“Saya bukan Melayu, saya Orang Asli”

by Gan Pei Ling / 2 May 2011 © The Nut Graph

(All pics below courtesy of Tijah Yok Chopil)

ONCE, when she attended a job interview in the Klang Valley, Tijah Yok Chopil’s Malaysian employer did not get it when she told him she was an Orang Asli.

“Dia ingat saya orang Indonesia atau Melayu … Saya beritahunya [selalu kita cakap] Melayu, Cina, India dan lain-lain, saya [sebahagian daripada] dan lain-lain … Apabila saya beritahunya ada 18 suku kaum Orang Asli di Semenanjung, dia lagi pening,” Tijah recalled.

The activist said it goes to show how ignorant some Malaysians could be about the indigenous people in Malaysia.

Tijah started her activism by founding her own women’s group in her kampung in Bidor, Perak called Kumpulan Ibu-Ibu Kampung Chang. From there, the group evolved into Sinui Pai, Nanek Sengik (New Life, One Heart) in 1995. They ran programmes to empower the community with economic skills and knowledge about their rights.

Over the years, the model spread to other villages in Perak and other states, eventually resulting in the formation of Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia (JKOAS). The grassroots network has been highlighting Orang Asli issues and campaigning for the government’s recognition of their land and indigenous rights.

Tijah, who is now JKOAS secretary, shares her humble beginnings and some Orang Asli folk tales with The Nut Graph in an interview on 23 Oct 2010 in Petaling Jaya.

TNG: Bila dan di mana Tijah dilahirkan?

Saya berasal dari Kampung Chang Lama Sungai Gepai di Bidor, Perak dan dilahirkan pada 17 March 1968 – sama tarikh dengan demonstrasi Orang Asli tahun lepas di Putrajaya.

Boleh kongsi asal-usul keturunan Tijah?

Saya tulen berketurunan Semai.

Mengikut kepercayaan nenek moyang saya, komuniti Semai sudah wujud di sini semenjak batu-batu masih lembut. Buktinya tapak-tapak kaki yang masih kekal di atas batu dekat kawasan air terjun kami.

Footsteps made by her ancestors when the rocks were still young, according to Tijah’s village folk tales

Ceritanya, [pada masa dahulu], ada dua orang adik perempuan yang dikejar hantu rusa. Kami memanggil dua orang gadis itu ubai baleh dalam bahasa Semai. Rusa itu sepatutnya dimakan tetapi tertangguh-tangguh selama tujuh hari sehingga terjemar menjadi hantu dan mengejar dua budak perempuan itu semasa ibu bapa mereka pergi ke hutan. Tapak kaki dua orang adik-beradik dan hantu rusa masih ada di kawasan air terjun sampai sekarang.

Ramai orang pernah tanya saya sejak bila Orang Asli wujud di tanah Semenanjung, kami tidak pasti jangka masa [yang tepat], tetapi kami tahu kami memang orang asal tanah ini, tidak ada keturunan dari negara-negara lain macam orang lain.

Selain daripada cerita tadi, apa cerita Orang Asli lain yang sering diberitahu orang tua yang Tijah gemar?

Ada banyak cerita. Menurut kepercayaan kampung saya, pada sesuatu ketika, tanah Semenanjung ini berada dalam keadaan yang gelap sebab bulan telah terjatuh ke bumi. Saya pernah mendengar cerita yang sama di kampung-kampung lain, mungkin keadaan ini berlaku sedunia.

Maka salah seorang nenek moyang kami yang halak (mempunyai ilmu spiritual yang tinggi) telah mengadakan sewang bubun gelap selama 14 malam, 14 siang untuk memujuk semangat bulan kembali ke langit. Ini kerana mereka mempercayai semakin lama [bulan] tinggal di bumi, dia akan makan manusia.

Nenek moyang yang halak itu kami memanggilnya Tok Churoq. Dia telah berjaya menghantar bulan balik ke langit. Maka bulan pun ingin membalas budinya dan memanggilnya untuk menyediakan tujuh lapis tikar krawoq, sejenis tikar mengkuang dengan anyaman khas yang sangat cantik.

Namun Tok Churoq tidak sempat menyiapkan tikar itu dan tuhaad (hadiah mengenang budi) itu terus menembusi bumi. Bulan memberitahunya batu itu sebenarnya batu umur, sesiapa yang uzur bersandar dekat batu itu akan menjadi muda lagi. Tetapi sekarang batu itu sudah jatuh ke dasar bumi, maka ditakdirkan umat manusia di dunia ini akan mati di atas bumi dan dihidupkan kembali apabila dikebumikan. Kepercayaan ini masih dikekal di kalangan kami.

Saya tahu cerita ini macam cerita dongeng, tetapi kami mempercayai dan menurunkan cerita-cerita ini dengan jelas kepada anak-anak kami.

Ada lagi cerita tentang asal-usul kejadian pokok, ikan, binatang dan sebagainya, saya suka mengambil cerita-cerita ini tetapi tidak ada masa untuk mencatat dalam buku betul-betul.

Apakah kenangan Tijah yang paling kuat semasa membesar?

