This is the third part of my interview with the Malaysian Human Rights activist Adam Adli. Adam was arrested for six day in 2013 and was convicted to one year jail term in Semptember 2014.
Have there been any life changes after your release in 2013?
Life changes? As I said: I lost a bit of my privacy but at the same time I started to understand that I can’t be selfish. I’ve learned to bear responsibility and I have become more tolerant. You have to deal with so many people, attitudes and problems every day.
You need to know how to deal with these problems. You have to improve yourself every day. People have put high hopes on me, so I have to prove that I am the hope they’re looking for. Sometimes I feel tired, sometimes I feel frustrated, even depressed. It’s no longer the same life which I was used to but this is the price you have to pay and I’ve found fun in a different way as well. I’ve found fun in helping people, I’ve found fun by making new friends in many fields. I’ve met a lot of interesting people, I’ve become friends with many talented people, I’ve discovered many young potentials and I know that I’m not alone in this struggle. I don’t think about myself anymore. Sometimes I hurt people like my close circle, my family or my friends who might think that I’m not the same person anymore. You don’t have much time to spend with your family but you’ve got to deal with it. I don’t come from a wealthy family. My father worked as a laborer when I grew up, so I didn’t get the chance to travel abroad. Riding in a car is quite a luxury for me. After I got involved, I’ve got the chance to travel. I’ve had opportunities to explore the world and I feel grateful because this has always been my dream. I’ve always dreamed of traveling because I didn’t travel much when I was young. That’s something!
In September 2014 the trial has been continued and you were convicted. What happened?
I was looking at 12 months of jail. But it won’t break me. When I agreed to become part of the struggle I was ready and willing – though some might say it’s an exaggeration – to die. I’m serious: it can take my life, my whole life. If this is what it takes for the struggle, I’m willing to do so, to be convicted. Jail is nothing. The further you go the more effective you are. The government will scare you more, so when they try to jail you, you know that you’ve done everything right.
Did you have the feeling that your lawyers defended you well and that you had the chance to defend yourself during the trial?
Well, the problem with the Sedition Act is that it’s a draconian law. It’s a political tool which was created to nail political enemies, so it’s difficult to beat the law. It’s arbitrary. All you have to do is to utter words that can be considered offensive to the government. This is all that it takes to be sentenced. The best lawyers have defended me throughout my trial but the law isn’t on my side.
But they’re already working on the Harmony Bill. Actually the Harmony Bill is finalized and could replace the Sedition Act. Why don’t they replace it?
They keep saying that the Harmony Bill isn´t ready but the abolishment of the Sedition Act was announced in 2012. How much longer does it take to table the bill and introduce it to Parliament? We don’t want any law to replace the Sedition Act. This happened to the Internal Security Act which they replaced with SOSMA. It’s getting worse for the people every day. They can arrest people. They can always get the judge to sustain the judgment. We believe that they’ll always find a way to use the Sedition Act under different names. It can always become worse than it is now. If they replace the Sedition Act with the Harmony Bill, we don’t know which arguments they will use to justify their actions.
(I interviewed Adam before Prime Minister Najib Razak broke his promise to abolish the Sedition Act.)
This means you have to be bailed again and again. How much does bail cost?
When I was bailed the last time, it cost RM 5000. That’s the amount of money you’re looking at whenever you have to appeal. If I’m lucky, I don’t have to go to jail. Then I’d have to pay a fine which can amount to RM 20,000, but I prefer the jail term. RM 20,000 is a lot. I would rather give the money to help the soup kitchens or students than pay for my freedom.
So it’s possible that your jail term will be extended just because of one single speech?
Look at the situation. They’re angry with us. They thought that one year of jail will bring me down but it didn’t stop me, so they want to punish me for speaking out again. We’re expecting that the prosecutor will make a case for more years of jail. We’re looking at a maximum of five years.
Are there Malaysians who think that this judicial decision was fair?
There are people who say that there should be more arrests and that the punishment isn’t enough. There are people who say that other forms of punishment should be used. They’re talking about whipping or caning.
Why do these people say this?
I’m not sure why it’s like that. Maybe it’s because they’re extremists and don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. They don’t support freedom of speech, because they regard it as a new religion. They’re the old gods, conservatives, extremists, racists. They always think in such a ridiculous way.
Have you never thought about leaving the country and seeking asylum? Going to a country where they can’t jail you just because you raise your voice?
I thought about it but it’s a bad idea. I was considering a few options because I was concerned about my studies. I really want to finish my studies. I’m not getting younger. I was thinking about seeking asylum so that I can study and come back afterwards but then …. It wouldn’t be fair to myself and to the people who have supported me and who have placed high hopes on me. Then I learned that I can take exams in prison just like Nelson Mandela and all those people. They obtained their law degree from the University of London in prison, so I took that option. It’s something.
But don’t you think that you would probably obtain a scholarship and political asylum if you went abroad and that there are other people who will continue the struggle in Malaysia. You could return after a while. Why don’t you take this option?
