Musings at 2 AM: Hope and Power of the People

Protest is Patriotic - BersihI just got back from an intense and enlightening evening of Malaysian politics with two beloved friends. I imagine that similar conversations are taking place all over Malaysia as the elections loom near. I feel the winds of change in the air, but I feel a lot of scepticism and fear too. Fear of the unknown? Or fear of change?

We imagined, just for a moment what it would be like if the Opposition won – would there be certain people behind bars? Wouldn’t it mean also stripping them of their power, which my friend imagined would be like stripping them naked, which they probably want to hold on to? Are they going to give their power up? Why would they?

I have to admit here, it was hard to imagine any other party winning. It has hard to imagine that after all these years, there might finally be justice for all the wrongdoing wrought by a careless government?

Hard, but not impossible.

Just imagine people…what if?

Because actually, the power is in our hands. Let’s keep talking and arguing and doing and hoping and praying. This is how Malaysia will grow its political scene. This is how we can be on the road to free and fair elections. This is how we can make a change together.

I found hope in this book called ‘Small Acts of Resistance’ by Steve Crawshaw & John Jackson. I read about ordinary acts by ordinary people that managed, over time, to topple the most brutal of governments. To them, it was a simple matter of expressing their desire to live in dignity and freedom. These courageous individuals sent a clear message of dissent to the government of the day with their actions.

“A person with inner freedom, memory, and fear is that reed, that twig that changes the direction of a rushing river.” – Nadezhda Mandelstam

Here is the preface, written by Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic and all-round playwright, poet, dissident and essayist.

In 1978, I wrote an essay that explored the untapped “power of the powerless.” I described the incalculable benefits that might follow, even in the context of a highly repressive government, if each one of us decided to confront the lies surrounding us, and made a personal decision to live in truth.

Many argued that those ideas were the work of a deluded Czech Don Quixote, tilting at unassailable windmills.

In many ways, that scepticism seemed justified. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Leader who just ten years earlier had sent tanks into Czechoslovakia to end political reform, was still in power in the Kremlin. The Solidarity movement – whose remarkable victories in neighbouring Poland against unwanted rulers would give comfort to other eastern Europeans and millions of others seeking to live in truth in the years to come – did not yet exist. I myself, like many of my friends, had spent time in jail and would do so again in the years to come.

And yet, just eleven years after I wrote what ordinary people can achieve by living in truth, I saw and lived through a series of extraordinary victories all across the region, including in my own country. In what came to be known as the velvet revolution, Czech and Slovaks defied official violence to ensure the speedy collapse of the seemingly impregnable bastion of lies in November 1989. It was all over in barely a week. After the revolution, I was privileged to become the president of my country as it moved into a democratic era.

Today, millions around the world live in circumstances where it might seem that nothing will ever change. But they must remember that the rebellions that took place all across eastern Europe in 1989 were the result of a series of individual actions by ordinary people which together made change inevitable. Small Acts of Resistance pays tribute to those who have sought to live in truth, and the impact that can have.

In my lifetime, I have repeatedly seen that small acts of resistance have had incomparably greater impact than anybody could have predicted at the time. Small acts of resistance are not just about the present and the past. I believe they are about the future too.

Prague (March 2010)

This preface was taken from: Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World. Crawshaw, S., Jackson J. 2010. New York: Sterling. 

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