the police charging at the crowd.
Finally, the criticisms also place too much weight on the role of the Malaysian Parliament in its current form. While it certainly has a role, and it is an important institution in the country, what the opposition can achieve in Parliament via legislative proposals is severely limited.
Private members’ bills will never see the light of day. Even to speak in Parliament requires an element of chance. For example, having prepared an extensive speech on Budget 2009, I didn’t manage to speak at all during the eight-day debate, despite having repeatedly stood and sat the second evening onwards. Thus speaking up in Parliament has to be matched with actions and activities outside of it, to achieve the maximum desired impact to make Malaysia a better country.
The writer speaks to the crowd during the candlelight vigil on 9 Nov 2008, prior to getting arrested
The clincher to the entire episode has to be the phone call I received at 8.30am after I was released from police custody less than an hour prior. The call was from one of my constituents who complained at length about the lalang next to his house, which had yet to be cut despite his having raised the issue quite a few times. Still wet from my shower, I promised quite a few times to look into the situation, but politely declined a site visit to look at the lalang with my own eyes.
Then he actually went on to nonchalantly ask about my arrest the previous night, which he had just read in the newspapers, and if I had been released already (?!!). I thanked him for his concern and let him know that I was fine and in good spirits.
When I told my wife about the call, she laughed so hard and nearly fell off the bed. Life goes on as an MP, it appears, regardless of whether you just spent the previous evening arrested or otherwise. Heh.
Tony Pua is Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara under the Democratic Action Party (DAP). He is the DAP national publicity secretary as well as the investment liaison officer for the Penang chief minister, based in the Klang Valley.