'Salam Reformasi' from My Mom to You

Last Updated on April 27, 2018, 7:52 a.m.

LETTER from Camverra Jose Maliamauv

I woke up with tears in my eyes this morning. It was very strange. I don’t think I have ever woken up with tears before. I suppose there is a first time for everything. I was happy and sad and also angry which made it more confusing.

Happiness, sadness, anger; quite a mix, quite confusing. Sometimes you really have to think hard to recall what happened overnight in your dreams to make you feel a certain way in the morning. I didn’t have to this morning, I knew exactly why.

I dreamt about Mum.

We are on a train. Mum, my two sisters and me. I don’t know where we are coming from, but we are heading back to Subang Jaya. We are talking and laughing a lot as we usually do with her. Her laugh.

I remember that laugh very clearly, a loud and boisterous laugh. It’s something I have been reminded off over the past month when meeting people who knew her. “I can never forget her laugh”, they say. She never held back her laughter no matter where she was. “Express yourself!”, she would always say. She certainly knew how to!

I miss that laugh. It has ached me inside not being able to hear it anymore. It was nice to hear it again in my dream.

I remember sometimes hearing that laugh in the most unlikely of situations. When things seemed to be at their most stressful, that laugh would sometimes find its way out. You would always smile when you heard that laugh, and it would be hard not to join in.

I wonder if that laugh was as present in those early few years after her arrest in 1996. It wouldn’t surprise me if that laugh could be heard in her meetings with her lawyers as they discussed the very serious matter of the charges that were maliciously levelled against her. I wish I remembered more from those years. Perhaps I have blocked most of those memories out. Now all I remember is being afraid that they would take her away and that I would not hear her laugh again. They… the government.

That government of Mahathir. How ironic.

The train is pulling up to a stop. We are standing in line along the corridor waiting to get down. My two sisters are in front, probably arguing about something or another by now!

I smile thinking about how they would probably never change. This love-hate-love relationship they permanently have. Sometimes I want to knock them both on their heads and remind them that they are family. Then I realise that this is what makes us family; that despite the fact we might drive each other crazy sometimes, we continue to love each other regardless of our flaws.

Mum is standing in front of me, resting on her tongkat. That same tongkat she would hold up in defiance at the FRU and police who dared stand in the way of peaceful protest. She would always try to never miss a protest.

Even when she couldn’t walk and had to be in a wheelchair she was there; together with the crowds whether they numbered in the tens or in the thousands, through the lines of FRU police with their swinging batons and plastic shields; through the stinging and choking tear gas.

In those moments, I would stand there looking around through the smoky haze, observing how there was no division between us Malaysians in terms of ethnicity or religious beliefs despite what the government kept trying to perpetuate.

I will always remember my Muslim abang from PAS running out towards me to give me salt and water to alleviate the stinging after-effects of the tear gas. He did not care that I was a Catholic Indian, he just saw me as a fellow Malaysian standing together with him in our struggle for a better country.

I recall the Chinese guy standing alone in the hazy aftermath, when most of the crowd had retreated after another salvo of tear gas, waving his arms forward yelling to us “Mara ke hadapan!” and being quickly joined by the rest of us. We did not care about which god we prayed to or what food we did or did not eat or what our economic standing was. We were just there in the same struggle for a better country.

A struggle for a better country that was ruled by Mahathir. Yes, the irony.

The train is almost at a stop now. I move up quietly behind Mum and put my arms around her, squeezing her gently. She puts her hands on my arms and I can feel her smile. I bury my face into the back of her head; I can smell her hair. I remember that smell. You might be expecting me to describe it, but I cannot. It is a unique smell, one that a child recognizes from his mother. It is a smell that makes you feel warm inside.

I miss that smell. I carry Mum’s scarf with me to remind me of it because I am afraid that one day I will wake up and forget what her hair smelt like. I am happy that I was able to have that again in my dream, even for a brief moment.

I remember sitting down in the courtroom that afternoon on Oct 16, 2003. It was the day for the verdict of Mum’s case to be announced. The courtroom was packed. Lawyers, journalists, independent observers, family members, friends, supporters. It was hot, the bench was hard and narrow, uncomfortable.

We squeezed in anyway, making room for as many people as possible. I shifted in my seat and looked around. This time I noticed so many policemen and policewomen in the room. For a brief moment I wondered why. Then the magistrate walked in.

I remember the deputy public prosecutor making his case about why Mum should be found guilty. He called her a liar and a disgrace. He said that the severest punishment should be meted out against her. I remember getting so angry. How dare he speak about my mother that way.