Ibu bapa saya sangat baik hati, kami bukan orang senang, memang orang susah, tetapi mereka akan berkongsi apa yang ada dengan orang kampung. Kami tidak pernah makan bersendirian, mesti ada tetamu. Kadang-kadang kami berasa sedih kerana kami sendiri pun tak cukup makan.

With 100 other Orang Asli representatives attending a convention in Kuala Lumpur in December 2010

Bapa saya meninggal dunia ketika saya 12 tahun, keadaan menjadi lebih susah, emak saya terpaksa pergi menoreh getah, memancing ikan dan mencari ubi keledek, ubi keladi atau ubi kayu walaupun sakit tulang. Emak masih akan berkongsi makanan kami dengan orang lain pada ketika itu kerana dia memang tidak sampai hati orang lain melihat sewaktu kami makan.

Walaupun hanya 12 tahun, saya macam sudah dewasa kerana terpaksa membantu emak dan kakak, bersama-sama pergi menoreh getah kami seluas dua ekar. Pokoknya tidak banyak kerana sudah tua dan mati dimakan anai-anai.  Saya dan kakak juga bekerja di kebun sayur orang Cina, kami berjalan kaki sejauh tiga hingga empat batu tiap-tiap hari.  Kami tidak bermain-main seperti kanak-kanak lain, bekerja itu menjadi sejenis permainan bagi kami.

Sungguhpun saya seorang perempuan, saya pernah membuat pelbagai kerja macam anak lelaki – membacu simen, membuat pagar, memotong kayu sepanjang lapan kaki, sebesar ibu jari kaki dan diikat sebanyak 25 kelamin, selepas itu mengangkutnya ke suatu tempat yang diperlukan dengan memikul dibahu. Kerja ini kami lakukan sebelah petang selepas kembali dari kerja di kebun-kebun sayur Cina.

Adik-adik saya sangat berdikari kerana kami kerap meninggalkan mereka di rumah semasa kami pergi cari makan. Dari usia lima atau enam tahun mereka kena menjaga sendiri.

Tijah ada beberapa orang adik-beradik?

Semuanya ada 10 tetapi seorang telah meninggal dunia. Pada masa itu, dua kakak dan satu abang saya sudah berkahwin dan duduk di kampung lain, anak kelapan pula dipelihara mak cik saya. Maka tinggal kakak, saya, dua orang adik perempuan dan satu adik lelaki di Kampung Chang Lama.

Saya anak keenam. Kakak saya tidak mampu menghantar kami semua ke sekolah, hanya saya dan adik ketujuh yang bersekolah. Kami tidak tahu macam mana memohon bantuan daripada Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (sekarang ditukar nama kepada Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli) walaupun ia wujud. Semua orang di kampung kami membeli buku dan baju sekolah sendiri.

Selepas itu, kakak saya jatuh sakit dan emak pun tidak boleh bekerja kerana kena menjaganya. Dua orang adik terkecil pun mengikut emak dan kakak pergi tinggal di Kampung Langkap. Saya pula menumpang dengan satu keluarga Katholik di Tapah untuk menduduki SPM, tinggal adik saya yang menduduki SRP tinggal bersendirian di rumah.

Sebenarnya saya tidak merancang untuk mengambil SPM, saya sudah berhenti belajar semasa Tingkatan 4 dan keluar bekerja kerana kakak tidak mampu membeli buku untuk saya dan sudah kelihatan kurang sihat.

Tetapi seorang paderi datang mencari saya dan memujuk saya untuk menyambung pelajaran walaupun pada masa itu sudah bulan lima dan tinggal beberapa bulan sahaja sebelum SPM. Dia menyuruh saya untuk mencuba sahaja.

Speaking at an Orang Asli convention in December 2009 in Kuala Lumpur. This was when the idea to organise a march to Putrajaya in March 2010 to protest against a controversial land policy first emerged

Maka Tijah ada habiskan SPM?

Saya tidak mendapat apa-apa gred tetapi lulus beberapa subjek dan mendapat sijil am. Selepas itu saya tidak menyambung pelajaran lagi dan bekerja sekejap sebagai guru tadika di sekolah St Mary dan pernah bekerja di kilang juga.

Namun saya rasa tidak puas hati dan pekerjaan-pekerjaan ini rasanya bukan panggilan saya. Maka saya berhenti kerja, balik ke kampung dan bekerja di ladang sambil membuka kelas untuk mengajar budak-budak.

Saya juga cuba berbincang dengan orang kampung – apa yang terjadi dengan Orang Asli? Kenapa keadaan kita macam ini? Adakah kita suka keadaan sekarang?…Saya berfikir Orang Asli tidak akan menjadi orang terpinggir jika wujudnya satu sistem yang baik untuk [melindungi hak-hak] Orang Asli. Tetapi daripada menyalahkan orang lain, lebih baik saya memulakan sesuatu dan menguji adakah cara saya lebih berkesan untuk menjadikan Orang Asli lebih berkeyakinan diri.

Dan pendapat saya memang tepat, keadaan berubah selepas saya memulakan program untukempower komuniti. Daripada Orang Asli malu dan takut bercakap, mereka menjadi lebih berani untuk berkongsi pendapat mereka. Memang Orang Asli bercita-cita untuk memperbaiki status mereka supaya setaraf dengan orang lain, cuma selama ini mereka salah dianggap orang bodoh dengan otak kosong.

