Malaysian Governance 101: How to Deal with an Impending Street Demonstration for Electoral Reform

by | 6 Jul 2011

In memory of the late Peter Falk, this article shall loosely mimic the format of the detective TV series Columbo. The answer is revealed from the beginning, and the issue to be dealt with is how do we get from not knowing much at all to knowing enough to come to a possible conclusion at the end. In this case, the factually correct (but not necessarily tactically sound) answer to the problem of a planned street demonstration on electoral reform in Malaysia is: Arrest the socialists, ban a colour and a word, then get the masses off the streets and into a stadium.

Much ink has been spilled — both virtual and material — by the Malaysian press and blogging community in the last couple of weeks on the subject of a street demonstration that was to be held this Saturday, 9 July 2011, in Kuala Lumpur to push for reforms to the electoral system. The protest was called by a coalition of around 62 NGOs and civil society initiatives known as Bersih 2.0. The word ‘bersih’ simply means ‘clean’ in Malay(sian), and the version number indicates that it is the successor organisation of the group that organised a similar demonstration on 10 November 2007 on the very same issue.

The coalition’s 8 demands are simple and in principle almost impossible to argue against, from putting the electoral roll in order to granting ‘free and fair access to [the] media.’ Some may have been surprised, then, at the hostile response from the Malaysian government. 30 members of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) were arrested on 25 June ostensibly for Bersih-related activities (whereas they were actually on a ‘road trip’ campaign only peripherally related to the Bersih rally although with a certainly more subversive — and in my view more laudable — main demand, namely for the ‘retirement’ of the present regime). The police found in the bus they were travelling in t-shirts with images of former Malaysian communist guerrillas. This was deemed by the authorities as potential evidence that the PSM activists were attempting to ‘revive the communist ideology’ and they were thus remanded to investigate a potential charge of ‘waging war against the king’ under s.122 of the Penal Code. Just as some may have concluded that it was 21st century McCarthyism that was the reason behind these arrests and not the Bersih rally, the entire coalition was accused of supporting communism. On 2 July, six of the 30 detained were released, but were then promptly rearrested under the Emergency Ordinance, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, thanks to the four states of emergency which have not been lifted since (in the case of the earliest) 1964. This quadruple state of exception is a clear illustration of Agamben’s insight on the normalisation and permanency in today’s world of what should in theory be a provisional state of affairs.

One might hazard a few guesses as to why the powers that be chose to target in particular a small socialist party rather than members of the three large opposition parties which make up the People’s Pact (Pakatan Rakyat). The motive for the crackdown was certainly to strike fear into the general populace. The Socialist Party, although being a tight-knit group made up of very dedicated activists, does not command the influence among most Malaysians that the three big opposition parties do. Also, anti-communist sentiments are still present among the general population due to the hegemonic viewpoint arising from the defeat of the guerrillas. Hence, it was a tactical move to discredit Bersih by attempting to link it to communism. Yet another dubious claim was that overseas Christians were manipulating the coalition due to donations Bersih received from some Western non-governmental organisations. In a country where the dominant contradiction within its political system is that of race and religion rather than the left/right ideological divide, the allegation of outside interference by foreign Christians was meant to push the panic button among the Malay Muslim majority, due to the rather delicate situation between Muslims and the Christian minority as a result of recent controversies, the most infamous being one triggered by the use of the word ‘Allah’ in Bibles. Even before this claim was made, two right-wing groups — UMNO Youth, the zealous youth wing of the dominant party in the government coalition and Perkasa, a National Front-like organisation founded to defend ‘Malay rights’ — had pledged to hold counter-demonstrations.

Another step that was taken by the Malaysian authorities to combat Bersih was to effectively ban anything with the colour yellow and the word Bersih from being worn in public. Yellow was the colour the first manifestation of Bersih chose for its official symbol. The symbolism was and is, in a sense, potentially reactionary as it was chosen due to it being the royal colour. The rhetoric surrounding the first demo in 2007 was that Malaysians were petitioning the King to intervene and push for electoral reform, hence the wearing of yellow (some parallels can obviously be drawn with the Yellow Shirt movement in Thailand). This time the appeal to royal power appears to be less emphasised, but the plan was still to march to the royal palace and deliver a memorandum to the monarch. You know that a country is in a bad situation when citizens have to beseech a feudal institution with only residual power to take action and influence the ‘democratically-elected’ government of the day (or, in the case of Malaysia, the government of 54 years running, that is, from independence). But in the case of Bersih 2.0, the arrests of more than a hundred people for simply wearing a t-shirt shows once again the absurdity of the UMNO/BN regime.

Three days ago, however, the King himself issued a statement on the matter, which took some by surprise due to the normally highly restrained attitude of the palace in public affairs. He called for Bersih and the government to hold talks on the issue of electoral reform in order to avoid the impending street demonstration, cautioning ‘the people’ against “creat[ing] problems that will cause the country to lag behind.” The chairperson of Bersih, Datuk S. Amiga, stated in an interview that should the King request that the demonstration be called off, Bersih would heed his advice. On the same day, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, said that the government would not object to the rally taking place in a stadium. Early in the afternoon yesterday the news broke: the organisers had met with the King and had agreed to holding a rally in a stadium rather than a march in the streets. As of the time of writing, talks to confirm this option are imminent, but have yet to take place.