I’ll be able to make a stronger point against the government when I’m in prison. There are some people who aren’t able to be in prison and I respect their choice to flee. It’s what they have to do but I still can take it, so I will take it. Some people can’t do it and you can’t force them to take it if it’s too much for them. Even if you go to prison you can finish your studies and be a successful guy. People shouldn’t be afraid to take the risk and do something against the government.
I also read in the Malaysian newspapers that UMNO offered you membership and that you declined the offer.
I was attending the speech given by the Youth Minister. Some friends told me about it so they invited me and I thought, “Why not? Maybe I should go and see how he’s doing.” I wanted to see whether he was really that great, so I went. He saw me and was trying to act cool and said, “I was about to hand you an UMNO registration form.” But I left soon after. He also asked me about it later on but it didn’t mean anything. Maybe it was a joke. I’d never join UMNO.
Why would you decline UMNO’s offer? You’d have benefits from it and the chance to be released.
It’s against my principles. Principles are very important. It’s what made me the person I am today. It’s funny to think that I could become part of UMNO. I’ve never liked them. I’ve never agreed with them, so how could I join them? And as I said: I’m not here to take advantages. I’m not a person who gets involved in politics for my own benefits or for personal gains. I’m here to help the people. I’m here to contribute something to the country.”
You went to the trial of Anwar Ibrahim? How do you think the process will end?
He and his legal representatives are very confident. Everyone who follows his case recognizes that he has valid and strong arguments, but it’s a selective prosecution. I thought that they’ll send him to jail in the beginning because he’s a real threat to the government. They don’t like him, they’ve never liked him so they are just going to send him to prison.
So you think that – no matter what happens – they’ll send Anwar Ibrahim to jail?
The plan is to end Anwar’s political career and to send him back to jail so that he can be silenced. It’s a matter of whether or not they will change their mind. If they change their mind, Anwar will be acquitted.)
(Anwar Ibrahim was convicted for five years at the beginning of 2015 for alleged corruption and sodomy).
I watched an interview in which you said something like “If everyone is Adam, then I have to be the people.” What does this mean? How much do you risk and how much of your private life did you give up? Can you imagine having a girlfriend or raising a family under these conditions? You could get arrested anytime again.
I’m aware that I’ve lost a lot of my privacy. When I was involved in the student’s movement, I was a sore in Malay society and I was quite notorious in some circles. They knew who I was and they would always do something to get me into trouble, so I’ve avoided the public. But after the Sedition Act case I became known among the Chinese as well. They were among the earliest who picked up the campaign but instead of being non-supportive they’ve supported me. I avoided the Malays, even though it’s not fair but I was taking precautions. After my detention in 2013, I was greeted by many people whenever I went to a Chinese stall. Now I actually don’t go anywhere: they know me in the Chinese, Indian and Malay areas. I’d rather keep to myself nowadays. There aren’t many things in my private life which I can do in the daytime. I actually only hang out with my friends after classes. I’m just filling my time with programs or work related to political activism. I’m in touch with my closest circle. This is the price you must pay in the end. I’m not living for myself anymore, I’m living for other people’s lives, desires, for what they expect me to do.
Watch the interview with Adam.
But you’re very young and I guess you’ll continue your political career and you’ll be politically active. Can you imagine getting married or raising a family under these conditions? It seems terribly difficult.
It is normal to want to raise a family, marry, have children, live that kind of life just like other people but I have to be careful about the places I go to, the people I hang with, and with whom I’m appear in public or photos. There are a few things which should be done, so maybe later. I haven’t planned for them to happen yet. If something happens, I’m fine with it. I’m quite young so I guess I still have time to do the work first and I have time before I settle down and find a fixed role for myself. Sometimes I’m a student activist, sometimes I’m a writer, sometimes I’m a protestor, sometimes I’m a mediator for the students and politicians. I need to figure out exactly what I can do permanently, so that I can have a more stable life. Currently I’m studying law in a private college in Kuala Lumpur. I’m looking at two more years to finish my studies. I’ll graduate with a law degree. Maybe I can start from there. Right now there’s not much space for that kind of stuff in my life plus I still have to serve a one-year jail term in the future, so I should avoid hurting too many people.
How did you influence others?
I showed that there’s nothing to be afraid of. I mean a person like me – very small, very fragile – just a normal student going around talking about corruption and about new ideas, talking about change in Malaysia. So if a small person like me can endure this, why can’t all of you guys do this?
People start to understand that it’s all about politics and that you have to be part of it. I was inspired by other people, and others are inspired by me. I’m not a good role model but at least I proved that there are people like me out there and that you can always become like me. This isn’t the responsibility of only certain people, this isn’t the responsibility of some political leaders. This is everyone’s responsibility. It’s a responsibility that comes with very high risks. It’s the price of the struggle, because in the end change will never be made by one person but by everyone.
