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Malaysia’s ‘true spirit’ flutters in the wind

In the name of change and hope, a convivial, cross-ethnic group digs in to make a statement.
Last modified: 2 May 2013 19:36
The campaign started as a way for residents to show support for parliamentarian Nurul Izzah Anwar [Kate Mayberry]

We’re under a flyover in the western part of Kuala Lumpur.

It’s 10pm, dark and the ground is a little soggy from a recent thunderstorm. The place is dotted with billboards for the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for the past five decades.

Its bunting is strung along the road and on the street lamps.

Around me, a small group of people quietly goes to work. In half an hour, they’ve covered the grass with 2,000 red, yellow, white and sky blue flags – or flowers - fluttering on their bamboo poles in the post-storm breeze.

It’s a convivial atmosphere. There are couples, singletons, businessmen and students. The youngest is only 18, the oldest in his early 60s, and they come from each of Malaysia's three main ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese and Indian.

“It’s been a while since Malaysians got together like this,” 51-year-old Mani Vannanletchumanan tells me as he pushes the bamboo sticks into the ground.

“It’s the true spirit of Malaysia. We’re supporting each other.”

He pushes another flag into the ground.

“Why don’t you join in?” he adds.

Organisers estimate they’ve planted more than 126,000 flags in the past two weeks.

A website keeps a running tally and includes video instructions on how to make the flowers. Malaysians are invited to plant their own flags, take a photo and upload the pictures to Facebook no matter how small the contribution. 

Originally a way for local residents to show their support for their sitting parliamentarian, Nurul Izzah Anwar, the campaign seems to have acquired a momentum of its own, thanks largely to social media.

The ruling Barisan has adopted the idea, and artists have created their own installations. Wong Chee Meng, a rising star in Malaysian contemporary art, helped design a “meadow” of flowers along a road cutting in one middle class suburb.

City officials haven’t been so supportive.

When the first group of flowers appeared two weeks ago, enforcement officers soon appeared to clear the site.

It was only when local residents came out of their houses to complain – demanding passing motorists sound their horns in support – that the officials backed off.

Nurul Izzah then “adopted” the site for her campaign, making it legal, and held a small picnic to celebrate.

Elsewhere, they’ve had to replant flowers as many as three times.

Even beneath the flyover, a rather desolate space even at the best of times, the flowers were gone just a day after they were planted. The political banners, of course, remained.

Like the rain and the mud, it hasn’t done anything to deter the planters’ spirit.

“The flags represent change and hope,” 18-year-old student Nicole Tan told me. “That’s what we think the country needs.”

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