Silent protest, mighty echo

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 26 Aug 2018

ON Merdeka Day three years ago, the then Prime Minister and his wife were attending a function at a KL shopping mall, when from up on high, a dance producer released yellow balloons with words like Free Media, Democracy and Justice written on them.

For this she was charged under the Minor Offences Act for behaving in an insulting manner with the purpose of stirring anger which would likely cause a disturbance.

Last week, after nearly three years of legal wrangling and court appearances, the case was finally put to bed.

“I am very relieved, especially for my lawyers, because they were doing all the hard work,” Bilqis Hijjas tells The Star in an exclusive interview.

Asked why she took the risk of challenging the premier of Malaysia that many then saw as a police state, she says, “I guess I was just extremely frustrated. It was right after Bersih 4. My action happened on Merdeka Day. There had been so many people protesting against the Prime Minister. And yet he could walk up and be the guest of honour at this art event, happy as you please, as if nothing had happened.”

She adds, “I felt that if we as the arts community didn’t make a gesture of resistance, or at least awareness, we would have lost an opportunity. I think the arts community is more responsible than other communities to be politically aware and often is. I felt it was shameful to kow tow to someone whom many of us believed to be deeply corrupt.”

So, surely, the recent election results must have felt like a vindication of the protest?

“Yes a great deal,” she affirms. “Although my action had very little to do with the results, but at the same time, I was very pleased. And if my action made one person think differently about the influence the ruling party had on our lives, then it was a positive outcome.”

To some, Bilqis’ act put her in the company of satirical activist Fahmi Reza and political cartoonist Zunar, who courageously aired their dissenting voices against the previous government.

No party trick: Bilqis does not regret her balloon protest, but she is worried that she will eternally be known as the ‘balloon girl’ – she says she has been invited to some events just to toss balloons at people.
No party trick: Bilqis does not regret her balloon protest, but she is worried that she will eternally be known as the ‘balloon girl’ – she says she has been invited to some events just to toss balloons at people.

“They have all my respect. I don’t always agree with everything they do and say, but I think they are very brave, especially compared to my experience. I was facing a RM100 fine. They are facing serious jail time. Zunar especially has a wife and young family. For them to step up and do the things they did was hugely brave.”

Bilqis is quick to add that just because there is a degree of euphoria over the change of government, it does not mean that we will see the end of satirical protests.

“I think we should definitely hold our new government to account. We don’t just turn the corner and ride off into the sunset. The new government has huge expectations and it cannot please everyone. We are going to be disappointed at some point and we are going to have to make that known.”

Born in 1979 to prominent architect Hijjas Kasturi and his wife Angela, Bilqis attended Sri Inai and the International School of Kuala Lumpur before going on to complete a degree in sociology at Harvard University. A part-time lecturer at Universiti Malaya, her main work is as a dance producer.

Did she foresee herself going down the activist route when she was a student?

“At the time, I was not involved. I was following Reformasi from overseas, to my enduring disappointment. My older sister, who was also at Harvard before me, was always much more politically aware than I was.

“Thanks to her, I became aware of the various social injustices happening in our society. She was involved in Amnesty International and aware of the situation of the Penan, for example.”

One unforgettable moment during Bilqis’ trial occurred when her father was interviewed and said he wished he had dropped the balloons himself.

“It came as a great surprise. My father is a very successful architect whose work is very well-known and accepted in the community. For a long time he was maybe distrustful of my sister’s and then my own political activity.

“But eventually there was more and more apparent corruption and reprehensible behaviour from the powers that be, and he began to think that, yes, these people need to be held accountable.”

Still, there are no plans to merge her penchant for activism and passion for dance, she says.

“I like to think I encourage dancers to express themselves, to be vocal and not hold themselves back but there is no real overlap between the two.”

Her next big project is in Urbanscapes 2018 this November, when she will be working with dancers performing in “unexpected places in small spaces outdoors” in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur.

She believes that the new government needs to be more clear about guidelines and censorship.

“For example, who can shut down an exhibition? Who can censor items? What is the process? To whom can the artists appeal? When it’s vague, some are stopped but others can do what they like, and that’s when the artists start to self-censor, and that’s a dangerous thing.”

Arts funding is another issue, she adds. “A lot of people might be expecting money to fall from the sky for the arts, but I think we might be going into an austerity government.”

Personally, she would settle for some simplifying of the onerous process of applying for permits, she says. “I would like to see processes streamlined and some requirements done away with altogether. The cutting out of red tape would help a great deal.”

Despite the attention her case has garnered, one shouldn’t expect to see Bilqis in the political arena. Or at least not for now!

“A lot of people ask me if I would run, and I would have to say that no political party has ever asked me. I would have to conjecture it’s because they see me more as a liability. Probably see me as a loose cannon who would not toe the line. And they would be right.”

And she certainly doesn’t regret the act that brought her to public attention.

“The only impact of the resistance is beyond my wildest dreams. I never imagined that so many people would message me with sympathy and support. I was very lucky. I had a very minor charge, free legal support, the support of my family, I don’t have children or a husband, don’t work for a government agency, had support and coverage from the press. Without all that, it might have been different,” Bilqis notes.

“The only apprehension that I have is that there is a great risk that I will go to the grave as ... the balloon girl. A lot of people ask me to show up at events and toss balloons off a balcony, and I am like, you know, the balloons are not a party trick.”

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