“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.