I wanted to curse at him, to hit him but I knew I couldn’t. He kept on talking and disparaging my mother and the anger kept building up inside me. I knew I needed to release it somehow. I wanted to get up and walk out but I remember my elder sister glaring at me asking me to stay. I couldn’t. I got up and forced my way out, I needed to breathe.

I stumbled out into the corridor, seething with anger and frustrated that I couldn’t do anything about what was happening to my Mum. I remember kicking a pillar outside and a policeman turning to look at me. He didn’t say anything, I wonder if he knew how I felt.

I walked back into the courtroom and glanced at Mum as I sat down. Her face was a picture of calm. Here was this man, standing a few feet away from her, calling her a liar and a disgrace and asking that she be put into prison for telling the truth yet there she was, sitting calmly. I did not understand how she could be that calm.

I remember the magistrate reading out her statement. I don’t remember anything of what she said, at that point I thought it was immaterial. I knew what was coming. I just recall the gasps of disbelief every now and then when she made what must have been a completely ridiculous point.

Yet halfway through, she seemed to be choking on tears. She called for a recess. I wonder if she was as distraught as I was earlier and needed some fresh air. Why would she be distraught? I did not know.

She found Mum guilty and sentenced her to 12 months in prison. I was so angry. This did not make any sense. How can Mum be punished for telling the truth? I hated this so-called justice system. I hated this magistrate. I hated the police. I hated this government that was abusing all its powers to try and take my Mum away. I was angry and afraid. What if something happened to her while she was locked up and I never got to see her again, to speak to her again, to hold her and bury my face in her head and smell her hair again.

I hated this government, led by Mahathir. The irony.

We disembark from the train and walk through the station. My sisters are in front, I hear them chatting away. My elder sister says something that makes my younger sister burst out in laughter. She has Mum’s laugh. I ask if there is a sea-breeze blowing through the station. It’s an inside joke. They both laugh out loud. My elder sister calls me bodoh; it’s our term of endearment. I turn to my right and catch Mum smiling as she watches her children. I hold her hand to help her up a step as we walk.

I remember walking out with Mum from the courtroom on Nov 24, 2008. We were jubilant and overjoyed. After 13 long years of case hearings and postponements, uncertainty and doubt, her trial had finally come to an end. I recall those years, they were tough. I never asked my sisters how they coped but I know it must have not been easy for them either. It cannot be easy never knowing if your Mum would be taken away and locked up in prison every time she went to court. I admire the strength shown by my Dad too; I imagine how difficult it must have been for him.

After Mum left us in 2014, it would make me angry every time I thought about what she went through. I think about how those years affected Mum. I have no doubt that the stress of all those years took a toll on her health.

 I was so happy on that day in 2008 to have Mum back again. Little did I know that only six years later she would be gone, this time for good. I was so angry at the system that had been used to persecute her, that put her under the constant stress and strain that eventually led to her heart failing at the age of 67. I hated this system that I believe took my Mum away from me so soon.

This system that was built by Mahathir. Ironic.

We reach the exit. Mum looks slightly weary, I’m not sure why. I wonder how long we were on the train and how long we have been walking. What started out as a trip now feels like it might have been a journey. Perhaps her troublesome knees are causing her pain. I stop so she can pause and take a moments break. I look at her face; it is calm, smiling, at peace.

I was angry for a long time until life decided to teach me the harsh way, through divorce, losing my Mum and cancer, that there is no value in holding on to anger and hatred. Don’t get me wrong, it is ok to get angry, we just need to know how to channel it correctly. Today I do not get angry at individuals, I get angry at injustices and wrongdoings.

And I channel that anger by trying to act against them in whatever way I can. I have also learnt to forgive. I have forgiven myself and others. Yes, I have forgiven Mahathir too. This man who was the architect of the system that persecuted not just Mum but so many others. A system that has destroyed many families and lives. The same system that I believe took Mum away from me earlier than I had ever imagined. I do not forgive him for him, I forgive him for me.

I do not claim any moral authority to grant this forgiveness, far from it. Neither do I think that the trials and tribulations we went through as a family were the most severe compared to anyone else.

I think about Aunty Azizah, Izzah and her siblings; arguably those who have suffered the most under Mahathir and the system he created. I do not know if they have forgiven him, that is not for me to say.