Orang lain yang sentiasa memutuskan dan berfikir bagi pihak Orang Asli apa yang bagus untuk mereka. Maka, semakin lama mereka bukan semakin terbuka, malah, kebijaksanaan dan keyakinan diri semakin terhapus.

Selepas saya yakin cara saya adalah betul, saya terus mengadakan aktiviti dan diskusi dengan orang kampung. Hasil usaha itu kami boleh lihat … Orang akar umbi yang tidak pernah bersekolah dan mendapat apa-apa pendedahan lebih baik daripada Orang Asli yang berpendidikan atau status tinggi, yang takut sangat nama atau gaji mereka terancam.

Sebaliknya, orang kampung tidak terikat dengan apa-apa, dia bercakap ikhlas apa [masalah] yang dihadapinya [di kampung], berdasarkan kebenaran. Kebangkitan dan kesedaran [golongan ini] lah yang menjadi isu Orang Asli lebih hangat timbul, masyarakat Malaysia juga lebih mengambil perhatian terhadap isu kami.

Jika tidak, selama ini Orang Asli dianggap anak emas kerajaan – Orang Asli minta apa-apa sahaja dan kerajaan akan beri! Itu tanggapan negatif yang salah. Sekarang ramai orang masyarakat sudah sedar apa yang benar-benar sedang berlaku dengan Orang Asli.

Bagaimana pula Tijah mengaitkan pengalaman-pengalaman ini dengan identiti sebagai warganegara Malaysia?

Sebenarnya Orang Asli sangat jelas dengan identiti kita. Kita bukan orang Melayu atau Cina, kita Orang Asli, orang lain yang confuse.

Tijah (right) in Kampung Chang in August 2008 to celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

Orang Asli tidak macam komuniti lain, kita komuniti yang sangat terikat dengan alam semulajadi dan tanah kita. Kita punya budaya, kepercayaan, kesenian, falsafah kehidupan, cerita mitos … semua berkait kuat dengan tanah di mana kita berasal. Oleh sebab itu, apabila Orang Asli tiba-tiba diusir ke kawasan baru, mereka akan hilang identiti mereka. Berbanding dengan Orang Asli yang masih tinggal di tanah adatnya, Orang Asli yang dipindah ke kawasan baru, jiwa mereka tidak tenang dan adat resam mereka mudah hilang.

Kalau mengikut perlembagaan, kita bukan bumiputera. Kami memang anak jati sini yang tidak berketurunan dari negara lain, kami peribumi tanah ini. Orang Asli memahaminya, tetapi [selepas 53 tahun sejak kemerdekaan Malaya] pemerintah masih belum [sanggup] meletakkan Orang Asli di kedudukan yang tepat.

Setakat ini kami dikenali sebagai Orang Asal bumi Semenanjung tetapi jika secara rasminya masih dikategorikan sebagai “Dan Lain-lain” tanpa maksud yang jelas.

Malah kita sering dimasukkan sebagai orang Melayu, walaupun kita melihat orang Melayu sangat berbeza dengan Orang Asli. Nama Orang Asli pun digalakkan menggunakan “bin” dan “binti” walaupun sebelum ini kita biasa memakai “a/l” dan “a/p”. Ada juga ahli Umno yang menyogok Orang Asli menyertai Umno sedangkan parti itu tidak ada kena-mengena dengan Orang Asli. Jika Orang Asli boleh masuk Umno, maka kita sepatutnya boleh masuk MCA dan MIC juga.

Nampaknya pemerintah sendirilah yang confuse.

Saya pun tidak pasti sama ada mereka benar-benar confuse atau sengaja hendak mengelirukan orang lain.

Iktiraflah kedudukan Orang Asli di dalam perlembagaan. Kita bukan hendak mencabar atau mengambil alih kedudukan orang Melayu. Kita memahami mereka adalah bumiputera, tetapi macam Orang Asal di Sabah dan Sarawak, kita peribumi tanah ini dan sepatutnya hak-hak kita sebagai peribumi dipertahankan. Sekarang [pemerintah] yang memutuskan segala-galanya, ambil tanah Orang Asli dan menentukan siapa yang boleh digelar Orang Asli [sesuka hatinya]. Identiti kita macam sesuatu yang dipermain-mainkan.

Apakah perubahan yang Tijah ingin lihat di Malaysia pada masa depan?

Saya mahu Malaysia yang menghormati semua kaum. Kalau saya boleh mendapat sesuatu, kamu juga boleh dapat. Saya rasa itu lebih adil.

Saya tidak mahu Malaysia yang dikuasai oleh satu kaum sahaja dan kaum lain terpaksa menunduk kepada satu kaum. Itu tidak baik kerana siapa yang menentukan satu kaum lebih mulia daripada orang lain? Tuhan mewujudkan dunia ini dengan pelbagai kaum.

Saya hendak melihat rakyat Malaysia yang menyayangi satu sama lain, bekerjasama berjuang untuk kedamaian semua orang.


The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.

“Thorough-bred Malaysian”

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 February 2011 © The Nut Graph

Edmund Bon is a Reformasi-generation lawyer-turned-human-rights-activist. (Pic courtesy of Daniel Soon)

Lawyer. Activist. Trainer. LoyarburokkerEdmund Bon wears many hats in his quest to champion human rights.

