Sara Lau is a lawyer who has recently graduated from Reading and will be completing her bar in London. She interned with me in August and below are her thoughts.
“You are young, talented, hardworking and determined – where do you want to go after you graduate?”
I have always thought myself optimistic about my country. When people asked me whether I wanted to stay or leave after my studies, I always answered that I wanted to be a lawyer in Malaysia – to work for my community and my country. When my peers told me that their parents told them to run, I was judgmental of them. To me, they were quitters. Maybe Malaysia was not in a good economic place at the moment, but I was so sure in my heart that this will come to pass. On closer inspection, I realised it was not just because of the returns and low wages in Malaysia that was making them run...
I called myself an optimist, but maybe I was just ignorant. Like so many of us, maybe I wanted to close my eyes to the bigotry and pretend that everything was as it should be. But there came a point when I could not answer my friends’ retort on why there was a withholding and vandalism of bibles; why the Government was so pressed against a campaign calling for free and fair elections; why Valentine’s Day cannot be a joyous ocassion back home! I was cornered when they asked – Why should we put up with this partiality? They were hurt. They were discontented and they were just tired of fighting back. I called myself an optimist, but maybe I was just in denial.
I was jaded by the time I came back because suddenly I didn't know the answer. I knew of all these political instabilities, racial insecurities, economic urgencies.... Yet the government remained idle at the height of needing to prove itself. I never called myself a Party supporter because what was logic in my mind was that it did not matter what the government did, and why it did. What mattered was that the people were well taken care of, not taken advantage of, had its civil liberties and were happy. But second chances prove futile when the Government kept letting me down. I remember asking my friend Jian Wei, why didn't they take a stand and do something? He jolted me when he said... "Don't you see? They have already taken their stand."
And then, I needed to find the alternative. Were there people as perplexed as I was? Most want to save themselves before they can't, but this land is mine to inherit! I needed to find people who were geared up as I, who could remind me why I wanted to fight when I am giving up. I needed to find out if I was alone, wanting to return and work because I was needed, because I know I still counted as a number at the very least. I still wanted to be that number for Malaysia.
We hear of our counterparts and peers, tired, wearied, disheartened saying that hope is lost. That while they were young and had alternatives, had to find a place to build themselves, their homes, their families away from injustice, unfairness and discrimination. This was logical - why return to a lover who doesn't love you back? But Malaysia wasn't just a lover, this wasn't just a two person relationship - it was a cause bigger than myself and while I have one life to give, I wanted to make it count. So, likewise disheartened, but contrariwise eager, I wanted to see if the Opposition proved any better than the Government.
My stint with DAP was only a month long. The reason I came into it was because I thought it was not enough to know alternative policies. I wanted to see if their actions corresponded with the news. I wanted to be a judge in my own right and to find out if the Opposition was a risk worth taking. I have always been one to play safe, but these were desperate times to me.
One mistake I had made coming into it was my expectation: unwittingly I had thought my internship would be likened to a classroom where information I wanted came almost automatically. I was wrong. Tony was not the kind to spoon feed - when I wanted information on something, he only provided it if I had done my homework. He wasn't the kind who sat you down, event after event, asking you "Did you understand?", "Do you know what's happening?", "What conclusions can we draw from this?" like a teacher would; instead he allowed you in on the face of conflict there and then, expected you to draw your own inferences and naturally allowed you to draw personal stands and opinions. Looking back, I realise that when I was frustrated about not satisfying my deep hunger for knowledge, I had gotten it all wrong. This stint was about instigating mature observations, not manipulating naivete. And in that sense, he gave me what I asked for in the beginning - a platform to ponder.
Only a 4 week internship, my tasks were varied. Needless to say the high points of the internship revolved around press conferences because it was exciting and in the face of current political happenings, but also because it satisfied a curiosity. Coming from these events to reading mainstream media and then comparing it to online media revealed me to disparities, and unwittingly, the truth (or lies) of Government action. Perhaps the most memorable press conference was at Jalan Sultan where the Opposition pledged support to protecting the area from the MRT land grab fiasco. As a layperson exposed to interactions between politician and politician, public and politician, I saw how the once untouchable arena of politics became unbelievably humanised before my eyes.
Another event that had been incredibly eye-opening was the various voter registration campaigns held almost every week and weekend. Together with Ee May, who is Tony's new assistant, I went to as many drives as I could to volunteer my service. Again, being revealed to the process of voter registration and some conflicts that are embedded in it (such as people being registered as other voters, citizens being denied voting rights because of a lack of religion, disparities in the system regarding voters' information) showed me that there were fundamental flaws within the system that needed to be addressed. More frustrating was also the fact that many young people did not bother to get registered as voters at all, even with our team cajoling and persuading them to! However, seeing Ee May who was relentless in her quest to recruit new voters, I realised that I was not alone: that there were many Malaysians, young and old, fighting for a better Malaysia while they could and before they tired.
This was again proven to me in the focal point of my internship - organising the DAP Selangor English Speaking Fundraising Dinner. The dinner saw an 1000 strong audience, but behind the scenes, I knew that there had been a long waiting list of Malaysians who were very keen to support the dinner and to donate as much funds as they could afford. As I personally managed the bookings, I had multiple conversations with multiple people of all backgrounds, echoing the same sentiments: that they all wanted a better Malaysia. That they had not given up. That they were willing to run the race. That they all loved their home and want to be counted in the numbers. But most importantly – they all spoke with a sense of belonging for Malaysia. As a young Malaysian, jaded by unimpressive returns in her home country, this was enough to remind me, my country was worth my investment, my time, my effort.
I do not know what I had expected to gain from this DAP internship, but what I got was incredibly personal. It was not about politicking or support. It was about self-discovery about my Malaysian identity, about what I can do for my country and about how this will always, always be where my heart belongs. Everyone is looking for a better Malaysia in their lifetime, but now I know it is equally important to run the relay race and pass the baton until that better Malaysia comes to pass.