One of my duties as a postgraduate student here in Houston, Texas is to lead tutoring sessions for undergraduates.
Last Sunday was the session before exam week so I had a busier session than usual, filled with panicked first and second-year students.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover a Malaysian student in my session - her accent gave her away.
We chatted a little bit about things at home, and since it was the week before the Bersih rally, I asked her if she was going to the gathering in Houston. She shrugged apologetically. "Would love to go, but cannot la. I'm a JPA scholar, so..." I nodded my head sympathetically.
The government would threaten her scholarship if she exhibited "deviant behaviour". She would make the safe choice and stay home.
And who could blame her for that? That was a lot of money to put at risk. I let the matter drop, and we resumed our discussion of Stokes' Theorem.
Malaysians love safe choices. Perhaps that's why we have kept the same government in power for the past 55 years.
Mom and dad sure as hell weren't going to the sit-in in KL. Sis reminded me that if she got arrested, she might get kicked out of pharmacy school.
Plus I have exams on Monday. Cannot go la. Must make the safe choice. All throughout the week, I spent reading news reports from home, listening to Hishammuddin, DBKL, the police, various other politicians telling Malaysians the same thing. Don't make waves.
Don't cause trouble. Maintain the peace. Make the safe choice.
Saturday morning arrived. Saturday evening in Malaysia, so the main protest was over.
I woke up early, and took in the news. Marveled at the number of people who turned up in downtown KL. Horrified by the outbreaks of violence. Inspired by the courage of the thousands upon thousands of Malaysians who refused to make the safe choice.
The rally in Houston was in a park, just a short bike ride away from my apartment. There were about a hundred people present, Malaysians working or studying in Houston.
I was responsible for making a video account of the event, so I had my video camera, tripod, and microphone ready and spent most of the two hours there interviewing rally-goers and hearing their stories. I found myself at awe at the lengths that some of them took to get here.
Drove three hours from Austin. Drove two-and-a-half hours from Lake Charles. Drove four hours from Dallas. Drove four-and-a-half hours from Fort Worth.
They were from all corners of Malaysia. A lot of Penangites and KL folk. Young family from Kelantan, with an adorable baby boy.
Ended up exchanging phone numbers with Zaibidi, an IT guy from Johor. Older family, with three teenage children all in tudung, from Terengganu.
We sang 'Negaraku', listened to some speeches, signed a petition. I was struck by the passion and the conviction of the folks at our little rally.
There was some anger and frustration about the problems in Malaysia, and a fair bit of complaining about the corruption and injustice back home. But I felt that the overwhelming sentiments in our gathering were love and hope.
Love for the country we came from, and for the friends and family we've left behind. Hope that we can make it to be a better place, if not for ourselves then for our children and children's' children.
Making Malaysia a better place will require Malaysians to take risks, for the sake of their country and for the sake of their countrymen.
The marchers in KL made those unsafe choices, and Malaysia is better for it. As for me, in faraway Houston, I did not make any hard choices today.
But I hope that when the time comes for me to choose between self-preservation and sacrifice, I will have the strength to spurn the safe choice, and show the same mettle as those thousands in KL did today.