Bon is currently the Bar Council’s constitutional law committee chairperson. This is the committee that, since 2009, has been running the MyConstitution campaign to popularise the federal constitution among Malaysians. Bon and his contemporaries — Amer Hamzah Arshad, K Shanmuga, Fahri Azzat, Sharmila Sekaran and Edward Saw — also started the LoyarBurok blawg in 2006 which highlights legal issues of public interest. They published their first book, Perak: A State of Crisis, in 2010.

Bon says their next plan is to create a rakyat centre, also called the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, in Bangsar: “We want to have a laman bersantai where people can use the place for free, lepak there, hold events, start and create a culture of discourse.” Their main aim is to mainstream human rights, especially among young people.

In this 19 Dec 2010 interview in Kuala Lumpur, which had to be updated in January 2011 after Bon found out more about his ancestry from his parents, Bon shares stories from his past and future hopes for the country.

TNGWhere and when were you born?

Edmund Bon: I was born in Kuala Lumpur (KL) on 6 June 1974.

Where did you grow up? Are there any childhood stories that you remember till today?

I grew up in Ulu Kelang, near the zoo, then Ampang. I had a boring life then…[but] when I was two or three, a nanny from another house put something like 10 liddy sticks into my ear and injured it.

You can remember this even though you were so young?

My parents had to send me to the hospital and they keep repeating the story.

We’re all pendatang. Can you trace your ancestry?

Bon (second row, first left) in Form 2 at Methodist Boys’ School, KL. (Pic courtesy of Roshan Thiran)

On my father’s side, my grandfather came from Wen Chang City in Hainan, China. He died before I was born but my father told me he came to Malaya in the 1910s.  My grandmother was from Canton and she was his second wife. They had three boys. My father was the second son. He was born during World War II.

When my grandfather went to register my father’s birth at the police pondok in Seremban, there must have been some miscommunication and the constable wrote his surname as “Bon”. Actually a closer English pronunciation of my Chinese surname, which means cloud, should be “Yun” or “Woon”.

All my father’s siblings had different spellings for their surname.

During the Japanese occupation, my grandfather sent my father and his elder brother back to China to be exposed to life in the village and to acquire some Chinese education. But life in the initial years of the communist liberation in China was chaotic. So my grandfather brought them back to Malaya in 1954.

My father became a teacher before joining the Human Resources Ministry as a labour officer. He later left the civil service to join a multi-national petroleum company. He met my mother during a gathering in a friend’s house in the early 70s.

Bon (third from left) and the LoyarBurok futsal team. (Pic courtesy of Seira Sacha)

My mother was born in 1946 in Taiping. She was a music teacher in government schools until she set up a music school in KL. I used to follow her to the private studio and learnt the piano there. My mother was also the principal of Maryvale Good Shepherd kindergarten. Her parents were both teachers.

My grandfather was the first male to be appointed as a headmaster in a girls’ school – Zainal Girls’ School in Kota Baru. He was also very active in sports and one of the rugby pioneers in the country. His mother was a Hokkien Nyonya from northern Penang. She worked very hard, by selling Nyonya kuih, to support his education through to Singapore’s Raffles College.

As for my grandmother’s father, he came from Kwang Tung, China to Penang when he was 16. He had a shoe business and used to travel far and wide on an old bicycle to get business from the Europeans in the estates, sometimes up to 60 to 70 miles on alternate days.

Regardless of my ancestry, I am a thorough-bred Malaysian and have allegiance only to the country of my birth – Malaysia.

What about school? How was it?

I went to Methodist Boys’ School in KL, for primary and secondary [education].

I was a prefect, a boy scout and a member of groups like the Tennis Club, Christian Fellowship and Literature & Dramatic Club, so I was quite with the establishment.

After PMR, I wanted to do arts. I didn’t like science, but my parents didn’t let me.

During Form Four and Five, I became more anti-establishment. We had a very strict headmaster. I remember he was fierce and caned those with long hair and I also got it.

Were you aware about the concept of race then?

Bon celebrating his birthday as a one-year-old between his father (left) and mother. (Pic courtesy of Edmund Bon)

I was aware but it wasn’t something I cared about. One of my best friends since Standard Two is this guy called Roshan Thiran – he’s the CEO of Leaderonomics. But we had many Malay [Malaysian] friends, too.

It didn’t matter, as long as we had the same interests.

So you were in science stream. How did you end up becoming a lawyer?

Oh, that was by accident. I didn’t plan to become a lawyer.

During my childhood, the Indiana Jones movies were very popular. Being young and impressionable, I wanted to be an archaeologist. And then when I saw [fire fighters] put out fires, I wanted to be a [fire fighter], too.

And when I was young, my nanny used to tell me I should never become a lawyer because “Lawyers always cheat and lie for money.” We used to call her Ah Che. I was very taken in by her repeated statements so it never crossed my mind [to become a lawyer].

It was not until I did A-Levels that I decided to do law. I was offered a scholarship to do A-Levels at Bellerby’s College in Brighton, UK after SPM. Not knowing what I wanted to study in university, I took economics, English literature and law. Law was the easiest and most interesting subject to me, and many of my college friends were going to do it in university, so I read law, and vowed to prove [my nanny’s impression of lawyers] wrong.

