A week ago we spoke to Nathaniel Tan, who left his house to go on a one-man hunger strike until the government meets his 5 demands in handling our worsening pandemic situation. If you didn’t catch that article, these demands were:
- Letting public policy experts make the final call on Covid-related decisions
- Allocate RM500 million to support our hospitals
- Allow frontliners to report what’s happening on the ground without censorship, and be transparent about figures
- Provide a full list of companies allowed to operate
- A free supply of N95 masks and sanitizers at hospitals and police stations
But the thing about hunger strikes – or at least this one – is that it isn’t just about giving up food. It also involves putting family, work, social life (oh wait, lockdown haha), and the comforts of home on hold; until someone in the government pushes your suggestions through.
In other words, happy shopping for size zero pants.
And by the 5th day, Nathaniel was already feeling the effects of non-eating when he was approached with an unexpected offer: What if someone else continued his strike? And so the mission he started was continued by Gurpreet Singh; who took the one man hunger strike from Taman Tun to the heart of Petaling Jaya, and Gurpreet himself was just tagged out by Jia Chern, who moved the cause to Bangsar.
Nathaniel’s wife told us she took him to a clinic after he got home; and he was in good shape other than second-degree sunburn and (possibly) a desire to never be near another rat or roach ever again.
We spoke to both Gurpreet and Jia Chern to see what motivated them to essentially make the same sacrifices; and to figure out why the burden of suffering for a cause was passed on not once, but twice.
Gurpreet’s wedding was postponed, so he decided to say “Yes”
Gurpreet was supposed to have been married the Saturday before (August 7th), but the high number of cases and the current lockdown prompted him and his fiancee to postpone what was supposed to be their happiest day.
“We set the date a year ago and didn’t think the situation would be this bad because, at the time, the cases were very low and the situation was almost recovering. Then because of the mismanagement of the situation, it has escalated to where it is now.”
Currently the President of Gerakan Belia Se-Punjabi Malaysia (GBSM), Gurpreet met Nathaniel when they formed 2 out 3 angles in Dialog Tiga Penjuru, a panel discussion show on Astro Awani. This meeting led to his younger brother volunteering with Nathaniel at Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). And when Gurpreet stopped by to support Nat in TTDI, he had an epiphany:
“I realized that Nat was doing something while I was sitting at home and complaining. He was actually taking action and, as much we think it’s insignificant, it’s an action nevertheless.”
After a discussion with his brother, Gurpreet went to Nathaniel on August 9th and, like in a tag team wrestling match, offered to tag Nathaniel out of his burden of suffering. Nathaniel tagged back.
Gurpreet was already cleared from work since he was on leave for his now-postponed wedding, and his bosses were cool with whatever he did on his own time. His fiancee was initially hesitant, worried about his health and how he would be affected by naysayers, but she soon started sending him words of encouragement as well as juice from Negeri Sembilan (yeah, he hasn’t seen her in a while 😟).
As a PJ boy, Gurpreet wanted to bring the cause somewhere closer to home instead of continuing at TTDI, so SUARAM’s office in Section 8 became the chosen destination after they offered him a washroom and a place to sleep. Plus, it was private property, so less chances of being visited by the police compared to a TTDI sidewalk.
In his four days before passing the baton to Jia Chern, conversations with passers-by and time alone by himself has given Gurpreet a lot of introspective time to frame his thoughts on the experience:
There’s been a lot of reflection over the past few days. I’ve realized that Malaysians are so resourceful that they’ve been [doing things] without the government’s help for a long time already. So a lot of people ignore that they’ve been governed badly because they’ve already found ways to do things themselves.
I think that is the reason why a lot of people don’t want to get involved in this dialogue, because for them it’s “I’ve given up already. I’m going to take care of myself and just move forward with me and my family”. And that is the sad part lah.”
Jia Chern wanted to solve the hunger problems… in Bangsar?
