PRIOR to 25 June 2011, all seemed to be going relatively well for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration. The Barisan Nasional (BN) government was hard at work improving public perception, with extensive media coverage on government programmes such as the Government Transformation Programme and Economic Transformation Programme. There were talks of a possible early general election, not due until 2013.
But on 25 June 2011, 31 Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) members were arrested, purportedly on their way to a Bersih 2.0 roadshow. Over the next two weeks, Malaysians saw a massive crackdown on alleged Bersih supporters, with over 200 arrested in the run-up to the 9 July march. Over 1,600 were arrested on the day of the march itself. Has the Bersih rally and the government’s response changed the political landscape in any way? And what’s next for Bersih’s campaign for a freer and fairer electoral process?
The Nut Graph speaks to political scientist and Bersih 2.0 steering committee member Wong Chin Huat.
TNG: Would the recent sustained crackdown on Bersih 2.0 supporters and the arrests under the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance have changed the BN government’s momentum in any way?
Yes. Bersih 2.0 is surely a game changer in electoral politics, and very much of the BN’s own doing. By drumming up fear and counting on the spectre of 13 May 1969 to deter people from going to the street, it has helped in fact to bury it for good.
Malaysians saw with their own eyes that we were the same before water cannons, tear gas and police batons. We were united in our suffering and in the face of police brutality. We helped each other climb over walls. We passed water and salt around. There are simply countless eyewitness accounts that speak movingly of how we felt so Malaysian on that day. I couldn’t help crying several times watching the video clips, looking at the pictures and reading the stories about the march.
It’s a defining moment for this country. More so than the 2007 Bersih rally, which was undeniably dominated by PAS supporters. More than the Reformasi protests in 1998, as they failed to rope in those who did not sympathise with (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim. And I believe it may be even greater than 31 Aug 1957 and 16 Sept 1963 for we only had the state of Malaya and Malaysia built then, but not a people of Malayans and Malaysians. We have so many misgivings of each other even after Independence of 54 and 48 years; but on 9 July, we were all brothers and sisters. We are the “Yellow Generation”, the Bersih alumni, the Bersih family.
The BN lied about the events on the ground after the 9 July march. Do you expect those who braced water cannons and tear gas to vote for the BN in a generation’s time?
Why do you think the BN government would risk damaging public perception towards it by adopting such a heavy-handed approach towards Bersih 2.0? What was it trying to achieve?
[The BN is] very Hobbesian, believing that Malaysians will fear violence more than anything and will tolerate an authoritarian government. Look at the “McCarthyism“-like campaign launched by the Home Ministry and the police by alleging Parti Sosialis Malaysia activists of “waging war against the King”. This was for simply possessing t-shirts [displaying] former Communist figures. They also demonised the Bersih secretariat for having a poster of Shamsiah Fakieh.
These tactics are reminiscent of the Cold War era. Perhaps the BN government thought that by evoking the communist threat, they could rally Malay Malaysians. Or by allowing (Datuk) Ibrahim Ali to make insinuations about an ethnic riot, they could scare Chinese Malaysians to stay at home. Or by demonising (Datuk) Ambiga Sreenevasan as a possible threat to Islam, they could deter some cautious Indian Malaysians to stay out of Bersih. They might have got it right if this was the 1970s or even 80s. But [if that is the case], they forgot to change their calendars in their heads. It’s now 2011.
How was the Bersih 2.0 march different from the 2007 march in terms of the level and types of support, as well as the opposition towards it?
Due to the heavy blockade and arrests, the turnout in 2011 was not much bigger than the 2007 one, estimated somewhere around 50,000 to 60,000. However, it was magnificent in two ways.
First, it was really diverse. Thousands of Chinese Malaysians joined the crowd and made up about one-third of the crowd in many places. It is puzzling how esteemed Universiti Sains Malaysia political scientist Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, who said he observed the march, failed to see many Chinese Malaysians. He must have been observing the march in Masjid Negara or from behind Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin’s Patriot group.
There were also people from different age groups. Not only the young were excited, the elderly like Pak Samad (National Laureate Datuk A Samad Said) and Auntie Bersih were in the forefront fighting for a better Malaysia. Everyone took ownership of this country.
Secondly, it was truly a bottom-up effort and dominated by grassroots people, not the politicians or even the Bersih 2.0 leaders. Every Bersih alumnus has their own story to tell.
Personally, I think it is extremely stupid of the BN to try to demonise the brave Malaysians of 9 July as opposition supporters. They are the majority, including many nonpartisans. If you insist that they are all opposition supporters, you are conceding the next election to the opposition.
Pakatan Rakyat (PR) politicians were among the leaders in the march and were among those arrested by the police. Does this lend credence to the BN government’s accusation that the march was opposition-initiated? Can the march still be considered a civil society movement?
As Ambiga aptly put it, opposition leaders and supporters are Malaysians, too. They have every right to demand a clean and fair electoral system and process so that they have the fair chance to win and lose in a dignified manner. What’s wrong with that? If the BN insists on using dirty tactics – now insinuating that Bersih rally participants were paid – then they have no right to question those who yearn to be clean.
We should instead ask, why were there no BN leaders arrested for championing electoral reform? Bersih 2.0 is certainly a civil society movement because we will demand from a PR government the same changes we are asking for now.
Now that the march is over, how will Bersih 2.0 be proceeding to achieve its eight demands for a fairer and cleaner electoral process? With the BN government still intent to portray Bersih as an illegal organisation, will this hamper the negotiation and advocacy process?
Bersih will be organising roadshows on the electoral process. We will also be systematically collecting more evidence of electoral fraud. This will hopefully make the Election Commission and the government face up to public opinion.
The witch hunt? The government can continue its overdrive of arresting those wearing yellow or cleaning up the streets or preventing “yellow dinners”. (Datuk Seri) Hishamuddin Hussein can continue living out his projection of himself as Senator McCarthy, who drummed up anti-Communist sentiment in the US while producing little evidence. Hishammuddin can arrest us if he wants. He just has to make sure that there are enough lockups to host millions of people who want a genuine democracy.
Najib and Hishammuddin can continue to sing the tune of illegality. I have only one reminder for them: In 1982, the Polish Communist government banned the popular democratic movement Solidarity Union. But where are the Polish Communists now?
Wong Chin Huat is a Bersih 2.0 steering committee member. He is also a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.
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