After I became a lawyer I explained to Ah Che and she understood. Her words still ring in my ears every time I get tempted.

Were there any particular events that jolted you to become more socially and politically aware in England?

The education system there changed me. I remember my dad used to ask me to raise my hand and ask at least one question in class each day in school in Malaysia. I was usually shot down. But it was different in the UK. We were encouraged to think, speak up, and ask questions, including stupid ones.

Another major influence was the subjects I read in law. At that time I read a lot about the European Convention on Human Rights, and there was the European Court of Human Rights where governments could be sued for human rights abuses.

We learned about the court cases and the judges were very pro-human rights. It made me very excited about human rights law and I thought it was the same in Malaysia. I didn’t know anything about (Tun) Salleh Abas or the 1988 judicial crisis. I only found out when I came back.

When did you come back? What happened after that?

1997. I have told this story many times already. During Reformasi in 1998/1999, many people were arrested in the street demonstrations. (M) Puravalen, Ragunath (Kesavan), and (R) Sivarasa were leaders at the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Centre in KL and they asked for help to defend the demonstrators. So that’s where I started.

My employer Chooi Mun Sou encouraged us and still does.

Bon’s maternal side of the family. His sister is seated in between their grandparents. Bon is standing far left in red with his mother sitting next to him and his father standing behind. (Pic courtesy of Edmund Bon)

Later, I followed Sivarasa and Christopher Leong, a partner in the law firm I’m with, to Kamunting, for the habeas corpus application of the Reformasi activists detained under the ISA (Internal Security Act).

I was assigned to record Hishammuddin Rais and Tian Chua’s stories. That’s where all the sensitisation about human rights activism really started. Then people like Amer, Shanmuga, Fahri, Edward, Latheefa Koya and I started to move together. There were others from this Reformasi generation of lawyers, too.

If it weren’t for the Reformasi period, people like us would not be doing what we are doing now. If you ask me why am I still doing what I do? It’s because I still believe that there are many human rights problems but with the correct people and strategy we can change things for the better. And it’s fun!

Are there any family stories that stuck with you?

When I just started work, my dad used to tell me about how pervasive the NEP (New Economic Policy) was in Malaysia, including in the multi-national petroleum company he worked in.

Once, his American boss recommended him for a promotion but his department overruled the decision because the post was reserved for Malay [Malaysians]. So my dad was not promoted.

What are the changes you hope to see in Malaysia in future?

I think we should get rid of our obsession with race. We are all Malaysians. Political parties should be based on political ideology, not race.

Bon (left) conducting one of the sessions at a MyConsti workshop at Kolej Yayasan UEM in 2010. (Pic courtesy of Daniel Soon)

The current political landscape in Malaysia is extremely polarised. You are either for Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat. It has turned into a zero-sum game. More attention is being paid to the parties or political personalities than issues. We may see more racial and religious rhetoric being raised at the next general election at the expense of real issues. Many people don’t realise you can be political, but need not be politically partisan.

I want to see a government that really listens and acts to uphold the rights of every Malaysian particularly those who have been marginalised.

[Also], our education system needs to be run by experts and not politicians. We are not able to compete with the rest of the world.

I would like those who are elected to be scrutinised more on their performance, conduct and pledges. A new social movement combining all the major civil society groups should lead this initiative.

The youth should be mobilised and empowered as part of the “voter bank” to demand and sustain good practices for future elections. A sustained campaign for a number of years will surely lead to positive changes in the way politicians handle elections.


The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.

What happens under ISA detention

by Gan Pei Ling / 30 June 2010 © The Nut Graph

THE Home Ministry is expected to table amendments to the Internal Security Act (ISA) in the current July parliamentary sitting. However, it remains unclear whether judicial review will be included among the amendments. Without the inclusion of judicial review, the ISA remains a law that allows for detention without trial.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak promised to review the ISA when he came into office in April 2009. But the government continues to defend the need for detention without trial in the interest of “national security”. In the meantime, those who have been detained under the ISA tell stories of state abuse of power and torture.

In this second of a series of interviews with former ISA detaineesThe Nut Graph speaks with Mat Sah Mohd Satray and his wife, Norlaila Othman, about his arrest and detention under the ISA in April 2002. Mat Sah, a technician from Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka, was arrested together with 13 other suspects for allegedly being involved in terrorist organisations.

Mat Sah and Norlaila were separated for seven years during his detention

Mat Sah was only released from the Kamunting detention centre in September 2009. And it was only on 12 June 2010 that police removed all restrictions on his movement. Mat Sah and Norlaila, who became an active member of Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI), spoke to The Nut Graph on 16 June 2010 at their Gombak home.

TNG: Mat Sah ditangkap pada 17 April 2002. Boleh ceritakan apa yang berlaku pada masa itu?

Mat Sah: Polis datang rumah pada pukul 12 malam, masa itu hanya ada saya, isteri, dan anak saya yang berumur lapan tahun dalam rumah. Saya belum tidur lagi, dengar ada bunyi depan, saya pun pergi tengok. Masa itu gelap, tetapi saya nampak ada seorang polis pakai uniform. Dia tanya saya, “Boleh cakap dalam?” Saya pun buka pintulah, lepas itu tujuh, lapan orang terus masuk dan gari tangan saya.

