Home Civil Society Voices 2011 Civil Society Voices The political impact of Bersih 2.0

The political impact of Bersih 2.0

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Admittedly, Bersih 2.0 is largely an urban phenomenon. But this is not to be taken lightly, if urbanites are fast becoming the voting majority. The Prime Minister and the Barisan Nasional are now in damage control mode, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.

The repercussions of Bersih 2.0 will no doubt be profound. It has already been dubbed as Malaysia’s “Hibiscus Revolution”. The question that is now uppermost in the public imagination is whether the current government will also suffer a severe blow for its inept handling of the event.

Bersih started out in 2006 as a movement of civil society forces and political parties calling for clean and fair elections. Its demands for cleaning up the electoral rolls, reviewing postal votes, including allowing for voting from abroad, fair access to the media, the elimination of corrupt practices are nothing radical or revolutionary and yet the government’s resistance to it has allowed the opposition parties and those not in support of the present government to easily latch on to a ready-made platform for galvanising support.

Bersih’s first political rally on 10 November 2007 saw some 40,000 Malaysian streaming into the heart of Kuala Lumpur, setting a benchmark for peaceful political protest in Malaysia. On 9 July 2011 almost the same number of demonstrators were out in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, as estimated by the independent “politweet”, despite a ban on the rally and police roadblocks at every point of entry into KL. If the political impact of Bersih 1.0 on the general election of March 2008 is now axiomatic, would Bersih 2.0 have a similar impact on the next general election?

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It is important to first understand the character of the rally itself. The outpouring of material on the social media and through social networking websites reached proportions which, in my view, have been unprecedented and have not stopped. At the point of writing, over 200000 facebookers have called on Premier Najib to resign. The webpage has picked up 20000 votes or more in one day.

The people who showed up at Bersih 2.0 came from a cross section of Malaysia’s multicultural society, with Malays and youth as the dominant groups. This spoke well for the continuation of the trajectory of Malaysia’s non-racialised “new politics”. The involvement of national literary laureate Samad Said who wrote a touching poem about Malaysia’s “wounded democracy” was highly inspiring to the would-be Bersih rallyers.

Various attempts made to delegitimise Bersih by Umno-related groups had a counter-productive effect. Thus it was alleged that it would be “unIslamic” for Muslims to participate in an illegal rally. The bogey of May 13 was also invoked and the Chinese were asked to stock up on food and stay at home. Such racialisation of the event by Perkasa and the Malay paper Utusan Malaysia helped to further augment multiracial supporters on the other side. The lame counter march of a couple of hundreds of Umno youth “patriots’ proved to be the proverbial drop in the bucket in terms of its impact.

The event received a crucial boost when Malaysian Human Rights Commission Chairman Hasmy Agam weighed in to opine that it was legitimate. Najibhad called for the rally to be held at a stadium and the organisers obliged after meeting with the King but the Police were adamant about not giving a permit for use of the Merdeka Stadium. The heavy-handed action on the part of police, some 1700 arrests, heavy use of tear gas, water cannons, and some argue, responsibility for one death, has put the government in a no-win situation vis-à-vis the common Malaysian citizen.

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In public imagination, Bersih 2.0 would stand out even more than Bersih 1. Already folklore about Bersih has gone ‘viral’ on the internet. A few examples should suffice. “The Lady of Liberty”, an elderly woman well into her sixties, who braved the water cannons, holding a branch with two daisies has been reproduced ad infinitum in multiple incarnations and web designs. Numerous individuals present at the rally have written up first-hand accounts to show why as ordinary citizens their participation was a morally and socially uplifting experience. Not least of all, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Dr Mahathir, the patron of Perkasa, wrote in her blog that she had gone to participate in Bersih in support of her daughter and all the young people who were drawn to the cause.

Admittedly, Bersih 2.0 is largely an urban phenomenon. But this is not to be taken lightly, if urbanites are fast becoming the voting majority. The Prime Minister and his ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, is now in damage control mode. The BN is still haemorrhaging from the Sarawak state election of 16 April, where it has lost the urban vote. Bersih 2.0 shows a continuing slide. Umno’s vote banks in the rural areas alone cannot assure it of regaining a two-thirds control of Parliament – which Najib must get to prove he is better than his predecessor Abdullah Badawi.

The Premier is now surely conflicted about waiting out till the mandatory date for the next election in early 2013 or holding it much earlier in 2012. Another difficult budget awaits in October 2011 and with the Malaysian economy invariably on the verge of a dip, prospects are somewhat dim for the ruling coalition. Larger than the issue of the next general election, which would now likely to be in early 2012, is the changing nature of Malaysian politics. Political parties like his, which continue to mobilise support purely on the basis of race, after Bersih 2.0, are on a short political tether.

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The writer is senior visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran member, is emeritus professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, adjunct professor at the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya and adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He believes in politics as a vocation but is frustrated that it is often the refuge of opportunists and the morally depraved
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charlie chan
charlie chan
20 Jul 2011 10.33pm

Marina Mahatir said the malaysian government is in disarray n in a state of panic n cant think rationally> this must be the statement of the decade since when can our government think rationally? as LEE KUAN YEW said in his book- we must have clean n competent leaders to manage our nation to achieve progress, national interests n citizens welfare must always come first. what a brilliant statement? in malaysia , we have corrupt n incompetent leaders n self serving leadership n that explained the big mess malaysia is in today> malaysians are now taken to the cleaners for wet cleaning. welcome to a clean nation

rahim zakaria
20 Jul 2011 3.19pm

For all the bersih participants please let the malays rule their own land and for the malays participant in bersih sayangi lah negara kamu buruk2 hak kita juga janganlah sampai nyamok dimarah kelambu di bakar. saya telah melalui may 13 dahulu .kalau kita melayu beragama islam patut lebih faham ancaman dan muslihat mushsyrik dan sekutunya

Malaysian Forever
Malaysian Forever
20 Jul 2011 8.33pm
Reply to  rahim zakaria

Dear Mr. Rahim, with all due respect sir, if this is ur country then which country does the Chinese, Indian n other races who were born here belong to? If u love ur country as much, u shouldn’t let it b run by …. (umno).

Malaysia belongs to all the sons n daughters who love it n not ppl who plunder… Make it a better place for ur children n grandchildren.

25 Jul 2011 1.05pm
Reply to  rahim zakaria

En Rahim, apa maksud ‘buruk2 hak kita juga janganlah sampai nyamok dimarah kelambu di bakar’? Keadaan kita sekarang sama seperti kelambu yang penuh dengan nyamok. Bukan sebarang nyamok tetapi jenis yang boleh cakap, mengguna media dan macam-macam lagi berdegil untuk terus tinggal dalam kelambu dan hisap darah kita. Hai, macam ni buruk pun tak kan tak nak buat apa? Jawab, En Rahim, jangan tak jawab. Ramai nyamok yang senyum dan rasa lega ada penyokong seperti En Rahim.

najib manaukau
20 Jul 2011 10.09am

No one from Umno… is fair and clean in the election. If it is Umno would not be in control for 53 years.
To begin with they forbid million of anti Umno oversea voters from voting plus they would not approve citizenships to red I/C holders but Malaysian born who they know would never vote for the deceitful and corrupted men from Umno. Together these two lots of people would account significantly in their votes and without a doubt vote Umno out of the equation if there was a clean and fair election. The present regime did not get more than 35% of the 28 million Malaysians thus it is a minority government.
That is why they are fighting tooth and nail to prevent a fair and clean election. Deceit is the only way to stay on the gravy train !

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