ALSO BY

Would we have stood up with Bawani?

Everyone has been busy being righteously angry with animal rights activist, Samsung Galaxy Note sales rep and new Internet sensation Sharifah Zohra Jabeen.

Malaysia's latest cultural export has stormed the Internet in ways even VK Lingam's "Correct, correct, correct" quip or former minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil's Cowgate scandal could not.

"Let me speak," she commanded. "Listen, listen, listen," she said.

It is beautifully ironic that the woman who wanted so much to be heard is now nowhere to be heard from.

It's practically a parable.

Also, if she really was belittling KS Bawani's own level of education in comparison to her own, she might be interested to know that Bawani is currently studying for her second degree, her first being a degree in psychology from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

Finally, her deeply passionate rant about the little known plights of animals probably fell on deaf ears, as just about every major Barisan-linked party turned her into a sacrificial lamb - and went on the slaughter.

Cats get kicked, sharks get finned, and now she gets slaughtered in statement after statement as BN's new chance to play the moderation card.

Umno, MCA, MIC and Gerakan have all jumped on the bandwagon.

But the joke is not only on her.

We have all taken our turns criticising her and the rest of the students at that forum.

Where were we at the forum itself? Plenty of people have praised Bawani for being brave, but to get a true appreciation of the guts it took for her to get up and rail against what she called a "brainwashing" forum (in what was essentially hostile territory, politically speaking), we have to consider why absolutely nobody came to her defence.

I believe the ‘bystander effect' played a part here.

What it generally entails is that the more people there are surrounding an incident that requires help; the less likely it is that any help will be given.

People assume less responsibility for themselves when there are so many other people around who could help.

It is much easier to imagine that someone would have stood up and rebuked Sharifah if there had only been five people in the room, for instance.

In all our outrage over the students who applauded Bawani but did not speak up, we may have overestimated our capacity for courage.

Can we really say we would not have done the same? If I had to answer honestly, I think I would likely have just sat there.

I would have weighed the situation and concluded that I would only be ignored or silenced if I tried.

It is sad to think so. You may disagree.

"The right thing to do is so blindingly obvious, so how could it not be done?" There's an answer to that too.

Last year, a film called 'Compliance' had a limited release in the US.

It's the story of a prank caller who poses as a police officer and directs the manager of a fast food store to interrogate one of her employees, ostensibly for being a suspect in a crime.

Throughout the film, a few characters are made to do increasingly degrading things to the woman under the direction of the police officer, a strip-search being only the beginning.

Many people reportedly walked out during screenings, morally disgusted that anybody, even a movie character, would be stupid (or rather, compliant) enough to do such things when they were obviously wrong.

However, not only was the film based directly on an actual real-life incident at a McDonald's outlet, there were also over 70 such reported cases in the US.

The truth is that we would all like to believe that we can see the plain, obvious right thing to do - and do it.

But plenty of factors - the environment, the presence of an authority figure, fear - divert us.

There is always a silver lining.

In both the film and real-life case, the prank was exposed when uncompromising people refused to go along with the absurd orders.

And now, having heard of these stories, might we be more confident that we now know for certain what to do under similar circumstances? Yes, possibly.

If there is a takeaway from this whole incident, it is not about the establishment's dismissal of our students, or the mindless herd mentality of some.

It is that the action we need every reformer to take will not come as easily as we might think.

There are so many people who support the opposition who can help volunteer, why should I?

There are other candidates for office and I am scared of it being dirty, why should I run?

There are millions of other voters who will vote, why should I cast a ballot? Hopefully, we will because it is the right thing to do.


NICHOLAS WONG is a former intern with Malaysiakini's newsdesk. He was an Asean scholar and is now pursuing his law degree in the UK.