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Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Bersih 2.0 – Why walk?

THE planned Bersih 2.0 rally calling for improvements to Malaysia’s electoral system has been garnering mixed reactions. Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said police may arrest illegal demonstrators, even under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite state detention without trial. Perkasa said they would demonstrate, too, to keep Bersih protesters from mischief. Umno Youth will march apparently to support the current democratic system and make suggestions to improve the electoral process.

Meanwhile, thousands are reportedly preparing to heed Bersih 2.0’s call to march on Saturday, 9 July 2011, despite the threat of arrests and potential harm.

Bersih rally in 2007 (Pic courtesy of theSun)

Is the march really necessary? What about having dialogue and closed-door meetings instead? How should the government handle its fear of “chaos” arising from the march? The Nut Graph asks political scientist and Bersih 2.0 steering committee member Wong Chin Huat to answer these questions.

TNG: What is the value in demonstrating for free and fair elections? The government has offered alternatives such as holding gatherings in stadiums and having meetings with the Election Commission (EC). Wouldn’t those options be less disruptive and more productive?

Demonstrations are free advertisement for the people. It’s about telling fellow citizens: “Hey, so many of us are here for this cause, don’t you want to join us?” It is infectious, sensitising the apathetic, emboldening the meek.

It is therefore important for demonstrations to be held in the open. Holding demonstrations in stadiums turns them into “closed-door” activities, speaking only to the converted. The rest of the public cannot see it for themselves. It makes sense for concerts to be held in stadiums which are meant to be exclusive, but not protests that aim to reach out. Having it indoors also limits the size – can you find a stadium that can accommodate 100,000 or more?

There is also no guarantee that an indoor rally will be allowed to run smoothly, without roadblocks. Ultimately, if the authorities are open to demonstrations, whether they are outdoors or indoors does not matter. If the authorities are hostile, they will find or create problems regardless of where the demonstrations are held.

As for holding meetings, Bersih has met with the EC and will continue to do so after the rally if they are sincere. But talking does not work when the public is not involved. Openness is crucial. The EC wants everything behind closed doors. They submit proposals to the cabinet and keep quiet when their proposals are shot down, leaving the public in the dark.

Bersih, on the other hand, wants the public involved. We are happy to debate with anyone from the EC or the cabinet. As the Malay saying goes: “Berani kerana benar, takut kerana salah.”

It is possible for the demonstration to be productive and not disruptive by getting the police to do their job in directing traffic and maintaining order. If you have 100,000 walking in the city centre for two hours, they will need to eat and drink. Some may go shopping before and after. Many will take public transport into the city in anticipation of the jam. So, there will be business for hawkers, restaurants, shopping malls and taxi drivers. Bersih can also help DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall) clean up the street – collecting not only rubbish produced by the demonstration, but those by others, too, as we did in 2007.

The only reason the demonstration would be disruptive is if the police insist on turning this golden business opportunity for central Kuala Lumpur into a nightmare for everyone.

Anti-government demonstrations during the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising, also known as the Jasmine Revolution (Public domain | Wiki commons)

Is the federal government’s fear of “chaos” arising out of the Bersih 2.0 assembly legitimate? What should be done to address this fear?

The federal government is living in its own imagined nightmare. They suspect the Bersih 2.0 demonstration will turn out to be the Malaysian version of the Jasmine Revolution. Perhaps subconsciously they compare themselves with the illegitimate and corrupt rule of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

However, as much as Bersih has criticised the flaws of the electoral process, it has committed itself to recognising the basic legitimacy of elected governments. Even for Sarawak, where the election was severely manipulated, Bersih has not called for the ousting of Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud via lasting demonstrations.

My advice to the government is to stop shooting at shadows. The more you react like Ben Ali or Mubarak, the more you become one.

Addressing the fear of chaos is simple. The authorities should sit down with Bersih to negotiate the entry and exit time. Bersih has asked for two hours. If the assembly takes much longer than that, then they can spray water cannons and tear gas, as they have done in the past. They would then have public support to do so. Bersih will lose credibility. Good deal, isn’t it?