Saya tanya mengapa gari saya, dia cakap, “Saya terima maklumat bahawa awak terlibat dalam aktiviti yang mengancam keselamatan negara.” Dia tak cakap di bawah ISA atau tunjukkan waran pun.

Lepas itu?

Norlaila: Lepas itu mereka mula menggeledah rumah kami sampai pukul empat pagi, buka almari, buka laci, baju dalam pun mereka semak, bawah katil, bawah cadar sampai bilik ketiga. Kami letak banyak buku dalam bilik ketiga, mereka seronok jumpa banyak kertas, setiap buku mereka semak, lepas itu mereka jumpa artikel saya, dalam artikel itu ada gambar Saari Sungib, seorang pemimpin NGO (badan bukan kerajaan) yang ditahan di bawah ISA pada tahun 2001. Mereka nampak gambarnya, terus kata, “Ini! Ada link dengan Saari Sungib!” dan terus ambil artikel saya. Artikel itu saya punya, tetapi yang kena tangkap suami saya.

Mereka juga ambil CD games seperti Star Wars, CPU komputer, telefon bimbit, dan kamera. Saya ambil gambar SB (Special Branch) dengan kamera filem itu. Saya tak tahu mereka takut kamera. SB rampas kamera padahal sebenarnya mereka boleh ambil filem sahaja. Apabila saya ambil balik barang-barang tersebut tiga minggu kemudian, semuanya sudah dirosakkan dan terpaksa dibuang.

Mat Sah: Selepas mereka habis geledah, saya dibawa ke dalam sebuah van putih, depan duduk dua orang polis, belakang dua orang, sebelah satu orang, escort ada satu van lagi. Mereka bawa saya dari rumah pergi ke IPD (Ibu Pejabat Polis Daerah) Ampang. Selepas lebih kurang setengah jam, saya dibawa ke balai polis Sentul, ambil gambar di sana, mereka tak tanya soalan pun.

Sampai hampir terang, naik van sekali lagi, mata saya ditutup degan kacamata hitam, sampai destinasi baru dia buka.

Report on Mat Sah’s arrest in 2004; he is pictured bottom right

Mereka bawa you ke mana ni?

Mat Sah: Pada masa itu saya tak tahu, saya dikurung selama 59 hari di sana. Selepas itu, baru saya dapat tahu tempat itu Police Remand Centre dekat Jalan Ipoh.

Sampai sana, dia suruh saya buka baju, semua pakaian ditanggalkan termasuk seluar dalam, dia check lah.

Lepas itu, dia bagi satu baldi, baju uniform lockup, cawan plastic untuk minum, sabun sebiji, tuala kecil, itulah untuk lap muka dan mandi, berus gigi dengan Colgate. Berus gigi itu dia potong sampai pendek sahaja; dia kata, “Takut nanti you bunuh diri.”

Dalam bilik yang saya tinggal itu ada satu katil simen, tak ada tingkap, hanya lubang-lubang kecil di atas dinding, kena selalu mandi kerana panas. Makanan yang dibaginya, macam apa yang YB Teresa [Kok] cakap, memang teruk. Ada satu kali dia bagi makanan basi.

Saya diberi nombor 095 di sana, selama saya di situ, dia tak panggil nama, saya sudah tak ada nama, dia panggil nombor saya sahaja.

Dalam dua bulan itu, hanya tigu minggu saja saya dikenakan interrogation, yang lain itu hanya duduk dalam bilik itu. Mereka panggil saya pada pukul sembilan pagi, dibawa ke sebuah bilik, dalam bilik kecil itu ada dua, tiga air-con pasang kuasa penuh, beberapa jam duduk situ. Mahu buang air pun mereka tak bagi pergi ke tandas, bagi botol.

Selalu ada tiga officers, seorang buat kita senang, pujuk-pujuk: “Mau makan apa? Minum apa?” Seorang lagi buat kita marah, dia akan tanya soalan macam: “Bagaimana you buat seks dengan isteri?”

So selepas dikurung dua bulan di sana, baru you dihantar ke Kamunting?

Mat Sah: Ya, semasa di sana, tiap-tiap pagi kena bangun pada pukul tujuh nyanyi Negaraku. Dua tahun pertama saya buat, lepas itu saya tak ikut lagi.

Mana ada pemulihan? Saya di sana dua tahun pertama, mereka tak tahu nak buat apa dengan saya, mereka selalu tanya saya, “Nak buat program apa?”

Ada bacaan tak di sana?

Mat Sah: Sana ada suratkhabar, Utusan (Malaysia) dan NST (New Straits Times). Pada masa saya masuk ada perpustakaan tetapi tutup. Selepas beberapa tahun baru dibuka balik.

Renewal of Mat Sah’s two-year detention period in 2004, 2006 and 2008

Bila isteri boleh jumpa you?

Mat Sah: Tiap-tiap minggu boleh, tetapi untuk 45 minit sahaja. Itupun bercakap guna interkom dan dipisahkan dengan dinding cermin.

