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Sunday November 20, 2011

New democratic occupation

The local edition of the worldwide Occupy movement, Occupy Dataran has captured the imagination of Malaysians seeking a means for public assembly.

THERE is a curious fact on the Occupy Dataran Facebook page, and it corresponds with the question “Where did the movement originally start?”

Looking at the dates, you can see that the Occupy protests first sprouted in Kuala Lumpur (July) followed by Wall Street, New York (September) before taking hold of other major cities in the world such as San Francisco, Toronto and London. (Some international reports have even acknowledged this.)

While the notion may induce sniggers, the fact is it only reflects the borderless nature of today's world, as well as the universal principle of fundamental liberties, which are, in this case, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

It is really a non-issue to many of the Occupy Dataran (OD) regulars, though. After all, this is democracy in practice the spirit underpinning the Occupy movement worldwide.

It only grates when they are boxed as copycats, says regular participant, Temme Lee.

“I think people and the media box OD into their own analysis because it is something new and unfamiliar. People fail to see that it is not a movement that is being copied but an idea that is being localised, which is the idea of regular folk having meaningful participation in democratic processes and decisions that affect our lives,” says the 25-year-old activist.

Furthermore, the concept is hardly new. Largely drawn from the Open Space technology, which began in the early 1990s, it is a process of diverse people coming together to discuss matters and find resolutions or solutions consensually.

Think village meetings, specifically West African and Asian village meetings or the Native American pow wow, from which the basic idea is derived.

First adopted by businesses to inspire more “creative” meetings, it has now become a trend among civil society. Next week, the Fiesta Feminista forum for young Malaysian women organised by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, will try the concept to get an open and free discussion on gender issues rolling.

“I won't go as far as saying that this is the new direction for women's groups but the concept is definitely empowering,” says Fiesta Feminista coordinator Abby de Vries.

Highlighting that under the concept, when someone talks, everyone will have to listen, she says that this is empowering for the speaker, particularly for the discriminated or marginalised.

The discussions, or “Assemblies”, are indeed the main draw at the OD.

“I was initially drawn to OD because I liked and believed in the idea of people reclaiming public spaces for political purposes. However, after joining OD a few times, I began to enjoy participating in the Assemblies,” Lee agrees.

“Most political events in Malaysia are a one-way street audience listening to the speakers and there is the assumption that speakers hold more knowledge than the audience. OD, on the other hand, is more like an open classroom except that everyone is both teacher and student, and everyone collectively decides on the syllabus.”

Lecturer Boon Kia Meng, who is in his 30s, also finds it an “empowering experience”.

As he puts it, Occupy Dataran is a space where citizens can take part directly in democratic, collective decisions; where every person's voice counts, with no hierarchy or central leadership.

“It allows me to exercise my citizenship muscles' as it were. Modern democracies tend to limit or even marginalise citizens into mere voters', normally once every five years, when real democracy should be about the capacity to engage in decision-making processes that actually make changes to our day-to-day lives.

“So, OD is like Democracy 24/7, rather than only once in five years.”

Lee concurs, pointing out that it is great that a group of young Malaysians are questioning how democracy is currently structured, “experimenting with alternatives and imagining what would make a better and more democratic Malaysia.”

She believes that Occupy-ing is, in a way, a new form of public assembly.

“Current methods of public assemblies in Malaysia are protests, rallies and demonstrations led by a particular group. The current occupy method differs in that every occupier participates in making the decisions that affect them as a member of the assembly. The assembly becomes a community instead of mere individuals coming together to voice an opinion. I guess you can say it's a more democratic manner of assembling.”

Freedom of assembly is important in every society because it is a physical expression of one's beliefs, she adds.

“Just believing or voicing an opinion does not suffice. One needs to take action with others to show in numbers how many people actually believe in the same thing.”

For poet and writer Han, it is more of a personal exploration. “I want to get used to an alternative way of making decisions. I'm used to making decisions as an individual and as a group, but rarely as a community. I think it's really hard to think this way and so I'm giving it a shot.”

Lew Pik Svonn, who has attended the gatherings at Dataran Merdeka since it started, sees the movement as a test of the dynamics in Malaysian society.

“For me, it is really a social experiment on how we can make decisions in big groups, taking into account the different types of personalities, different attitudes, beliefs and agendas.”

What many cannot apprehend is the lack of leadership, says Lew.

“We make decisions together but we have people asking Where is the Ambiga?' etc. all the time.”

Initially, she admits, she thought it would be impossible to reach one decision in the big group.

“I discovered that it is all about the process. It is interesting when two or three different camps, seemingly with no hope of meeting on common grounds, do come together. It is not a debate because we don't have a winner and loser. It is about trying to understand everyone's perspective.”

The way this works is that everyone has to be civil and reasonable. There are ground rules: everyone needs to listen and respect each other's views, and no one is allowed to be judgmental.

Although there have been one or two emotional outbursts, the assemblies have been peaceful, Lew says.

“I guess it is hard to vent when people are calm,” adds the 20-something with a laugh.

“It shows us that we can talk about sensitive things without flaring up in a fight. Unfortunately, I can't really say that the participants are representative of the majority in Malaysia or the diversity of Malaysians either.”

As everyone needs to take responsibility for the assembly, roles are assigned to different people at each meeting. There is a moderator, timekeeper, note taker and even security marshals.

When a resolution is reached, working groups are formed to take it forward. This can be translated into various actions from petition to referendum or even street theatre.

One discussion on capitalism culminated in a film-screening event to raise further awareness on the issue, says Lew.

The main principle, she says, is that the decision has to be reached consensually.

“Even if the police come and we are ordered to disperse, we have to decide in the assembly if we want to disperse or stay.”

This happened on Oct 15, one of the biggest OD assemblies yet with some 150 participants. When asked to leave by a few DBKL officers and the Police, “Our security person negotiated with the police while we all took a vote.”

The decision was to disperse, which they did peacefully.

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