My summer at Undi18 came at an important point in recent Malaysian political history. The endemic had reached its peak and support for the previous government had waned. Businesses closed, families mourned and the rakyats frustrations were palpable. A collective pain had enveloped the country.
As initial cries for help grew into social unrest, grassroots movements emerged in response to Malaysia’s nearing failegmad statehood (as declared by Bloomberg earlier this year). The #BenderaPutih became a genuine call for help, from the people by the people. Shortly after, sentiments translated into a more urgent demand for change manifested through the #BenderaHitam or #Lawan protests.
It is no secret that Undi18 was part of this movement given its affiliation with Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR). So when momentum for the #Lawan protests unfolded, the odd Whatsapp message would brighten my phone as I went about my day building websites or writing concept notes.
“We are being called into questioning again under the Sedition Act” wrote one of my colleagues shortly after the 30 July protest. In typical Malaysian fashion, the message would be met with a meme or two (always combatting adversity with humour), along with messages of best wishes and love. By the tail end of my internship, visits to the police station became routine. My colleagues likely visited the station more than they did their own families.
It is easy to get swept up in the heat of the moment, to feel like 18-year-olds being hauled up into Black Marias is normal. Just another day in the office, I suppose. However, with hindsight comes a little more perspective. Denying citizens their constitutional rights to assemble peaceably (Art. 10(1)(b)) and issuing unlawful arrests (Art. 5(3)) goes against the principles that lay the foundation of the country. When an organised, peaceful protest or vigil takes place, there is no justification to exercise police force on law-abiding participants. It lends credence to critics who describe Malaysia as a failed state.
When I applied to join Undi18 earlier this year, my primary motivation was to initiate real impact (as wide-eyed and pretentious as that sounded). I could not have foreseen working in the heart of a youth-led movement, alongside leaders and changemakers who shape the trajectory of the nation. Attending weekly Monday morning meetings (MMM) included a typical rundown of work done by Undi18, but also insights into what was happening in the news. Pressing questions like which protest was currently being organised and whether the Prime Minister’s resignation was imminent would be discussed. Where my engagement with politics had always been from a comfortable distance, I was now humbly contributing to the efforts and campaigns run by Undi18, leading towards the betterment of the country in a small way. Particularly, the judicial review of the Undi18 decision was what sweet dreams are made of for any law student interested in constitutional law. Getting to know the team behind the lawsuit was an unparalleled experience that I am doubtful another NGO or corporate firm would have been able to offer me.
Ongoing campaigns like Dewan Muda Malaysia are some that I strongly believe will shape the future of the country. Investing in the youth to become community leaders and experts in various fields is especially important in a country that suffers from brain drain. You often see programmes like this run in other countries, namely Justice Democrats in the U.S that helped produce prominent politicians, like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (members of the progressive ‘squad’ in the U.S House of Representatives). However, what sets Undi18 apart is their non-partisanship. Contrary to popular belief, Undi18 is not a branch of Syed Saddiq’s MUDA (which I had to clarify multiple times to family members). Granting opportunities to talented young Malaysians provides them with a stepping stone to become better leaders. Perhaps, in one of their programmes lies the future Prime Minister of the country.
It would be remiss for me not to mention my privilege when entering Undi18. I study abroad, am embarrassingly not fluent in Malay and can easily view the country with rose-tinted glasses. As I previously mentioned, there had always been a comfortable distance between my interest in politics and my engagement with political events. But as Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man (the OG one with Toby Maguire), with great power (and here I will add privilege), comes great responsibility. It is inspiring to see some of my colleagues, who are around my age, take such a strong stance against the government to the point that their educational opportunities are jeopardised. Or others who participate in protests where there is a risk they may be arrested. I don’t think anyone can expect another to perform such powerful acts of bravery but it is important to do something. And here, I direct this post to people in similar situations to me. I implore any other Malaysian, who is interested in initiating actionable change like I was, to join the team and contribute to the work they are doing.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have played a small part in Undi18 for the few months that I was there. It was rewarding to have kind and helpful mentors revered by youths across the country and to also meet like-minded Malaysians that are fighting the good fight. A special shoutout goes to Roshinee and Mahirah – my supervisors who were a dream to work under.
As I return to the drudgery of law school, my support for Undi18 remains. I will be cheering them on from both near and far, eager to see where they are headed next.
Written by: Syed Muhammad