Malaysians should also indicate their willingness to join the rally en masse. Uncertainty and possibility of clashes increase at the beginning as the number of demonstrators rise, but will soon slow down, plateau, and eventually drop sharply when there is critical mass. Imagine, if two million Malaysians wore yellow, raised flags or signed up to Facebook groups supporting Bersih, can the police afford to lock down Kuala Lumpur? Mass support would get them to wake up from their self-imagined nightmare and deal with reality. On the other hand, if you stay home out of fear, what you fear may just become real!

Is it problematic that Perkasa and Umno Youth also plan to hold their own demonstrations on the same day? What role, if any, should the state play in situations such as these where multiple groups with different views intend to demonstrate simultaneously?

No, it shouldn’t be problematic if the police are there to maintain order and signal clearly that the troublemakers cannot act with impunity. The problem with Perkasa is not their racism; democracies must have room for all sorts of people, the stupid and crazy included. The problem is Perkasa has been given impunity. They can threaten crusades and Bukit Aman seems to okay Perkasa’s “Gerak Aman” with their ineloquent silence.

Edmund Burke said, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men [and women] to do nothing.” Here, the men and women in blue are indeed doing nothing. The moment they are willing to maintain order, which is what they are paid for with taxpayers’ money, they can plan different routes for all three groups to express themselves. If anything unpleasant happens, Bukit Aman must be prepared to answer to the public before anyone else for the impunity they have effectively granted to Perkasa so far.


Bersih 2.0 has been accused of being an opposition tool, and a remark by Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim seemed to suggest that he held sway over the organisation, although he later said he was taken out of context. Is Bersih 2.0 linked with the federal opposition? Does such a perception hinder this civil society movement in what it is trying to achieve?

Political parties would of course try to court civil society movements. The question is not why the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is keen to support Bersih to the extent that Bersih is labelled by some as their front. Rather, the question is, why doesn’t the Barisan Nasional (BN) do the same? Bersih has always invited BN leaders to attend our functions, but they have never attended. Why don’t they bother even talking to us? They are not even keen to talk, and now they complain that we talk to others too much. Isn’t this unreasonable?

Has the BN’s choice of non-engagement cost Bersih 2.0 our credibility? No, we have many agendas that might make some PR state governments uneasy, too: we want local elections, rules and regulations to restrict administrative neutrality, state funding for political parties. Our detractors can wait to see if Bersih will spare PR pressure on these issues.

We at Bersih 2.0 mean business  – that is, politics as clean business, not business as usual.


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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12 Responses to “Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Bersih 2.0 – Why walk?”

  1. themaestro says:

    BN understands the reality all too well. This is currently manifested in their words and deeds. The general emotion among them is one of growing worry. The underlying emotion is fear. Unimaginable fear. Losing Putrajaya is too much to think about let alone actually losing it. Najib is cornered and reacting like a trapped beast. Woe to anyone who crosses their paths from now to July 9th to the 13th general election. Witness, Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, MP Sungei Siput and his band of “communists” [being arrested]. Mind you, the charge reads ‘with intent to wage war with the DYMM Seri Paduka Baginda, Yang DiPertuan Agong.’ Treason! So, tread with care as far as this is concerned. There will be no peace if BN is ousted. There will be sleepless nights for many. This is our reality. Can we face up to this nightmare? I intend to.

  2. Chin Peng's ninja says:

    The BN has lost its credibility. It has become desperate. It cannot control the surge among the people who want a change, a change for the better, after all the corruption, stupidity, and incompetence of the present government. If it were in control, it would have simply allowed the peaceful march by Bersih 2.0 and guided everyone with the police. Now it has shown its fear. It tries to link Bersih to Chin Peng. That is another mistake. The Malaysian Army did not defeat Chin Peng. Now to bring him up is the height of desperation. Why use the Agong’s position? Maybe that is to spare Ibrahim Ali. Maybe the Agong and the country are two separate entities. You can be loyal to one and be enemy of the other. Whatever it is, it is stupid planning by the Home Ministry.

    This is the result of 50 years of the NEP. This has produced substandard graduates from our schools and universities. This is the result that you see now. The Bumis in power just cannot think, let alone plan. The country is being milked dry by Umno Putras. These people, unfortunately, do not contribute to the nation. That is the crux of the World Bank report on Malaysia. Ten million Malay graduates cannot make up for the loss of one million Chinese. What a disaster for the country.

