“Makkal Sakthi (People Power)!” thundered speaker after speaker.
“Valga (Long live)!” roared back the crowd.
I thought I would check out the atmosphere at the DAP ceramah at the Penang Chinese Town Hall in George Town tonight to gauge the mood among voters. The theme: “Bebaskan Hindraf 5 (Free the Hindraf Five).”
When I arrived at the hall at around 8.00pm, it was full. More people were arriving and soon they were spilling out of the hall, where two screens had been put up for those outside to watch the proceedings.
The total turnout was around 3,000, including the few hundred outside the hall.
This was not your typical DAP ceramah. I had covered ceramahs in Penang, including those held at the Chinese Town Hall, for some years – but this was unlike anything I had seen. Instead of an 80 per cent ethnic Chinese crowd, this time Indian Malaysians made up more than 90 per cent of the crowd. Instead of speaking in English and Chinese, the DAP speakers spoke largely in Malay and Tamil and some English.
The Chinese Malaysians who turned up looked bemused and a bit taken aback to find themselve in a minority this time. One Chinese woman, a stranger, turned to me and remarked, “After 50 years of Independence, you have finally woken up” – which sounded a bit strange; she was talking as if I represented the entire Indian Malaysian community in the country!
I was more interested in observing the crowd. Of course, the middle-class were represented, but I saw many, many men and women who looked like they had come from tough or difficult backgrounds, the lower-income group. Were they manual labourers, casual workers, factory workers or unemployed, I wondered.
Many of them looked like they were coming to a political ceramah for the first time. How many of them were actually registered voters? All the same, they seemed eager to snap up reading material such as The Rocket and Aliran Monthly, which were being sold outside. I saw a few young Indian Malaysian men wearing the familiar red and pink Abolish ISA badges.
You could almost feel the air of excitement hanging over the crowd.
The DAP made a conscious effort to project the Indian Malaysian faces in their ranks such as Karpal, Kula, Prof Ramasamy, Guna, Sivanesan and Rayan. Also on stage were Kit Siang, Guan Eng, Chong Eng and was that Jeff Ooi?
Guan Eng told the crowd he had asked quite a few Hindus what they were praying for on Thaipusam and they replied, “For the release of the Hindraf Five.”
“But what did Abdullah Badawi give you?” he asked. “A public holiday!”
He also poked fun at Lingam’s “it looks like me; it sounds like me”.
The crowd laughed, knowingly, at the ongoing farce.
As for the detained Hindraf leaders who are now on a hunger strike, the joke going around is that if ever Uthayakumar, who is a diabetic, needed a blood transfusion, the authorities would be wary of appealing to the public for blood donations. That’s because they might have to call in the FRU to control the thousands who would turn up to donate blood!
All the DAP speakers received a rousing welcome as they entered the hall, including a big cheer for Karpal, who is the senior lawyer for the detained Hindraf leaders. Karpal, speaking while seated on stage, told the crowd the DAP was “adopting” Makkal Sakthi.
To me, there are pros and cons of a popular movement such as Makkal Sakthi being institutionalised as or within a political party. We saw that during Reformasi, when Keadilan was set up to institutionalise the movement and take the struggle to a political level.
An anonymous popular movement is spontaneous, dynamic and organic, representing “people power” from the bottom up.
In contrast, a political party tends to be structured and organised while decisions are made at the top. This makes it less spontaneous and more predictable. It also makes it easier for tacticians in the Barisan Nasional, who have mastered the art of our unfair electoral process and campaigning, to read and analyse and deal with during the general election.
That is why reformasi was exciting and unpredictable and dynamic, but once it was institutionalised within a political party (Keadilan), the movement lost some of its dynamism and spontaneity. In fact, my guess is that the BN would be much more comfortable dealing with opposition parties than with anonymous popular movements such as Reformasi and Makkal Sakthi.
Still, I suppose political parties have a role to play in putting across the people’s aspirations into the official policy formulation process. But it would be a great pity if the politicians were to take over in such a way as to leave the people – who have only just tasted a sense of liberation from their metaphorical shackles – feeling disempowered once again.
Okay, back to the ceramah: Karpal also informed the crowd that there was a high probability that Guan Eng would stand as a candidate in Penang in the general election.
Outside the hall, a couple of DAP volunteers at a desk were giving out forms to those who wanted to sign up as polling day volunteers to assist the party. About half a dozen young Indian Malaysians were busy filling up the forms.
I asked the DAP volunteer at the desk how many people had signed up. She flicked through the stack of forms and counted around 30. Others had taken forms, promising to return them later, she said.
From the back of the hall, I could see the a sprinkling of folks who had come in the orange attire of Makkal Sakthi, including the Makkal Sakthi T-shirts.
A visitor from KL marvelled at the mood here in Penang, which he said seemed more enthusiastic than in KL. “Perhaps it’s because the folks over in KL have quite a few different events to choose from.”
I left the ceramah before it ended, convinced that there has been a major swing within the Indian Malaysian community.
On my way back, I walked past the Pitt Street Corner Bar, a stone’s throw from the Chinese Town Hall. It is usually an oasis for those seeking “refreshments” on a Saturday night. Today, it looked rather quiet – a few empty seats around metallic tables inside – despite the presence of a large crowd nearby.
Even as more Malaysians were being detained in KL earlier today, the mood in Penang – at least among these 3,000 people – was one of newfound strength and solidarity in a community that has awakened from it slumber. More than that, a sense of empowerment has descended on the people – a feeling that I can and will make a difference, and what I do really does matter.
And this mood was infectious. Even the Chinese DAP volunteers outside the hall found themselves calling out, “Makkal Sakthi!”