When Bilqis Hijjas dropped the yellow balloons on the former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak three years ago, she she did not know what she was going to do until the very moment she let the balloons drop. What Bilqis knew for certain is that she had to do something to make a statement.
The balloons had the words "Democracy", "Free Media" and "Justice" on them, exactly the message that she wanted to convey to the PM then.
"I knew that he (Najib) was attending the event because I was participating in the event and I was privy to the invitations. I was hoping that he would not show up and I would not be forced to make any kind of response to it.
I had to do something because I felt if someone in my position doesn’t do something, then who will? And who can?
"I didn’t know what I wanted to do.... but I knew I wanted to do something. I felt that it was shameful of us to actually to stand there and accept his leadership and his authority on Merdeka Day - of all days in the year - the day we should be thinking most about the integrity of our nation, and that he should come to an arts event and be the guest of honour, I felt that it was something that was absolutely unacceptable," says Bilqis.
Bilqis, a dance critic, was arrested, charged and acquitted for behaving in an insulting manner in public under the Minor Offences Act for dropping yellow balloons during the DiverseCity 2015 Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival attended by Najib at the Pavilion shopping mall on Merdeka Day 2015.
Her court trial took two long years and she was finally freed on August 15.
"I knew there was a possibility of being arrested and I was certainly prepared for that. Bersih (the people's rally against corruption) just had happened - they give you all of the information of what to do when you get arrested.
"So, I was quite prepared and certainly with the political environment, it was at a time when everyone was wary of being arrested. And when I was, I wasn’t surprised," says Bilqis.
The daughter of prominent architect Hijjas Kasturi, Bilqis says that she has had enough of Malaysians who tend to give "too much respect" to VIPs and elected politicians even when they are blatantly in the wrong.
At the time of the balloon incident, the people were riled up over the countless corruption cases being levelled against Najib and his Barisan Nasional government.
Bilqis says that she felt as a privileged Malay and Malaysian who had nothing to lose, she should not sit quietly.
"As Malaysians, we tend to be extremely respectful of authority. There’s an indicator called the Power Distance Index which measures how much society respects authority. Malaysia has the highest power distance index in the world and this is not something we should ever be proud of. This is something we should be deeply ambivalent about. Yes, it’s good to respect your elders but you don’t give respect when respect it not due," she adds.
We are always required to hold our government to task, to ensure that they are transparent and accountable. Democratic citizens need to be constantly aware that this is our responsibility and that democracy is a process - it’s not an outcome
Having grown up both in Malaysia and Australia, Bilqis, 40, says that there is a need to encourage questioning and critical thinking among the young.
"Due to our education system, from a very young age we are trained and socialised to obey and not to question. I think what we need is a better education system which encourages critical thinking and creative debate, which in turn encourages people to stand up to authority. We don’t have that at the moment. That’s what we really need.
"We are always required to hold our government to task, to ensure that they are transparent and accountable. Governments by nature will not do this on their own and we as democratic citizens need to be constantly aware that this is our responsibility and that democracy is a process - it’s not an outcome.
"You don’t just go to the polls and expect everything to be okay. It is something that we continually have to do," says Bilqis, who is not a member of any political party.
She adds that what happened in the last General Elections, when Najib and his government were ousted, it vindicated her decision to drop the balloons on the then PM.
"I had to do something because I felt if someone in my position doesn’t do something, then who will? And who can? Who can you expect? I don’t have a husband, I don’t have children I need to worry about them being bullied in schools. I have a very expensive education and therefore, I have an obligation do speak my mind - not to be quiet and not to sit down and shut up," says Bilqis.
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