Forgiveness is very personal, and we find it within ourselves in our own time and in our own way. The deeper you’ve been hurt, the stronger the strength and courage that is needed to forgive. I look at Aunty Azizah standing beside him now and think about how much strength and courage she has. I admire that; Mum would be proud of her.

Lately, I have often thought about what Mum would have to say about the political developments in Malaysia today. Unfortunately, she can’t tell us but we can try to see these developments through her eyes.

Mum always believed that political change was necessary in our country. That is why she became involved with PKR and the Reformasi movement at its very infancy. More importantly, she always believed that ultimately it was the movement that mattered most. The movement might have been ignited by one man but it was never meant to be carried by one individual. It was…no, it IS a people’s movement, meant to be shouldered by all of us who wish for a better future for our country.

So, no matter who is at the forefront or the face of this movement, it is ultimately us the people who will chart its course. It is a movement that reverberates from the energy of the people, not from any single individual. It is a movement that must not cease to reverberate because reform will always be needed as we continuously seek to perfect this nation of ours. It is a movement that is both emotional yet pragmatic.

And it is incumbent upon us to take ownership of this movement, to energize it, to make it reverberate and to decide our own fate.

That is how I believe Mum would view the political development in Malaysia today.

I think about her face now. Calm, smiling, at peace. I miss her face, her expressions. I am glad I managed to see it again, even if only in my dream.

We walk out of the station and suddenly everything has changed. I don’t know where we are now. My sisters are gone. It is just Mum and me. There is a sparkling white structure in front of us. White stairs leading up to what I think looks like a temple or church or mosque at the top. I can’t tell. It is just very white.

I reach out my hand to help Mum up the stairs. I’ve done this so many times that I can still remember the feel of the grip of her hand on my arm, the softness of her palm. We walk up a few steps until there is a ledge high enough for her to sit comfortably on. She rests her tongkat against the wall and sits on the ledge. I make sure she’s comfortable before sitting down on the stairs next to her feet.

I am excited, ecstatic. I have waited so long for this moment since she left four years ago. A chance to talk to her again, to ask her so many questions about her thoughts, beliefs, feelings. I want to ask her how she’s doing. Does she miss us? Is she watching us every day?

I want to ask her what she thinks about this crazy unplanned journey of mine. Does she know what I am doing, why I am doing this? Sometimes I get nervous and question myself; am I doing the right thing? What should I be doing?

I look up eagerly at her and open my mouth to speak. And then I burst into tears. I sit there with my head in my hands sobbing uncontrollably. I want to speak but I cannot. I can only cry. I want to look up and speak but I keep crying.

“What are you doing?” I yell at myself inside. “Speak to her! You’re never going to see her again!”

I am so angry at myself! I have waited so long for this opportunity and now that it is here I can only cry like a baby. What am I doing?

And then I feel her hand rest on my head, that soft palm again. I lift my head out of my hands and look up from her feet. I see her face, looking down at me. A face that is so familiar, the face that I would always see when I lay down on the couch with my head in her lap so many times before. Calm, smiling, loving.

A mother’s love.

She looks down into my eyes. She does not speak but she isn’t silent. I understand her.

She wants me to be brave, not to be afraid. She tells me that it is not for her to direct me on what to do or where to go; that I should find my own path. She says it is ok to chart a different course sometimes; to venture into the unknown. She is telling me that it is ok to make mistakes, that this is how we learn and grow. She wants me to follow my heart; that it’s ok to let emotion blend with pragmatism sometimes.

And then, just like that, Mum is gone.

I am alone now, on these white steps. Alone but I am happy. She is gone but I know she will always be here with me. She never left.

I think about Malaysia and the choice we will make again in a few weeks and I can’t help but feel that this is a message not just for me.

So, Malaysia, do not be afraid to chart a new course, to venture into the unknown. I have heard some say that the biggest flaw in a democracy is that it rides on emotion. Yet it is emotion that makes us human. So, do not be afraid to follow you heart, to blend emotion with pragmatism.

We may not like all the choices we have in front of us but we must never forget that this is our movement, a people’s movement, and it is up to us the people to determine how it is shaped.

Will we make mistakes? Of course we will, but that also means we will learn and grow together as one people as we continuously seek to perfect this nation of ours.

They say that the spirit of Reformasi died a long time ago and is gone now. I disagree. Just like Mum, I believe it never left. It will always be with us.

Salam Reformasi, from Mum to you.

P.S.: Happy birthday, Mum.

CAMVERRA JOSE MALIAMAUV is the son of the late Irene Fernandez, and associated with Tenaganita.

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