Contrary to the unfounded fear propagated by the ruling elites, the participants of Bersih 3.0 are not bent on overthrowing the government via revolutionary means, observes Azmil Mohd Tayeb.
The oft-quoted though wrongly-attributed apocryphal remark “Let them eat cake!” epitomises the arrogance and obliviousness of an Ancien Régime that is tone deaf to the plight and suffering of the common people. (The phrase first appeared in Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s Confessions (1765) but the character who uttered it has been popularly albeit erroneously attributed to Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, the last king before the 1789 French Revolution.) It is the proverbial pride that precedes the inevitable fall.
The same parallels can be drawn with the current BN regime in Malaysia. Instead of honestly addressing the grievances of the common Malaysians, which culminated in a formidable display of force and solidarity in the recent Bersih 3.0 rally, the BN regime and its apparatuses opt for a hardline approach.
Similar to the French paysans that had finally tolerated enough of the Versailles’ excesses and elitism, many Malaysians, particularly the young, urban and middle class, have also decided that the systemic rot that has plagued the nation for so long and sustained the decades of unbroken rule of the BN regime needs to be seriously overhauled.
The slew of scandals and abuses of power by the ruling elite leading up to the Bersih 3.0 rally ultimately pushed a lot of people into becoming proactive citizens, as opposed to passive ones, whose sole democratic act is to only vote every four years, and nothing else.
The question that lingers in the smoky aftermath of Bersih 3.0 rally is whether this will be the Malaysian equivalent of the storming of Bastille. Or to use a more contemporary analogy, will Dataran Merdeka be a catalytic symbol as Tahrir Square was to the recent Egyptian revolution? Or rather, on a less dramatic note, will it usher in a new era of reform that is far reaching yet not as socially disruptive as a revolution?
The regime reacted as if the Bersih 3.0 participants were the modern reincarnation of the pitchfork-wielding French paysans laying siege to the entrenched establishment with their guillotine in tow. Prime Minister Najib Razak and his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, called it an attempt to overthrow the government. The former Inspector General of Police, Hanif Omar, who has been incredulously selected to head the Bersih 3.0 investigating panel, accused the rally participants of employing “communist tactics” and attempting a coup, thus raising the spectre of the failed Communist Party of Malaya insurgency in the 1950s and 1960s.
One can argue that if we are to go by history, mass revolution seems highly unlikely to break out in Malaysia. While we might have experienced blood-soaked struggles for social transformation in the past, major upheavals brought upon by revolution are rare still. Even at the height of the Reformasi movement in 1998-99, when the legitimacy of the BN regime was at its lowest ebb, the ruling elite managed to stay unified and ultimately prevailed in the face of immense public pressure for change.
Fast forward ten years later we are now confronted with the same scenario. Standing on the precipice of a history-making moment, Malaysians now face the choice of making a leap of faith into the relative unknown or returning to the charred apocalyptic landscape of the old. The sheer number of Bersih 3.0 participants alone suggests that many Malaysians have decided to take the plunge. There is simply no turning back.
What we are witnessing here, at this particular juncture in time, is our collective ability to effect serious changes in the country. It might not be in the manner of Indonesia’s 1998 Reformasi or the Arab Spring, but the changes will be no less meaningful and far-reaching. The unifying theme is the toppling of a long-entrenched regime but the difference is the way we Malaysians go about it.
Bersih 3.0 is quintessentially the Malaysian idea of transforming society. It marks a shift in the way that people situate themselves in relation to others. It is no longer only about me and my comfortable middle-class lifestyle. We are now Malaysians, linking hands in solidarity as comrades-in-suffering.
The overarching theme of Bersih 3.0 is simple and to be honest, relatively innocuous: the demand for clean and fair election. But in its simplicity lies a myriad of semiotics as it becomes a canvass onto which its supporters project their hopes and fears.
The Bersih 3.0 movement has now embodied the symbols of people’s frustration with the conceit and callousness of the deeply entrenched ruling elite; the broken dreams of heavily-indebted yet unemployed young people; the culture of corruption and impunity; the indefensible preservation of an out-dated and unjust social system; and many others. These symbols of exasperation find their solace in the Bersih 3.0’s struggle to clean up Malaysia’s severely-flawed electoral system, the meta-symbol of everything that is wrong in this country.
