Keeping the fires of change burning

JULY 16 — Three years ago, I made a pledge in a column that come what may, I wish to stay on, and stay put in Malaysia.

I wish to continue, steadfast in the fight against superstition, against the tyranny of religious enforcers, and to stand tall together with other activists to discard the chains that have long ensnared the soul and freedom of every Malaysian.

That pledge came from the deepest love that one can find, only to have that love unrequited. How do you even love a country that does not love you back?

But the truth is, I totally understand why people would want to leave Malaysia. And I do think it is a good idea. In fact, I would even encourage it if you can afford it.

By all means, leave. There is nothing waiting for you here, but perhaps the elders and relatives. And with today’s technological advances, it is not even that hard to ever say “hi” again.

In this age of open borders, you don’t owe this country anything, you don’t owe its people. In return, you only have the future of yourself and your kin.

There is no reason you will not have it better on the other side. There would be nobody trying to govern your lives down to the nitty gritty: what you can or cannot eat, what to drink, what to say, how to worship your own god.

That is not to say that I have never been tempted to leave myself. In fact, every time we go on holiday overseas, there are always little things that you wish await you back home when you return.

To make this country better, we first have to be better people. — Picture from
To make this country better, we first have to be better people. — Picture from

How are their toilets so clean? And the public transport so reliable down to the minute? Why can people walk alone at night without fear of being mugged and assaulted? How can anybody express their love without being given the side-eye, no matter which gender?

How can their media get away with lambasting politicians openly, no matter how high-ranking, without fear of being put behind bars? Why are sensitive issues not sacred, even religion, and people do not get death threats and labelled heretic?

Why are women safe even when they wear what they want, what more without covering their heads?

My latest temptation was when I was in New Zealand recently. I would be lying if I said their society has no problems.

But at the same time, I have to admit how chill their lives is. And as if proving my point, you can find minorities everywhere, even in rural areas — from ethnic Indians, Koreans, Indonesians, those from the African continents — all trying to make a life for themselves.

As someone who just loves to eat -- or rather, a materialist perhaps? — it amazed me to see supermarkets filled with such a variety of goods. And to think that the market is not even that big, not even 5 million. And there are more sheep than humans there.

When I found that New Zealand placed second in this year’s Global Peace Index, I really thought about drafting a Plan B for my family.

But I admit I am privileged to be not only a Malay, but a man, and from a Muslim background. Not everyone is as lucky. For some in the minorities, every day is a struggle. Every day is proof that you are being sidelined by this country you love.

If you’re not Muslim, or even when you’re Muslim but Shiite, Ahmadi, Sufi or just some cultural Muslim; if you’re not cisheterosexual, you’re gay, transgender; an urban poor, homeless; the left, the liberal — in short, if you are not from the status quo, it is a given that Malaysia or rather those in power do not care too much about you, that is if they even care at all.

So the irony here, those who should leave for a better future are the exact ones trapped with an uncertain future here.

And that is why those who are left here should continue the fight. Continue to spark a fire, the flames of change, the flames of resistance for a better future.

It matters not how small that flame is, as long as it continues to burn and light our way, or blaze up higher and hotter one day.

This torch of change has long existed. For us in the 21st century, we just have to make sure it never dies, and for change to become our reality one day.

For many of us, we know how beautiful it is to not have any second class citizens and a secular life that promises everyone can go on with their own spiritual lives with no burden.

If you ever question whether you are contributing any good to society, I would like to offer a word of encouragement I picked up from my buddy Wade Kaardal from Taiwan where the recently-passed same-sex marriage law has shown that Eastern values can be so much more.

Wade said, “To be a better humanist is to be a better man.” And here, to be a better activist, a better human rights defender, a better secularist, we should be a better human first.

We can be better mothers, better sons, better community members, better voters. We ought to do good, for goodness’ sake.

We may fight for Malaysia, but the torch we bring may shine a light of hope elsewhere too. We can show the region that the ray of progress can shine through in Malaysia, to break the gloomy cloud hanging over us.

We should not think small. Think far for the future. What we struggle for may not be for us to enjoy, it may not even be for our children or grandchildren. But for their children and granchildren, perhaps.

What is important now, is to keep that flame alight.

*Zurairi AR delivered a version of this column at the launch of BEBAS yesterday.

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