I mean there are people who try to say that you have to be well educated, that you have to graduate from school before you get involved in this kind of
activities, but they’re wrong. This is about whether you’re willing or not. There are so many things which you can do. The role of students is evident
throughout the history of mankind. Here, in the region, students are called mahasiswa. This word is special because if you translate it directly it
it means “student of university” but if you understand the concept of the word it means something else. Maha means great and siswa means people who learn. So you’re actually a great student and when you become a great member of society, you also have a very great responsibility towards society. And it’s part of your responsibility – as educated people – to do something when harm is done to society. You can’t keep quiet and tell yourself “It’s ok. I’ll just finish my studies first and once I’ve finished my studies, I’ll do something about it.” No, you can’t. You have to do it now or otherwise it will be too late. There are reasons why throughout history students have been celebrated in many revolutions and movements as belonging to the age of change.
You were suspended from uni for three semesters, but you said you’re still studying law?
When I was suspended from uni, my suspension was supposed to end in September 2013. But when I went back to uni, they continued my suspension indefinitely, so I chose to change my career and to start all over again. I’m currently a first-year student in a private college. I used to be in a public school but they won’t accept me anymore so I’m moving on instead of waiting.
Have you also continued your engagement in the student rights movement?
I left university in 2012, so it was only for a while that I was at uni. When I couldn’t go back to university, I was practically no longer a part of the student movement. I didn’t want to borrow the name of the student movement to justify my activism but since I’m back as a student I
work close with a few independent students. I have my own youth group with around twenty people. We call ourselves university basil tamil. Basil tamils is where we live. It’s a collective of young adults and students who want to get involved in political activism in creative ways. We have classes in which we learn every day, we teach kids from our area for free, we give food to the homeless every Sunday, we organized a forum and we set up an online radio service.
Currently you’re working for Bersih, aren’t you?
I worked for Bersih for a while but I quit in September to focus on my studies.
Now I’m doing a lot of freelance work translating articles, writing articles for newspapers and also publishing books with my friends. That’s how I’ve made some money for my expenses. I don’t live for money, I live to find the meaning of life and for my activism, which requires a lot of money. We opened a public account where people can donate money to support our movement and my studies. I saved money so that I can at least pay for my registration fees. I also received help from some generous people who were willing to finance my studies and I won scholarships. It’s not that much because it’s a private college, so when they hand out scholarships it means that they give a discount for tuition fees.
Which books did you publish together with your friends?
I have published a few articles in magazines and also my own book titled Molotow Cocktail. It’s a collection of my own writings and articles compiled from 2012 to 2014. This book was published last April or May. We have also published a few independent magazines like Posto, which is a collection of articles written by various persons to support each other.
Where do you find the power and strength to continue the struggle although you know the consequences? How do you motivate yourself every day? When I lived in Malaysia, I felt really depressed at times.
How I have continued? Apart from the people’s support it’s also awareness which is motivating me every day. This awareness tells me that I can’t stop and that these are the things I have to do and that I have to take this responsibility.
Don’t you sometimes have moments in which you think that everything is totally screwed up and in which you’re so annoyed that you don’t want to continue your work anymore? Don’t you have moments in which you wish to have a peaceful life?
Of course. There are times in which I feel so frustrated and depressed. Sometimes I go to sleep for one or two hours. Afterwards I think “OK. Just let’s do it again!” I also seek advice from people with whom I share my problems and who support me. If I feel tired they will tell me that I can’t be tired, but if I’m really tired I just take a rest for a while and come back later. There are times when I feel tired, annoyed, frustrated, depressed but I’ll just keep on going. I know that I can’t stop. I’m already aware. We call this enlightenment. You have been enlightened. You know what’s going on. You know what you need to do. You know your position in society, so you have to keep going on, survive, endure. I have faith in the future. I have faith that there will be a better Malaysia, so I just have to keep on going. If I stop today this better day won’t come.
What are your plans for your future after your release?
First of all, I have to finish my studies in the legal field. I hope to become a lawyer to continue my activism, so that I can help more people directly. So as I said and as you expected, I’ll still be actively involved in politics. It’s just a matter of where I’ll be in the future. I won’t be the same person anymore in two or three years. I can’t forever be a student, activist and everything. I have to find a way to define myself. People call me a student activist but I don’t know whether it’s true or not. I get involved in all kinds of things. I can’t call myself a student activist because it hasn’t been proven that I am one. That’s the only plan right now. I’ve never had real life plans. I always go with the flow. I enjoy the journey instead of the destination. Maybe I should start from there.
What’s your biggest wish for your future?
My biggest wish is that I can live a life which will benefit other people and that I can live a life worth telling my grandchildren about. I also hope that I can achieve something in my life, so that I can prove to many others that they were wrong. But it’s not about me, it’s about an effective struggle. I’d like to achieve something to prove that I’m doing the right thing. I hope that there’s going to be a better Malaysia where people can live together as one society, where they respect each other, so that we can celebrate our diversity and prosperity to be enjoyed by everyone: fair social, economic, and political justice. Furthermore I wish that all rights will be addressed and respected, so that everyone can enjoy being a Malaysian. We’re different in so many ways, but we’re also similar. The similarity is that we’re all human beings. We just have to push each other. We really have to appreciate life. We don’t have to be like another country, we have to be ourselves. But Malaysia has to be a country worth living in and worth fighting for.