But still, just because Dataran Merdeka does not turn out to be the Malaysian version of Tahrir Square, it does not mean that the people’s clamour for change has come to naught. Running battles with the police on the street is but one of many means to achieve one’s ends.
The socio-economic situation in Malaysia is not dire enough as to warrant such revolutionary tactics – at least not single-handedly. The middle-class folks might have been rethinking their political orientation and self-interest for the sake of the common good but at the end of the day they would all have returned to their suburban haven and cushy white-collar professional jobs. They demand change but not at the expense of greater risk and cost required by a more revolutionary way. Call it the ‘reformed middle-class conundrum’.
Bear in mind that for the past few decades the BN regime, despite all its shortcomings, has indeed managed to bring material comfort and satisfaction to a vast segment of Malaysian society i.e. its middle-class.
The transformation of the Malaysian middle-class psyche in recent years has been no mean feat as it requires the sacrifice of long-standing personal comfort and stability. The same people in the past who might have grumbled in private but kept their heads down in public are now seeing muted acquiescence as no longer a tolerable option.
Yet, the change they want shall not be attained through the barrel of a gun and should be pursued through constitutionally-sanctioned means that offer the least amount of disruption to their established life. This is what makes the Bersih 3.0 sit-in protest an attractive option for these reform-minded bourgeois. Heavy-handed retaliation from the regime would only strengthen their resolve and further confirm their belief that the status quo is indeed in serious disrepair and simply irredeemable.
Revolution becomes the means of social change when all other options have been exhausted. The longevity of the current regime is essentially due to its ability to promote the illusion that there is a glimmer of democratic space amidst the dark miasmic edifice of its quasi-authoritarian rule; hence the proclivity of society to pursue change via constitutionally-bounded ways, either as part of the civil society or a political party. Reform is still possible through the combination of ballot box and persistent street protests, obviating the need for a more radical and confrontational approach.
If Malaysia had been a country of stark socio-economic disparity ruled by the classic kleptomaniac despots – to a certain it is but not severe enough – then revolution would have found a more accepting ground. The raspy croon of Janis Joplin says it best that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” When a young Malaysian burger seller decides to self-immolate in-front of Seri Perdana as a symbol of protest only then will Malaysia be prime and ready for a conventional revolution. Until that time comes there is still hope for other less painful avenues to fulfil one’s burning desire for reform – no pun intended.
This is not in any way to trivialise the contribution of the lower class and the less privileged. In fact, it is the marginalised groups that have been at the forefront of the struggle for social justice and peace all these years. Without them out in the barricades, absorbing blows after crushing blows from the indiscriminating police batons and setting the example of acting courageously in defence of personal principles, the huge influx of middle-class participants in recent rallies would have been unlikely. They are the so-called canary in the mine, paving the way for the more risk-averse dissenters to confidently air out their grievances in public.
Equally emboldened and inspired by the selfless acts of the downtrodden, the middle-class folks finally feel the strong urge to go to step out of their comfort zone and go to the streets.
This is the beauty of the Bersih movement. It not only brings together people from various races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, social classes and sexual orientations, but also more importantly serves as a vehicle of political expression by people who hitherto had been too complacent and intimidated to let their grouses be known publicly. It is 1Malaysia in its most unadulterated and representative form, undreamed of even by the wildest imagination of the PM’s spinmeister, as it shows the belief in fairness, justice and common good is widely and genuinely shared by a broad cross-section of society.
Contrary to the unfounded fear propagated by the ruling elites, the participants of Bersih 3.0 are not bent on overthrowing the government via revolutionary means. It is precisely the need to effect changes through legitimate democratic means that propels the participants to join the movement in the first place. Unless, of course, it is revolution that the regime wants, in which case it can continue to plunder and destroy the country at the current rate until the people are left with no other choice but to stage a bloody revolution. In that case there will not be enough cake, or curry puffs for that matter, in the realm to save the regime from its own impending demise.
Azmil Mohd Tayeb, an Aliran member, is an academic teaching in one of our universities