    Do the Malays think of this? I doubt it. All they want is a “ketuanan” policy that will forever put money in their pockets, diplomas in their hands, and positions of money/power to sit on. That is what their [ancestors] bequeathed to them. This is what they will live for.

  3. Joon says:

    Why don’t the police give a permit with conditions? A planned route and a time frame. Give the same permit to anyone including Perkasa & Umno Youth. Give the citizens the right to express and march. What’s wrong with that?

    • DLim says:

      Absolutely agree, Joon.

    • chan says:

      Good idea!

      Propose Bersih March from Merdeka Stadium with police escorts for Bersih Leaders to hand memorandum to Istana. Others can stay back at Merdeka Stadium. After coming back from the palace Bersih leaders can be given time to give speeches and disperse. Also good for people who want to earn some extra money by selling gifts, souvenirs, food and drinks. Bandaraya can clear rubbish easily. Fix the time frame.

      The other groups of Perkasa and UMNO Youth can all converge at the National Mosque. Same police can provide escorts to the groups if they want to hand any memorandum. After that, they can disperse, go shopping or makan at the bird park. […]

  4. Ritchie says:

    The demonisation of Bersih is a way to sanction violence and agent provacateurs of the […] regime. they have sent such agents in the last march conducted by Bersih and now intend to use [other groups] to attack the upcoming unarmed peaceful march by NGO’s and Malaysians who wish to excercise their constitutional rights.

    [Recently], Utusan Malaysia, a Malay language daily, made unsubstantiated allegations that Bersih was being funded by overseas “Christian support.” Other allegations from the Malaysian police state are that some Bersih participants champion communist ideologies and [are acting] against the King with distribution of pamphlets related to this.

    No one is above the law. and if Utusan or the police or any other quarter cannot prove unsubstiantated or malicious allegations that border on sedition that threaten national security, they need to be penalised under the laws of this country without fear or favour.

  5. anon says:

    BN should support Bersih so it will also look good on them like the PR. The cracking down will only create awareness and publicity for Bersih, why make things look so bad? Obviously BN has been trapped now by the situation, what happened to their advisers?

    On the other hand Bersih and PR have already created sufficient publicity to send their message across even if they opt not to march on the 9th. All walks of life are talking about it.

  6. william chin says:

    Talking abt Bersih 2.0, fair and clean elections, corruption – those are no-brainers. Anyone can do that as such practices are not defensible morally.

    Yet, what is sorely missing here is the 30% quota for women that is being slipped past us. No [person]/politician/activist dares to talk abt it for fear of being labelled a chauvinist. Yet, how can we talk about removing NEP if we quietly acquiesce to this latest affirmative action without speaking out?

  7. Vincent says:

    The Malaysian government does not want racial integration. BN & UMNO prefer to divide and rule allowing for Malaysia to be submerged in corruption. Taib of Sarawak [seems to act] with impunity. That says it all. The policy that segregates Malaysia is coming to an end- the government fears a UNITED MALAYSIA. I salute Bersih – the Malaysian Patriots!

  8. DLim says:

    The support, whether overtly or covertly, for the Bersih campaign is telling of the change expected by the people who want to have say on policies to better their lives i.e. clean, efficient and respectable government. Is it too much to ask for? Perhaps the problem is that the elites never have these problems as they don’t take public transport, don’t have to deal with arrogant government servants, don’t have to experience free public services so they don’t understand the anger and frustrations of the rakyat. Now they try to muzzle the voice of the rakyat. How sad.

  9. Loh says:

    If the BN had been a litle tad smarter, they would had joined hands with Bersih like PR. Thus BN would not be seen as the villain unwilling to have fair elections. As the PM had said, politics is a matter of perception. They could have done better.

    If BN had joined Bersih in the rally, it would have just been another get-together event with not much significance. After all, Bersih could send a memorandum to the EC and all, but what would the EC will do with it? Anyone’s guess. Send memo to DYMM Agong? They could have gotten the PDRM to intercept at the palace gate. The procession would have been much under control. And BN could then claim to have been part of the call for fair elections. There would not be so much fanfare overseas, and Najib could go to the UK and Vatican without much criticism.

    I believe the PM is being FRAMED on this Bersih issue. His hands are tied and he was send to the gallows. With his cousin betraying him and now watching his every move, there is not much the PM can do. I believe he knows his days are numbered.

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