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Rebel with a cause

KUALA LUMPUR -- He has never sought glory, monetary gain or revenge. Standing on the dais at the end of the massive Bersih 4.0 rally (bersih means clean in terms of elections and corruption), Hishamuddin Rais hardly looked like the chief organizer of this and many years of similar protests, a widely-published writer and inspiration to several generations of radical youth. With his trademark broad smile, black goatee, ponytail, crumpled cap and clam-digger pants barely hiding his knees, he could have been mistaken for an artist or street performer, rather than the oft-imprisoned dissident described at one ruling party summit as "public enemy No. 1."

Hishamuddin Rais   © Kelab Bangsar Utama

      Yet when former Prime Minister Mohamed Mahathir, now 90, showed up unexpectedly to wade through the crowds calling for the ouster of his scandal-tainted successor, Najib Razak, Rais had to admit, "For me, this was a moment of personal triumph."

     He recalled the date -- Oct. 24, 1998 -- when Mahathir, at the height of his powers, branded the use of street protests to support his persecuted deputy Anwar Ibrahim as "a foreign concept" that was not suited to Malaysia and would never work. At the time, he ordered the arrest and imprisonment of Rais and other dissidents. Later, when he was arrested without charge under the former draconian Internal Security Act in 2001, Rais was repeatedly subjected to torture. Yet he has lived to see his former tormentor joining his cause.

     "Bringing out half a million to an event declared illegal, coordinating protests in 22 cities around the world -- that may have impressed Mahathir," Rais noted, emitting a loud, happy-go-lucky cackle that, he says, "makes it easy for the police to identify me in a crowd." As for his own claim to leadership, under the guise of widely influential blogger Tukar Tiub, he suggested on his Change the Tire website, "I guess people still have trust when they see my familiar face."

     Rais became known in many circles as Malaysia's conscience and "gonzo agitator" since he led rural protests and called for democratic reforms after being elected secretary general of the former University of Malaya Students Union in 1973. He has not held any formal office with any organization since.

     At 64, he continues to juggle a variety of vocations: a popular newspaper columnist, a leading light of the country's underground cinema, film instructor, author, playwright, food critic, hippie cafe proprietor, an exhibited visual artist, even a stand-up comedian --  as well as the self-appointed lecturer and founder of an alternative school in Kuala Lumpur's Bangsar Utama district that he jokingly calls  UBU, for "you be you."

     Rais, who calls himself an NGI, or  nongovernmental individual, has been his curious self from an early age despite winning a scholarship to Malay College in Perak State, a training ground for the country's elite since it was established by the former British colonial rulers.

     "Every time I have to go into hiding before a big event, I ask myself, 'Why am I doing this again?'" he said. The answer, he proudly stated, is his hatred of the "stupefied" conformity and life under "another Asian fiefdom of feudal rule." He has referred to his fellow Malays as "poor chaps" so browbeaten by both mosque and state to have become "the only ones who can never do what they want in their own country."

     Having evolved from a student radical to a leader of farmer demonstrations, Rais was branded a "communist element" by the government and fled the country in 1974 to avoid imprisonment. As he now muses, with yet another high-pitched laugh, he might have been better off sticking around in Malaysia. For nearly 20 years he was stateless, an exile traveling without passport or on fake documents. This led to some lengthy stints in the jails of India, Australia, France and the U.K. Rais could write a book, the joke goes, called "The Lonely Planet Guide to Lockups."

A scene from Hishamuddin Rais' play "Secret Room"

     When he returned home in 1994, Isham, as he is known to his friends and followers, had accrued extensive experience at survival, while graduating with a degree in media and film from the University of Westminster in London. While continually harassed, he managed to produce "From Jemapoh to Manchester," a low-budget road movie about two clueless village kids following the exploits of their favorite football team, Manchester United.

     Despite an official ban on performances, his play "Bilik Sulit," or "Secret Room," based on his torture experiences, toured Malaysian campuses and was even staged in the U.K. "After that happened, I felt that I really needed to do more to deserve that torture," Rais observed with a wink. "And I really wish the CIA gave us all that money the government claims they do!"

     Rais now lives with his pug dog in a derelict low-rent project building facing a Chinese cemetery. His main "office" is a scruffy kopitiam, or coffee shop, in Brickfields, a poor, largely Indian neighborhood.

     Predictably, he was among those hauled into court for breaking the country's Sedition Act in 2014 for his public claims that the country's national elections that year were rigged. "It's the system, my dear," he declared loudly and openly.

Another shot from "Secret Room"

     "We'd just like Malaysia to have the positive structure of a true European parliamentary democracy," he insisted, "combined with the cultural sensitivities of Southeast Asian people."

     But a true Western-style democracy, he fears, may take much more time. "The fact that Mahathir had to join us means that Najib and his cronies won't leave easily." He predicts that "with Najib hanging on and all the traditional [political] coalitions so fragmented, Bersih 5.0, 7.0., 8.0 may be [the] more spontaneous reactions to elections [that] we can expect to be even more engineered into pro-UMNO landslides," referring to the ruling party the United Malays National Organisation.

   For now, however, Rais seems content with the recent protests. "Once again," he said, "the fear factor has been broken -- that's the main thing." In the case of this fearless rebel, it has never been there.

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