My old friend is going to jail, not for the first time. His name is Hishammudin Rais.
We were born in the same year, but different places. Hisham was born in Jelebu, Negeri Sembilan, and I was 350 km away, in Joo Chiat, Singapore.
For a short two years, we were singing the same national anthem, the Negara Ku in our respective schools until the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965.
Under normal circumstances we would never have met. However, in 1974, he became the General Secretary of the students union at the University of Malaya, and I was elected President of the University of Singapore Students Union. That eventually brought us together at a joint meeting in Kuala Lumpur between the student leaders of the two universities. Soon after, we were jointly involved in supporting the plight of the squatters in Tasek Utara in Johor.
After Tasek Utara, we were both, as youth of the 1970s generation, engaged in our respective struggles for justice, social equality and democracy.
The political aftermath following our student activism led to persecution. We both experienced imprisonment, being on the run, and exile. But my experiences pale to insignificance when compared to Hisham’s colourful, dramatic and even life-threatening exploits.
When I was imprisoned in Singapore in 1975 following the infamous frame-up staged by the pro-government trade union, Hisham was already exiled in Australia. When I was in hiding following my release from prison, without my prompting, Hisham was busily planning with the students leaders from the Australian Union of Students for my exile in Australia. I left for England instead, but that was good old fashion solidarity on his part, and very kind for him to do so.
After Australia, Hisham made his way to Europe for asylum. Unfortunately he was stopped in Moscow, and put on a plane back to Malaysia, transiting in India. In the drama that followed, he ended up wedged between two buildings. Fortunately he was rescued, but thrown into prison pending deportation.
In that desperate moment he could only think of one telephone number, and that was mine in London. That helped, and he was released from one of the worst prisons he had been detained: he had been held in 12 prisons. Eventually he made his way to Belgium for asylum.
So how did this Kampong boy from Jelebu who graduated from the prestigious MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar) ended up facing imprisonment again? After all he was given the green light to return home from exile in 1994.
The alumni list of MCKK which was dubbed the Eton of the East, is the who’s who of the Malay establishment in Malaysia. Hisham could be anything he wanted, especially if he had chosen the path of “if you can’t beat them, join them”. He has the right connections, and is exceptionally intelligent, articulate, quick witted and artistically talented. He was the national top student before entering University, and during his exile, had mastered French, philosophy, and the art of film making. With those attributes and social capital, he could have easily established himself within the corridors of power after his return from exile.
Hisham could have avoided this fresh round of imprisonment, and his earlier imprisonment under ISA in 2001 if, upon his return to Malaysia, he had kept his head below the parapet.
But Hisham being Hisham, is fiercely committed to the idealism of his youth, and almost allergic to consideration of material gains. Apart from his politics, his uncompromising lifestyle choice, by for example keeping a dog, is socially controversial for a Malay. He may appear to some as insensitive to the views of the broader Malay community. But what may appear as eccentricity or individualism to some, is nothing more radical than Hisham exerting his right to a private life which is taken for granted and enjoyed by the rest of the non-Malay population. Hence when Hisham said at a comedy event in South London two years ago that he wanted to resign as a Malay, the audience laughed. Little did they realise that Hisham, the stand-up comedian, was making a profound criticism of Malaysian politics.
Being Hisham is trouble itself. Four years after his return to Malaysia, he was already organizing street demonstrations in support of Anwar Ibrahim after he was ousted as deputy prime minister by Mahathir. That resulted in Hisham’s imprisonment under ISA in 2001.
On the 16th May Hisham will be returning to court and is expected to be imprisoned for nine months. He was earlier convicted under Malaysia’s Sedition Act for making a speech in 2013 calling for mass street protests following the ruling party’s narrow victory in the May 2013 General Elections. It was alleged that Hisham, together with other opposition leaders, called for the overthrow of the government by street protests.
Hisham was originally fined RM$5,000 because the judge accepted that “although Hishamuddin had uttered the fiery words at the forum, his speech did not cause violence and street protest.” However, following the appeal by the prosecution, the High Court increased the sentence to 9 months.
Hisham’s troubles since he became politically active as a student leader in 1974 stem from his belief that in a parliamentary democracy, street protests are unavoidable when parliament fails to heed the wishes of the people. More importantly, he put his beliefs into action, and was able to attract a following amongst urban Malay youths.
During his exile in the United Kingdom, Hisham witnessed the power of street demonstrations in bringing about the downfall of the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s unpopular Poll Tax- a Household Tax based on head count – led to huge demonstrations in London and other cities. These demonstrations eventually triggered a parliamentary coup within Thatcher’s own party that led to her resignation. They also resulted in the scrapping of the Poll Tax. Hisham had participated in the London demonstration, and that experience would have had an impact on his political thoughts.
Hisham, the avant garde, is ahead of society. It’s not surprising therefore that Hisham is again packing up to go into imprisonment for exercising his freedom of speech, for articulating an opinion which he sincerely believes as correct.
If prison is unavoidable, I hope he gets the good rest he deserves.
No doubt many of his young friends in Bangsar, his radio listeners, the students in his philosophy class, the audience in his comedy shows, homeless at his soup kitchens, fellow demonstrators of good causes and his close friends and comrades will miss him during those months.
When he left UK for home in 1994, he left his only possession, a pair of black moor goldfishes to my 11 year old son. Two years later, their black moors turned into beautiful brilliant bronze goldfishes, and lived for many more years.
Meanwhile can someone please looking after Hisham’s dog during his incarceration.
Tan Wah Piow
9th May 2016