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.
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.
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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