Rocking for our rights

With the elections around the corner, a group of musicians got together to spread the word on what our rights really are.

The frontman of indie punk band Maharajah Commission in action.

WHAT BETTER WAY TO reach the masses, especially young adults, than through music? Bob Dylan did it, through his own brand of folk music. Bob Marley made dreadlocks cool and got everyone to sing and stand up for their rights. Even Rage Against the Machine did it with its own brand of cathartic release.

So it came as no surprise that the Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee (BCCLC) collaborated with local indie arts communities Frinjan and Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) and other local NGOs to create an all-day music fest called “Rock4Rights” at Fort Cornwallis, Penang. BCCLC’s current chair-person, Syahredzan Johan could not agree more. “We realise that music has the greatest appeal and impact on young adults. It’s Woodstock lite, without the booze, drugs and bare butts,” he grinned.

According to Syahredzan, organising the 12-hour concert and carnival was the ninth and final phase of BCCLC’s MyConstitution campaign. “It’s a venue for likeminded and talented artistes to gather and share their views on constitutional and human rights through the expression of their art,” he said. The diverse committee of BCCLC consists of not only lawyers, but also academicians, students, activists and members of the public.

Beginning in 2009, each phase of the two-year campaign that took place around Malaysia corresponded to a specific topic in the constitution and democratic process to raise awareness among Malaysians.

“We realised that there was a need because of issues that arose, post-March 2008, for people to understand federal-state relations and the constitution. They need to know how it affects them and how they can have an effect and exercise their liberties. This was why MyConstitution was formed.”

Each phase also included the release of a booklet that simplified the language of the constitution for the layperson. “Each booklet went through a rigorous editing process to ensure that it does not misinform or mislead the reader. We just want to give knowledge back to the people.

Syahredzan Johan, Chairperson of the Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee.

“It has no value judgment and is politically nonbiased. We are simply pro-law,” Syahredzan said firmly.

“It’s sad that during our years in primary and secondary school assemblies,” he added, “we gather to recite the pledge of our Rukun Negara without knowing what it means. Even today, many recite without knowing what they are supposed to uphold.”

“They need to be aware,” added Barcode’s singer, Thean See Xien, a former lawyer turned legal officer. “That is achieved through education. That’s how and where it starts. There are just too many important things left unlearned and untouched in our education system.”

Prior to this free admission event, there were inaugural soft launches across the state of Selangor to promote the music album and the concert. The album, Radio Demokratika, was launched in March and consists of 12 local independent acts of various genres, singing songs about human rights and democracy.

In conjunction with the album is the birth of the ad hoc band Barcode which consists of 10 volunteers from BCLCC’s committee members. “MyConstitution is Mine” is their first pop rock song and is featured on the compilation.

“It encapsulates the fundamental liberties we believe in. We want to reclaim what is rightfully ours and speak out against a system that represses people,” said Thean. “This is what ‘Rock4Rights’ is all about, spreading the message of social change, and being aware of our constitution and our rights through music.”

Asang, a poet, believes that the youth will be more receptive to such events because of the casual atmosphere. “You can be who you want to be, you can go out there and recite a poem and it is no problem.”

The message is, if Penang is to fulfil its vision of becoming an international city that attracts and generates creativity, it should pay attention to its own backyard of talented but ill-supported artistes.

“I wish Penang has more of these events,” Asang said. “The platform for artistes to perform here is sorely lacking.”

Another performer who was proud to be part of the event is Amirah Ali. The singer-songwriter categorises her music as world-pop with influences from Sa Ding Ding, Yo-Yo Ma, Aaliyah, Anoushka Shanker and our local giants M. Nasir and Sheila Majid. Each of her songs carries a universal message about equality and unity, love and family.

Her song, “Katakanlah”, has been a hit for its message and melody. It has been shortlisted in the finals of two international song-writing competitions whose judges include the likes of Rihanna, Timbaland and Peter Gabriel.

Amirah found music to be a good outlet for channelling her anger, sadness and frustrations into an expressive art form. “I grew up having a sense that injustice was done to people from various backgrounds that I love and care about. My music was conceived not just from a conscious decision to highlight and meld different artistic traditions and cultural influences together. It is a representation of my background and upbringing in multicultural Malaysia – a wish to bridge cultures.

Amirah Ali with her band, and her own brand of world pop.

“If music can merge diverse traditions in harmony, why can’t we be more equal and united?”

“Music is a great channel, a medium to reach out to young adults,” said Ksatriya, the stage name for Penangite rapper Danny. “It is no coincidence that much of what I have become today was shaped by the music I listened to when I was young. Pearl Jam, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def have been such a positive influence on my life.

“A well-crafted music piece will stick in people’s mind more easily than anything else,” he added.

The all-day event drew not only youths but also families, foreigners and individuals from all walks of life. As the event progressed into the night, Barcode asked the entire audience to stand up and sing our national anthem, “Negaraku”, together.

In Penang, there are 219,058 unregistered voters who are eligible to vote and as a member of the audience, Rozaimin, pointed out, it is important to reach out to the people in rural areas. He said that it would raise even more awareness if events like this were held in areas like Balik Pulau.

“We hope to continue for another year,” said Syahredzan. “The response and support we received have been immense and we are grateful. But for the third year, we want to reach out especially to the rural areas of Malaysia.”

“We hope this will be a new chapter in the evolution of our country,” said Thean.

“And for Barcode,” he added gleefully.

For more information about the MyConstitution campaign, go to

Daniel Lee is a full time explorer and self-indulgent hobbyist. He is currently collecting experience points in Kyoto, Japan.

Neoh Lik Chuen is a freelance writer who is passionate about Penang and supports the local music scene. She enjoys arts, culture, a hearty meal and a good laugh.

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