I was standing by the entrance of Pavilion and it was raining. It was the end of another date, and we stood there people-watching, our conversation petering out. He was tired and anxious to go home. In my head, I thought I wasn’t interesting enough to make him want to stay.
I was younger then, two years ago, still pretty fresh from a messy break up and like all 20-year-olds, confused. It was a (more) youthful time. Then, exuberance was the air I breathed everyday.
Two years ago was also when I made the switch from wanting to study medicine to law. I blame that on a mixture of the post-2008 euphoria that rose from the outcome of that year’s Malaysian elections, Obama’s appointment to the White House, and my dismal grades in Science-y subjects in the A-Levels.
I thought law would be a better fit; I was better with words than equations, better at bullshitting than hard facts. And I wanted to change the world with a combination of law and politics. Then, I truly, deeply believed I could.
For months, I attended events: forums, ceramahs, court decisions. I even interned with a Member of Parliament. The first few weeks, like the beginning of a romance, were heady, even thrilling. Meeting names you could previously only read about on the The Malaysian Insider, people who were formulating revolutionary new policies guaranteeing rights and justice for everyone. I shook their hands, I took photos and shared them on Facebook for friends to comment, “What a passionate person you are.” Every step, every speech, every new policy drafted was bringing us one step closer to a better Malaysia.
But after a while, the messages got confusing despite the constant repetition of that grand narrative of change. A state exco shouts for freedom of information but later SMSes an associate to not speak about an opposition-linked scandal in a town hall meeting. Another leader publicly advocates ‘new politics’ but stalwarts of ‘old politics’ admired his brand of politicking behind closed doors.
The messages everywhere were well-intended possibly, but contradictory. Warped, tinged and at worst, masturbatory. Talking and debating at best ended with some ideological ‘patchism’, like patching up an already rotten body, though they were mostly circular arguments. But they echoed what was felt by the crowd of the already-preached who then clapped their hands and believed change was coming.
What could I do? That conviction I had a few months ago, the one that knew I could help once I got enough people with me, was waning. By this time, I had learned I was nothing but one against hard, solid, powerful institutions. The police, the law, the State — they were all related and subservient to each other. I had not yet reached the Foucaultian resignation that we were all invited to be liberated men only as another facet of subjection by the powers that be, but the roots of my cynicism were starting to sprout like the first poisonous weed on a prized flowerbed.
At that Bukit Bintang entrance, I tried to pick up where we left off during dinner when I was ranting about the inevitable futility of it all – my idealism, my efforts.
“What’s the point?” I asked.
He had given me Eduardo Galeano’s Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World at a previous date, whose content pretty much rejected the putrid “reality” we have. In that book, Galeano poetically said this plain and clear: society is a contradictory beast who makes us normalise the cruel, the unacceptable, the outrageous. He knew it was pretty much pointless. He works in this field. He knew it was just grandiose romanticism and politics.
“What’s the point of me reading all these books and writing? I can’t do anything. There’s no change coming, what more a fucking revolution.”
He took a puff from his cigarette. Paused. And with a shrug, he said, “For emancipation. Of your mind.”
Those words have stayed in my mind for two years now. Sometimes it’s glaring in neon lights, sometimes I search futilely for it. They pop up when I am torn between watching Astro or picking up a book. As I reach for the TV remote, I know I am sacrificing the possible catharsis from a book. As I open a ‘serious’ book after another long day at my desk job, this thought runs through my head, “This emancipation thing better be worth it”.
Occasionally I hear these words in a song or see it in a movie scene. By some neurons connecting, or by the clash of destinies, on that rainy day, I heard those few words I could relate to so much. There was nothing fancy about it, hell they were just words! Spoken, they disappeared after a breath, yet they were so heavy. Innocuous and vague, yet they brought so much clarity.
“For emancipation. Of your mind.”
Two years ago, I committed to those five words. Since then, it’s been like a cocktail mixture of strength, purpose, enthusiasm, rejuvenation. Mixed and shaken according to the context. Sometimes it’s a sweet, delicious drink to rise above political pettiness. Sometimes it tastes like medicine, and like medicine, something you take whether you like it or not.
And though my idealism does not burn as bright, it was those very words that have shielded it from going out, keeping it a dim light in a dark room.