TELL IT LIKE IT IS
Dissecting Hishamuddin Rais the man reveals almost an enigma, what with his ideas, the serious books he reads, the hats and jackets he wears in the hot afternoons and the frugal way he lives. This as he "mentors" young undergraduates on socio-politics at coffeeshops into the late nights.
Having lived in exile for nearly 20 years before he returned to Malaysia in 1994, his vast knowledge and deep thoughts on such issues have stirred many young Malaysians in their journey for "enlightenment" in a country many sensitive topics are not be discussed in public.
One might think that with such complex issues such as democracy and socialism being his main staple of conversations at the street university of Universiti Bangsar Utama, the Malaysian Che Guevara (as some have come to call him) might take himself seriously.
I never take my own self seriously before. How people perceive me, it’s up to (them)
Never mind the four letter outbursts he is so well known for.
"No, no, no. I never take my own self seriously before. How people perceive me, it’s up to (them)… I cannot create a perception. What I am now is what I am. That’s it, you know? I cannot change the perception.
"Some said that I have been paid. But I have to tell you this, during my student days in University Malaya, I have been (allegedly) paid by the communists. Then, I have been paid by the CIA. The last time when I came back, I was paid by Anwar, by Zahid Hamidi. Now I have been paid by Daim.
"The thing is that, I really hope that these people bloody pay me. I’d be so happy. I wouldn’t have to be here to face the reporter of AWANI. I will be somewhere in South of France, lying on the beach. But nobody pays me nothing!
"No one pays me you know? I still have to go and shop in Chow Kit Road to buy the cheapest vegetables, the cheapest fish and the cheapest fruit," Hishamuddin says out loud.
Despite never holding a post in any political party or organisation, except for a short stint in Bersih, Hishamuddin is much sought for his intellectual views and ideas on politics and socio-economic.
Many of his followers will testify that he is a relentless teacher who loves a heated discussion and hates the intrusion of gadgets.
He is a former Malay College Kuala Kangsar student who went on to Universiti Malaya as a history undergraduate before being involved actively in campus activism.
His fight was for the landless. Hishamuddin was part of the Baling protest for poor farmers in 1974. He sought asylum in Belgium when the government, then under Tun Abdul Razak, arrested those involved in the protest.
He studied French in Université Catholique de Louvain in 1984 before moving to London to study arts at Brixton and Westminster University. He called London home for 15 years; hence, conversations with him tend to lead one from the rice fields of Negeri Sembilan to the European cities he has stayed in.
He has also been in and out of detentions, not only in Malaysia but also in India, Russia and Australia. The longest was for 26 months in Kamunting Detention Centre in 2001, where he was popularised as the man behind the Reformasi Movement - something he says he had no idea of how he came to be.
Despite his travels, it is obvious that his heart is very much into Malaysian politics.
There is a potential we might be a full blown democratic society but then there’s also a potential we might slip away for what we have won May 9
"Malaysia, during UMNO, is a procedure democracy. We have all the procedures. We have the election, we have the newspaper, we have the television. We have the road, we have the system. The procedure is there. But not the essence of democracy.
This democratic space we must protect and defend it - create an institution
"Now, I cannot say," he contemplates. "Yes, we are a democracy state because it is only four months old. We are in the process of creating this democratic space. So, there is a potential we might be a full blown democratic society but then there’s also a potential we might slip away for what we have won on May 9. So, all this is possibility.
"I have seen how democratic space won by thousand million of people in the Philippines, they came to the street, they put Aquino, they call themselves "people power". It collapsed and what is now? Duterte.
"As you can see also what happened in Indonesia. I have always tried to tell people to 'be aware'. This democratic space, we must protect and defend it. Create an institution. Replacing Mr A with Mr B and then with Mr C doesn’t really help. But if you have institutions and structural changes, then we might be on the right path for a real democratic space," says Hishamuddin.
He says that Malaysians are obsessed with two things - food and politics.
"In London, they are not obsessed with politicking or food, they are obsessed with football. In Italy, people are obsessed with food. In France, people are obsessed with food. Here, in Malaysia people are obsessed with who is who."
He pointed out that this obsession is further fed by the politicians who are either power-crazy or insecure.
On the present situation of politics, Hishamuddin has written a few articles recently capturing the details behind the scenes before Pakatan Harapan took over.
Having been lambasted by Prime Minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for making up stories, Hishamuddin says he was merely recording in the annals of Malaysian history.
"I am so surprised that Anwar Ibrahim looked impatient, despite what Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said. He is the next Prime Minister. I am not sure why he’s so insecure. So, I personally hope brother Anwar will flush out his insecurity for whatever reason. Then, we will stabilise the country.
"For Mahathir, this is the time for him to create the democratic space to create those institutions. If I have the chance to tell Mahathir: Tun, you will remember this for the rest of your life. Both of us, Hishamuddin Rais and Mahathir Mohamad were created because of the Universities and University College Act 1974 during the demonstration in Baling. So now Tun, you have to abolish it completely.
"Let us go there and take a picture together to be remembered for the rest of our lives. You will be the Prime Minister. I am the guy who created the mess before you cleaned it up.
He says that while Mahathir is talking about another national car to further industrialise Malaysia, Anwar should harness his Muslim democrat role and make Malaysia more like Tunisia, and not Turkey.
"If the Muslim democrat does not come to the fore, the right wing extremist Muslim will. This is the danger," says Hishamuddin.
He also warns the present government to listen to those who criticise them.
We need opposition. We need people to criticise the current government
"We need opposition. We need people to criticise the current government. Whether it comes from non-government individuals like me or from any other member of parliament, from any other party, than the Pakatan Harapan. We need this. This has to be the way a modern society is structured. We cannot go without opposition. It’s bad," Hishamuddin warns a one party strong system is dangerous for the country.
He says UMNO should continue to do what it has been doing especially when it comes to championing the issues of Malay and Islam, whilst emphasising that it is pertinent that UMNO represents the rights and issues of every Malaysian too.
The right approach is key, he says. "You should explain it in an intellectual manner that is accepted by the whole nation. You cannot ask, 'Eh, Cina! You tau kah, ini Tanah Melayu la' That is not the way. That is anti-intellectual.
"You discuss it, if there is an issue," adding that every party or organisations have had an important role to play in the formation of Malaysia and should not be disregarded.
"Well, UMNO or any other party also played a role in the independence of Malaysia. The Communist Party of Malaya also played an important role. We cannot deny UMNO’s role. Neither can we deny the communist party role," says Hishamuddin.
All said and done, Hishamuddin says that if Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional do not know how to play their roles, they are more than welcome to come to him and learn how to.
"In Arabic, Ahlan Wa Sahlan. Most welcome. Bienvenue," says Hishamuddin.