Bersih is not about Ambiga or Anwar. They are the mere catalysts not the causes. Malaysians want a change for the better, writes Hope.
In the searing heat of April the bright yellow blossoms of the golden showers or cassia fistula dazzle the simmering city. Kuala Lumpur was a vast sea of canary yellow on 28 April as over 200,000 people streamed into the city for Bersih 3.0.
As we alighted at Pasar Seni LRT station we saw the well-loved poet laureate and co-chairperson of Bersih, Pak Samad Said, looking like Old Man River, making his personal stand against control and obstruction. He refused to budge unless the police allowed him free passage of his normal route— the bridge from the LRT station to Pasar Seni and the mosque.
We found a place to sit next to the stage at Pasar Seni which was packed to the hilt. It was a sea of yellow interspersed with the lime green of anti-Lynas Himpunan Hijau. It was truly ‘one Malaysia’ with every race, class, age and gender represented. It was the best of Malaysia; a disciplined, friendly, considerate, good humoured and well -behaved crowd. Two young Chinese men wore brilliant Indian marigold garlands. Others handed out chrysanthemums or wore yellow pom-poms. A pak haji in a refreshing all green outfit in Terengganu style. A woman in a black and yellow purdah. The crowd was relaxed; nobody felt insecure about their possessions. There was a reflective quiet punctuated by chants of ‘Hidup! Hidup! Bersih! Bersih!’
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Ambiga and the Bersih Steering Committee sat quietly on the stage, protected by the watchful Unit Amal clad in maroon. At about 1.20pm, Ambiga rose to speak. She was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation. There were no tedious salutations, no pomp nor ceremony, no long speeches. Ambiga claimed victory at the onset, “This is our day. We have won. No one can take it from us.” The brave and astute lady knew it would be a short walk not a long march; victory was in the sheer masses of ordinary multi-racial Malaysians who poured into the city to support the basic demands of Bersih 3.0. She stressed, “We will walk peacefully. We will walk as close as possible to Dataran Merdeka. We will not breach the barrier.”
The crowd chanted, “Hidup! Hidup! Bersih! Bersih!” and filed out singing ‘Suara Malaysia’ to the tune of ‘Clementine’. The dense crowd was considerate, moving slowly forward, giving way to older people, alerting others to steps or potholes. No one was a stranger; people spoke freely and readily to each other. Youth in yellow Bersih T-shirts waved the national flag from first floor shop windows. Some young men held out big black garbage bags to collect rubbish.
There were some differences from the Bersih 2.0 walk:
- There was a marked absence of political party symbols and banners. Even if there were attempts at anti-BN slogans, the walkers did not pick up the cue.
- Everyone joined in the walk. Nobody stood in the side-walks or waited cautiously near back lanes ready to make a hasty exit.
- Restaurants and coffee shops were open for business. There were many more hawkers compared to the lone ice-cream vendor at Bersih 2.0.
- The crowd was far more multi-racial this time. There was a spirit of camaraderie.
- There was much less tension and no fear. People were more trusting and relaxed.
There were many acts of kindness. An academic, in her late 70s, sought respite from the heat at a kerb near the Bar Council building. A young Malay man stepped forward to fan her with his placard much to her astonishment. They got to chatting. He explained, “When we come to a gathering like this we should not just keep within our group. We must reach out and make friends with others.” Many of us don’t get a chance to interact closely with another community in our everyday lives. But here, people felt connected by their common aspiration for change.
It was a short walk to Dataran. All possible entrances to it were sealed with razor wire barriers and armed police. Some people just sat down at the side to duduk bantah. We saw Haris Ibrahim, a champion of civil society, and his group at Medan Pasar near the HSBC. Someone asked him, ‘What shall we do now?’ Haris replied, “We cannot go any further. We should not breach the barrier. I do not want to break the law. We can sit down here or go back.” It was the voice of reason, temperance and moderation that Bersih leaders projected that day.
As we inched our way to Masjid Jamek station, burrowing through the dense mass of humanity, the thought did occur to me that if there was a tear gas incident and a stampede ensued, the results could be fatal. But I did not believe this would happen; they would not repeat the blunder of Bersih 2.0 that only backfired.
Why did so many ordinary Malaysians come out in droves in the scorching heat? Something captured their imagination. They could readily identify with and understand the eight basic demands of Bersih; the four that deal with the integrity of the electoral process and the four larger issues. There is deep anger at unbridled greed and corruption, the arrogance of power, the consequences of unrestrained development, the porous borders that allow free entry of foreigners, the insecurity that rampant crime breeds and the difficulty in making ends meet as the cost of living soars. They are tired of the politics of divide-and-rule and they are not impressed with the management-speak of KPIs. They want the government to address these core issues.
It is not about Ambiga or Anwar. They are the mere catalysts not the causes. Malaysians want a change for better.
At Masjid Jamek Station, I spoke to a young Himpunan Hijau group. They had driven overnight in a convoy of 10 cars from Kuantan as their bus permit was cancelled. Nothing is an obstacle for a cause you believe in. I left the city just as the tear gas and water cannons were unleashed.
Hope is an Aliran member based in the Klang Valley.