The Malaysian Insider ran an editorial yesterday analysing the ‘winners and losers’ of the stadium compromise. Their conclusion appeared to be that the Bersih 2.0 organisers, the King and the ordinary Malaysian on the street have come out on top, whereas various government officials including the police, as well as the leader of Perkasa, have emerged as the ‘losers’. The subtext appeared to be that the stadium option has allowed the campaign to become even more mainstream, and other comments made by various quarters in blog comments and listservs seem to indicate a belief that a stadium rally would allow for more people to participate as some would be worried about, for example, bringing their children to an outlawed street demonstration.

Those of us who have been involved in protests in London, however, may see a parallel in this case with the pens opposite Downing Street on Whitehall. For the information of those who have not taken part in a Downing Street demonstration, these pens (made up of metal barricades) are the official ‘protest spot’ where people are moved to by the police in order to not block, among other things, the camera-trigger-happy tourists who come to pay tribute to Yes, Minister. The danger in conforming to restricting one’s site of protest is simple: one has lost the battle in what some have termed ‘locational conflict’. Don Mitchell in his article ‘From Free Speech to People’s Park’ discusses this concept with reference to the Free Speech Movement and the People’s Park struggles which took place in the 1960s in Berkeley, California. In the first case, which is the one more relevant to the situation with Bersih 2.0, students of UC Berkeley battled for the right to set up stalls and disseminate political literature in a strategic place they valued, rather than a new, and inferior, location prescribed by the university authorities and which was deemed a form of indirect censorship. In the case of the Bersih rally, by acquiescing to governmental pressure (both from the Executive and from the King) to shift locations, the organisers have surrendered the streets, a key site of struggle since urbanism has concentrated people and power in cities. Alas, there will be no cry this Saturday on the streets of Kuala Lumpur akin to the famous “Whose Streets? Our streets!” One also is reminded of the rally against the hikes in petrol prices which took place a couple of years ago in a stadium. Billed in a sense as a family-friendly event, it ultimately was a non-event, drawing a far smaller crowd than hoped for. The Bersih 2.0 rally is different, no doubt. It is far less outwardly partisan and based on a burning issue that goes beyond a simple, immediate grievance. We will have to see how Saturday plays out.

The most ridiculous allegation made by the apologists against the Bersih 2.0 rally, however, came from a former opposition politician, Dr Chandra Muzaffar. In a statement published in the Malaysian Star, Muzaffar alleged that there was an allegation that if the Bersih rally takes place in a stadium “certain elements in Bersih would [potentially turn] the stadium to a Tahrir Square, with demonstrators camping there day and night for weeks on end.” What this ostensibly astute political pundit failed to recognise is that the symbolic power of the recent square demonstrations around the world comes from their strategic public location and visibility. Who cares about a rally in a bloody stadium walled off from the rest of the world? Certainly not the governmental authorities. If Malaysians want to occupy a square it should be Dataran Merdeka, the site of the proclamation of independence.

Hishamuddin Rais, a Malaysian writer, film-maker and activist who lived as an exile in the West for 20 years after escaping detention without trial in the 1970s due to his involvement in the Baling peasant protests as a student agitator, had a collection of his writings published in 2002 titled Pilihanraya atau Pilihan Jalan Raya. The clever title translates literally as ‘Elections or the Street Option’. It is clear from the most recent developments that the Bersih 2.0 coalition and those happy with the planned move to the stadium have an obsession with the former as their driving force. Although the campaign was always a liberal election-centric initiative, it would have been interesting if these two opposing strategies for change in the Malaysian context were united once again in a street demonstration for fairer elections, which for Malaysian radicals would be a part of a minimum programme. If the 2007 Bersih rally — deemed by many as a pivotal event leading up to the March 2008 ‘political tsunami’ where the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time since 1969 — had been confined to a stadium, free from chanting protesters, water cannons and the brutal Federal Reserve Unit, such sanitisation would arguably have resulted in a loud but ultimately empty display of rhetoric. Yes, Bersih 2.0 have in a sense won out against the government and the right-wingers, but only time will tell whether it was a pyrrhic victory, and all for a cause that at the end of the day will simply allow the smoke and mirrors of representative democracy to persist — a tale that has always been full of sound and fury, but signifying almost nothing if one cares about the creation of a society not dominated by capital and hierarchy.


  1. Thank you for shedding light on this–will look with interest on what happens over the next few days.

  2. I guess the writer missed an important point. The main reason behind the rally is electoral reform, not ousting the current government!
    It is article like this that had made Bersih not Bersih anymore.

  3. Richard: You’re most welcome, and thanks for taking an interest in Malaysian political affairs.

    Vic: Thank you for your comment. I do not see, however, how you could have concluded from what I wrote that I view the main reason behind the Bersih rally to be ousting the present government. Nowhere in the article do I even mention the possibility of toppling of the BN regime. The closest I get to the topic is when I mention the alleged link between Bersih (1.0) and the March ’08 elections. You are correct in saying that the purpose of the Bersih 2.0 protest is to push for electoral reform. That is indisputable.

    On the other hand, one cannot deny that the present government has reacted in a manner that shows that it *perceives* that there is a different motive to the demo, namely that of discrediting BN and turning the populace against them. This in no way affects the reasons Bersih 2.0 is doing what it is as the perceived reason does not affect the stated reason’s continued truth. However, it is also clear that the present electoral system favours whichever party holds the reins of government and hence between the different players in the Malaysian political scene the ones who would benefit more from the proposed reforms would be those *not* presently in government. By saying this I am not in any way saying that Bersih is a ‘tool’ of the opposition or that its motives are hence tainted (or, as you say, ‘not Bersih anymore’). It is merely a recognition that within a political system there are complicated webs of power and influence; hence, everything that happens — even initiatives by the most ‘neutral’ and ‘non-partisan’ groups — will benefit some more and others less.


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