While Gurpreet tagged in to continue the mission that Nathaniel started, Jia Chern saw an opportunity to highlight another cause that was important to him: Food distribution to people who need it. You might think this is for homeless people, but it’s actually not. As the White Flag movement has shown, the pandemic has created a situation where people from all walks of life are having trouble with basic necessities like food – it could be a neighbor, it could be a friend.
And yes, it even happens in an atas place like Bangsar.
“Nat Tan is a TTDI guy, Gurpreet is a PJ guy, and I’m a budak Bangsar. So these are the streets I’ve always known. I’ve worked with a couple of food banks in this area, and we decided the main problem we’re really facing today is not really a lack of funding or manpower, but actually lack of access to the people who need it.
So I think sitting here and using this space as a kind of centerpoint for information is what these food banks need. We need people to recognize that hunger and food insecurity is rampant right now, even in a place like Bangsar.
I know people think Bangsar is a very expensive place, and it’s true lah, some parts of bangsar memang expensive; but I know, because I’ve been with these food banks, that there are people who still need help with food every day lah.”
Basically Jia Chern has a plan, and his plan is to get Malaysians to look out for each other.
“My attempt, and this is not guaranteed of course, is to ensure that everyone within 500m of this location has an access point to food. If we all take care of everyone 500m around ourselves, we take care of our neighbors, and if we can do that all around Malaysia, then no one needs to go hungry right now.”
And so, on August 12th, Jia Chern extended his hand to take Gurpreet’s place in the ring. And Gurpreet tagged him back.
After rushing to finish off his work as a contract researcher, Jia Chern moved to the sidewalk in front of Baba Low, a Peranakan makan shop in Jalan Abdullah. And yes, this was his way of upping the difficulty level. He says he doesn’t view what he’s doing as a hunger strike as much as it is a fast:
“For me I actually see this as a fast rather than a strike. If you follow religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, fasting is about recognizing that suffering of hunger and that gut feeling where you feel that helplessness.”
Jia Chern is hoping that anyone who drops by his location won’t just talk to him, take a few pictures and leave (as we laugh in terasa) but rather take a more active role to help him distribute flyers, learning more about food access points, and -most importantly -putting the need to feed anyone within a 500m radius who needs it into actual practice. You can also bring some food along with you. For distribution, not for him. Obviously.
He says his family have been super supportive, as have his friends and even the owner of Baba Low. But he’s also received some support he wasn’t expecting:
“I can see 4 dogs out here just looking at me right now, so I got a little support team cause we’re all sleeping on the floor.”
If you need help or more information about food access points, reach out to Jia Chern at +6011.1939.7306
“Eh 3 people is not a queue okay. What clickbait article is this???1?”
Short answer is must 1 meter social distancing, so technically 3 people can be a queue. Serious answer is that, from seeing (or reading) what they’ve been doing – even if you think it’s the stupidest, most useless thing anyone can do – they’ve already seeded an idea that you can do something. It doesn’t need to involve starving yourself on a sidewalk, it can be a donation to medical workers or just checking with your neighbors if they’re doing alright.
When we asked how a one-person protest would change anything, Gurpreet pretty much said that, really, change starts from one or two people believing enough in a cause to commit to it. And if the cause is for a greater good, it can change minds – even if it’s one at a time.
“Yesterday a guy in his early 20’s came to see me and apologized because he was part of a conversation saying this is a publicity stunt, that this guy is just blowing his own trumpet. He told me, “Now I see you and realize at least you’re doing something while we’re all sitting at home and being keyboard warriors.” So he said thank you and gave me a couple of drinks. That was quite nice lah.”
Jia Chern doesn’t know if there’ll be anyone tagging him out, but thinks it would be quite natural for the people who come after him to continue evolving and building on the movement that Nathaniel started. What’s important though, is that it reaches out to other Malaysians.
“[The] meaningful thing about this chain continuing is that every time the baton moves to someone else, it passes through a whole different network of people. My parents don’t know Nat, they don’t know Gurpreet. When I met Gurpreet, I met his friends and it was like “Oh, this is a very different group”. So moving this fasting chain through people is how you get people invested on a personal basis.”
So essentially what they, and the people after them, are building is an ever-growing….. Nat-work