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Sunday, November 26, 2006

 

Hishamuddin Rais on Sunday Star

He was the Che Guevara of the Malaysian student movement of the mid-1970s. But after 20 years in exile, a stint under the ISA and becoming a film lecturer, ANDREW SIA discovers that Hishamuddin Rais is still very much a rebel at heart.

ART reflects life, it is said. So, when you grow up in Jelebu, a very secluded corner of Negeri Sembilan in the 1960s, you might, 30 years later, make a road movie about four kids trying to escape from a humdrum kampung life in a stolen red Volvo.

Hishamuddin is quite content to live on the second floor of a shoplot with his pets. He has filled it with books and paintings but it is sansbed, cupboards and fridge.

“It’s not like Kedah’s flat lands. Growing up in Jelebu, I never got to see the horizon because it’s a valley,” recalls Hishamuddin Rais, 55.

“There was only one trunk road out and to go even to Seremban was a big deal. Every boy dreams of what is beyond the mountains. But once you go over, you are never the same.”

And what a roller-coaster journey his life has been.

Early years

What drives this man? For one, his vociferous appetite for reading and knowledge. Hisham, who was educated at the Government English School in Jelebu, remembers a home filled with his parents' books. Dad was a rank and file armyman who was often away and Mom was a school teacher.

“I suppose we were lower middle class, but we were still better off compared to my classmates’s farmer parents,” he says.

His family life was harmonious and his uncle, Datuk Aminuddin Manaf, was a four-term Umno State Assemblyman for Jelebu.

So where did his rebellious activist streak come from?

His first demonstration was in 1959, at the age of eight.

“My uncle organised it. The villagers were walking with placards protesting the move by the Datuk Undang (Nobleman) of Jelebu who wanted to change the adat (traditions) so that his son would inherit his title. I followed the group on my bicycle,” he reminisces.

The budding socialist

His excellent Senior Cambridge exam results gained him entry into the elite Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) where he began reading about radical poetry, Malcolm X and the local magazine Opinion (which featured many Opposition writers).

“It engaged my mind much more than what Lennon was doing with Yoko Ono.”

The most prestigious activity was MCKK’s Literary and Debating Club.

“There were only 12 members. Every Tuesday, we would debate all kinds of topics including the Vietnam War and legalising marijuana.”

He was also subscribing to Mahasiswa Negara (the University of Malaya’s student newspaper) as well as newsletters of the socialist Parti Rakyat and Labour Party. In ideology, he differed from Anwar Ibrahim, another student activist of the 1970s often mistakenly associated with him.

“Anwar was into Islamic-Nationalism. I ascribe to socialism. It’s not a faith. It explains society rationally.”

However, his ideological beliefs were put to the test in MCKK after the racial riots of May 13, 1969.

“Suddenly all the students were talking about Malay consciousness and holding up fists with white gloves, like Black Power or something. The seniors summoned me to their bedrooms. They sat on their beds while I would be sitting on the floor being pressured to take a more Malay position. But I repeatedly refused.”

Datuk Kamaruddin Jaafar, who was Hisham's MCKK classmate and fellow debating club member, remembers: .

“We had many discussions of social issues, and about the disparity between rich and poor. Even then, he had strong views about the country’s future.”

“He was a very passionate public speaker and a fiery debater,” recalls Kamaruddin, who is now PAS secretary-general and MP of Tumpat.

“We loved our country. When we celebrated Merdeka, he asked me to raise the flag in the school padang and we sang the Negaraku together.”

Even before Hisham entered the University of Malaya (UM), he already knew he wanted to join its Kelab Sosialis (Socialist Club). In time, he became Secretary-General of the UM Student Union (UMSU) and editor of Mahasiswa Negara.

Fadzillah Amin, his ex-lecturer, taught him English Literature although Hisham was a history major. She initially felt he was not serious as he dressed very “ruggedly”.

“But when I marked his paper, I was surprised at how well thought it was,” she recalls. “He was my most memorable student. I find him to be funny, brave and principled. You don't get many people like that.”

When she was in London in the early 1990s, they met up.

“ He was wearing a bandanna and my daughter was so impressed, she had never met anyone more interesting.”

The rebel is born

Nineteen seventy-four is considered to be the peak of Malaysian student activism and Hisham played a central role. In September, he hopped onto the back of a newspaper van (to save UMSU’s funds) to help out squatters at Tasik Utara, Johor Baru, who claimed that politicians, after having just won the recent elections, were then reneging on their promises that the people could continue to live there. In trying to save the squatters’ homes from demolishment, Hisham was thrown into jail for “obstructing police officers”.

On Sept 20 and 21, some 2,000 UM students demonstrated, urging the authorities to release Hisham and other student leaders who had been detained at Tasik Utara. The demonstrations were suppressed and UMSU then staged a “peaceful takeover” of the UM administration while continuing protests within campus. The Government responded by suspending the union.

That was not the end of the story though. The price of rubber had fallen to record lows in 1974 and, coupled with drastic inflation, farmers and rubber smallholders were struggling to buy even basic foodstuffs.

In frustration, more than 20,000 peasant-farmers demonstrated at Baling, Kedah, on Dec 1. Two days later, students supported them with a big protest against inflation and corruption at the Selangor Club Padang, Kuala Lumpur. Mass arrests of students only led to further demonstrations before police entered – and silenced – the campus on Dec 9. Many student leaders were arrested.

“I was in a friend’s room and suddenly everybody was shouting,” recalls Hisham. “I grabbed my passport, denim jacket andRM5. I hid out in the secondary jungles around the campus. The next day, there was a thunderstorm, and I slipped out through the jungles of Bangsar before getting a lift on a construction worker’s motorbike.”

What stoked Hisham’s passion for the cause?

“It was a combination of ideology and also the knowledge we had about what was going on. Corruption was rampant and poverty was widespread. In parts of the country like Baling, there was even starvation,” explains Bhaskaran Subramaniam, Hisham's comrade in the Socialist Club.

“Information on this was suppressed by politicians and the media. When we told other students about this, they were shocked and angry. They asked how this could happen in Malaysia,” adds the lecturer and management trainer.

For him, the Tasik Utara demonstrations were a watershed in the country.

“The squatters had tried all the official channels but nothing happened till there were street demonstrations. After this case, the authorities were more careful in demolishing squatter settlements.

On the Socialist Club, Bhaskaran says members had to be secretive about their movements as many left-wing activists had been arrested in the 1960s and 70s.

“It was a very tight group. Nobody declared they were members. Our meetings were held on Saturday afternoons when the whole campus was quiet. We’d just designate a certain faculty to meet and then walk around looking for empty rooms.”

On the lam

On the run and with his “Wanted” poster everywhere, Hisham shaved his beard and lived in squatter areas, constantly changing his name. Eventually, through his activist connections, he ended up in Beirut, right smack during Lebanon’s civil war.

And thus began his 20 years of exile, which took him through more then 30 countries. Lebanon was followed by stints in Jordan, Iraq, Australia and Pakistan – where he helped Iranian exiles out to topple the Shah.
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Although most of the time I might not agree with his views on politics, current issues or whatever, I make sure that I never miss to read his articles from his Malaysia-Today or Off The Edge columns. Even if he writes something about belacan for example, there's always something new to expect from him.

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