COMMENT The sight of the youngsters in handcuffs and chains had a profound effect on many of us who saw them. I remember trying to make them feel better by saying that I too had been arrested. But it sounded hollow.
I had a battery of lawyers and friends by my side. I was not handcuffed and chained. They were alone, and I will never forget the fear in their eyes. The lawyers there then jumped in to help them. But what if we had not been there?
And what was their offence? Maybe some of them took part in the same rally - but so had 10,000 others. Some of them said they were sitting and having a drink at a time after the rally had ended when they were set upon by the police.
The rally was peaceful. No one was hurt. People had fun. The police facilitated it well. Yes, there were firecrackers and one or two smoke bombs, which could have been dealt with by the police on the spot. Not much more.
These youngsters had not forced a religious house to take down a cross. They had not asked for holy books to be burned. They had not made racist and extremist comments. Yet here they were, being treated like criminals.
They were bewildered, and alone
I chanced upon some of them the next day when I was sent to be photographed and fingerprinted. They were there to be photographed and fingerprinted too,I believe. Was this necessary? They still looked bewildered and alone. Some of them had not even contacted their families.
That morning the magistrate had issued a three-day remand order against them. Three days? For what? To frighten them? To punish them?
These children (and I call them children because I have children that age) will never be the same again after this traumatic experience. They will grow up having experienced the ugliness in the system that we have allowed to fester and grow. We have failed them.
We have allowed some of our institutions to become monsters with power. They push us around like we are criminals just because they can, not because they have a basis to.
They flout all best practices because they believe they are not answerable to anyone. They practise selective prosecution blatantly because they know they will get away with it.
We owe it to our children to fight this abuse of power and to restore our institutions to the highest standards of professionalism. Neither they, nor any of us who were arrested, deserved to be treated like common criminals.
My fear is that it is happening so often that we are getting used to it. For the sake of the next generation, we must never get used to it.
On reflection, I am thankful for the experience that I had. I am thankful that we could help the youngsters in some small way and that we were there to witness the horrors that they faced.
Most of all, I am thankful that so many of us witnessed an entrenched system of dehumanisation, first hand. But all this will be meaningless if we stay quiet.
Silence is not an option. Not if we want Malaysia to be a place where our young can grow up in peace and security and feel safe, knowing that the institutions will be fair and will not behave as if they are above the law.
AMBIGA SREENEVASAN is a former chairperson of the Bar Council. She, too, was detained overnight in connection with the anti-GST rally.