Pernah masuk cell confinement?

Norlaila: Dia pertama kali masuk cell confinement pada tahun 2005 kerana akak. Masa itu saya ambush (Menteri Dalam Negeri) Pak Lah (Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) untuk menyampaikan surat memintanya membebaskan semua tahanan ISA. Hari berikutnya, dia dimasukkan ke dalam cell confinement.

SB juga marah apabila saya menulis tentang penahanan Tan Hoon ChengTeresa Kok, dan RPK (Raja Petra Kamarudin) dalam blog saya. Apabila SB marah, suami saya didenda SB!

Mat Sah: SB akan bagi warning: “Isteri awak terlalu aktif dengan GMI, nanti you lambat bebas.” Tetapi bila saya tanya mereka kenapa tahanan-tahanan lain yang isteri mereka tidak aktif dengan GMI tidak dibebaskan pun, mereka tak dapat jawab.

Pernahkah mereka menggunakan kekerasan terhadap you?

Mat Sah: Pernah sekali, pegawai-pegawai kem memukul dan mendenda semua tahanan JI (Jemaah Islamiyah) dan KMM (Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia). Mereka tuduh kami simpan senjata bahaya dalam kem. Tetapi pisau lipat, gunting, dawai dan klip kertas yang mereka temui semasa pemeriksaan blok sebenarnya adalah alatan yang kami gunakan untuk program handikraf kita. Peralatan itu semua disediakan oleh pihak kem.

Dalam kejadian itu saya ditumbuk, disepak, ditolak ke lantai dalam keadaan kedua-dua tangan saya digari ke belakang dan tercedera. Dada saya berasa sakit dan saya minta nak pergi jumpa doktor tetapi tidak dilayan. Saya dibawa berjumpa doktor hanya setelah tiga hari.

Norlaila: Apabila di Hospital Taiping, doktor cakap tulang rusuk kirinya ada retakan selepas tengok x-ray, tetapi bila peguam nak pastikan betul ke ada retak di tulang, doktor kata tak ada apa-apa masalah. Dia pun tunggu luka itu sembuh sendiri.

Document declaring Mat Sah’s release

Ada apa perbezaan dalam layanan terhadap tahanan-tahanan?

Mat Sah: Peraturan sama sahaja, cuma nak dapat apa-apa kena request lah. Bukan setiap kali dapat, mahu telefon pun susah. Tetapi apabila tahanan Hindraf masuk, mereka semua boleh dapat macam-macam kemudahan, termasuk buat panggilan telefon. Selain itu, dalam kantin, tahanan Melayu atau Cina [kerakyatan Malaysia] kongsi guna satu dapur, tetapi Hindraf ada dapur sendiri kerana mereka tak makan daging.

Norlaila: Semasa Hindraf ditahan, bila saya pergi sana, kami kena cakap melalui interkom. Hindraf di sebelah sana pulak, boleh pegang, boleh kiss, kemudian boleh pesan makanan yang dijual di kantin kem, pesan roti canai, chapati, semuanya boleh.

Saya pandu dari Kuala Lumpur ke Taiping selama lapan jam pergi balik setiap minggu untuk jumpa suami tetapi hanya berpeluang bercakap melalui interkom selama 45 minit. Tetapi Hindraf, kalau mereka dua minggu tidak jumpa, mereka boleh jumpa selama tiga jam.

Apa yang berlaku selepas Mat Sah dibebaskan?

Mat Sah: Memang banyak berubah. Balik rumah rasa terlalu banyak barang, ada sofa, meja. Dalam kem tak ada apa-apa pun. Isteri sibuk dengan aktiviti GMI dan anak juga sudah ada fikiran sendiri, tetapi saya boleh faham lah. Cuma semasa bertemu dengan orang luar, rasa kekok dan lain. Saya rasa macam orang lain sudah tahu saya tahanan ISA. Saya khuatir orang itu akan anggap saya orang jahat. Mungkin orang lain tak fikir begitu, tetapi saya sendiri akan fikir begitulah, kena adjust lah.

The evolving Chinese Malaysian

by Gan Pei Ling / 14 May 2009 © The Nut Graph

(All pics courtesy of Namewee)

(All pics courtesy of Namewee)

RAPPER Wee Meng Chee, aka Namewee, was wrapped in controversy in July 2007 because of his national anthem parody Negarakuku. The six-minute video clip, which has been accessed by half a million viewers, touched on several “sensitive” issues such as police abuse, racial discrimination, and indolent civil servants.

At that time certain quarters, including government leaders, accused him of mocking the national anthem and insulting Islam. Then Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said even called for his arrest under the Internal Security Act.

Though the opposition and non-governmental organisations came to his defence, Nameweeeventually bowed to public pressure and issued a public apology.

The 26-year-old returned to Malaysia last year after completing his studies in Taiwan.

He spoke exclusively to The Nut Graph recently about being connected to Malay Malaysians, and his experiences selling pirated VCDs. The interview is translated from Mandarin.

TNG: Where were you born?

I was born in Muar, Johor on 6 May 1983. I’m the eldest in the family; I have a younger sister who is 22, and another younger brother who is 18.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Muar and studied in SJK (C) Chung Hwa 1B. After that, I went on to study in an independent Chinese school, Muar Chung Hwa High School, and later flew to Taiwan to study mass communications in Ming Chuan University.

Can you trace your ancestry?

I’m third-generation Malaysian. My paternal grandparents came from Hainan, China. My grandfather arrived first. After he had settled down and became financially stable [in Muar], he returned to China to my grandmother and brought her here.

My maternal grandparents also came from Hainan. My [maternal] grandpa came here to try to make a living because China was very poor then, but my [maternal] grandma is of Baba Nyonya descent. Her ancestors may have arrived in Southeast Asia a few hundred years ago.

What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?

When I was 16, I sold pirated VCD at shopping malls — that was when I came into contact with a lot of music, because there is a lot of foreign music [that cannot be found on genuine CDs] and can only be found in [stalls that sell pirated ones].

In addition, I saw the ugly side of many police and customs officers when they came to raid the stalls. That was a very crucial period in my life, because my ears and eyes started to open and widen then, and that was when I slowly formed my own mindset.

Selling pirated VCDs

What do you mean by the ugly side of the officers? What kind of mindset did you form?

Those people who buy, sell, and confiscate pirated goods actually form an “iron”, or “golden triangle” that keeps the trade alive and prosperous. Everyone plays their own role; none can live without the other.

Nevertheless, I do not really hate the piracy trade because I got to know lots of foreign music through this channel. I developed more open ideas and concepts about music, and had my own thoughts and principles when it comes to music. These are all part of an important process that help to form an independent mind.

What are the stories that you hold onto the most from your grandparents?

After the Chinese civil war, China was poverty-stricken, so my [paternal] grandfather followed his uncle down to Southeast Asia when he was only 13 years old. He started everything from scratch and later opened a Malay restaurant in Muar. My family’s present financial stability can be attributed to Malay [Malaysians].

My grandfather didn’t know how to cook Malay dishes, he set up the restaurant and sold drinks only. But [due to the location], there were quite a lot of Malay [Malaysians] around town, so he decided to rent the stalls to them without collecting any rental fees at first. He let them do business there for free to make the restaurant more well known. He worked together with every one of them — if want to prosper, must prosper together ma. After the business was stable, then only they talked about the rental fees.

That’s why my grandfather was successful in the end. Those who sold satay and other Malay delicacies in his restaurant, all [eventually] became classic Malay stalls in Muar. He was even interviewed and filmed by a local TV station about his mee bandung.

My grandfather and the Malay [Malaysian] stall owners in his restaurant had a revolutionary kind of feeling in common. Their friendship continued long after their retirement.

The restaurant has been sold but the Malay stalls remain. The third generation of the original stall owners — the grandchildren of the uncle who sold satay, and the grandchildren of those who sold other Malay dishes — are running the stalls now.

Besides that, my [maternal] grandma was born in Indonesia but is of Malacca Baba Nyonya descent. She lived like a Malacca Nyonya till she married my grandpa; then only her lifestyle changed. However, her Nyonya dishes and desserts remained as delicious as ever. Although she has passed away now, her homemade delicacies remain in our hearts, leaving an everlasting impression.

Her bahasa was also more fluent than some Malay [Malaysians]. She could use the bahasa local slang to joke with the Malay [Malaysians] and make them laugh out loud. And because her ancestors arrived here much earlier, her Hainanese was also quite different from the usual Malaysian Hainanese, the largest distinction was that hers was mixed with a lot of bahasa terms. The everyday Malaysian Hainanese wouldn’t understand her, so in a stricter sense, her Hainanese should be renamed “Nyonya Hainanese”.

Paternal grandparents

How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?

I heard all these stories from my family members. When I listen to these stories, I feel like I’ve entered a time tunnel.

How the Chinese culture in Malaysia evolved into its current state — these stories are key [to understanding this], and the process. We can find several clues from these stories. We (Mandarin-speaking Chinese Malaysians) will find out eventually that our Mandarin is very different from that of China and Taiwan. And we need to learn to accept, to respect [this], instead of feeling inferior because of the differences, and worship foreign cultures blindly.

What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian? Is it your gender, age, work, race, or religion, or anything else?

I don’t face any of the problems you mentioned. I live very well as a Malaysian. Our ability to adapt in foreign countries is superb, as we already have various races at home, and we learn how to live together when we’re growing up. If there is any, I would say as an artist, the freedom of artistic or creative expression in Malaysia still has lots of room for improvement.

Currently, it’s not only the laws that are limiting the development of art and creative work; the people’s own mindsets also pose a great obstacle. Because they’re not open-minded, even if the laws allowed, the public might not be able to or dare to accept [certain works]. Fortunately there’s the internet now. The net can broaden one’s vision and horizon, so I’m quite optimistic about it.

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.

Malaysia is a multiracial, multireligious, and multicultural country. This could be an advantage, but also a disadvantage. I hope Malaysia will make full use of this advantage to develop more of its strengths, such as open up schools that use different languages as their teaching medium, various markets, and allow diverse cultures to flourish.

If this special characteristic becomes a weakness, then it will result in bumiputera policies, oppression of other languages and religions, and other tragedies. That’s why I hope Malaysia will become a more open, diverse, and free country, making the most of its own strengths.