TO go yellow or not to go yellow? This seems to be the question among Malaysians these days. In cyberspace, Malaysians of all backgrounds are writing, forwarding and sharing comments and articles about the planned 9 July Bersih 2.0 march.
But what exactly are people saying about the ideas and principles behind the march itself? And why are people deciding to march or not? Are the issues clearly black or white?
The good news is that there are definitely diverse opinions about the march. The bad news is that conversations have degenerated somewhat into an “Us” against “Them” dichotomy. If you don’t march or “go yellow”, it has been implied you may be chicken. If you do march, you are just a plain government-hating oppositionist.
It would be a mistake to assume that people against the Bersih march, or unwilling to support it fully, are all rabid Barisan Nasional supporters. There are writers and commentators in civil society who have already pointed out various reasons why they would rather not march.
Some are unhappy that the march has been influenced, at best, or completely hijacked, at worst, by politicians and parties. Many are convinced that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who reportedly boasted he could call off the march with a call to Bersih chief Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, has his tentacles in the show. Although Ambiga swiftly negated his comments and Anwar later said he was taken out of context, the fact is that many people do indeed see this as a Pakatan Rakyat-influenced show.
With parties like PAS publicly backing and promising to send thousands to the rally, and PR politicians promoting the event, many are wary or uncomfortable with the idea of aligning or marching with politicians. There are also those who are anti-Anwar, anti-Pakatan, anti-BN, or anti-Perkasa who find being lumped under one umbrella unsavoury.
Others question the impact of a usual “pass a memorandum to the Agong” march, or insist that the electoral reform agenda itself has become but a side-show.
…or not to march?
While some who choose not to march have genuine ideological dilemmas, some other reasons cited for not marching are just baffling. The most perplexing is probably the argument that protesting in the city is a nuisance to taxi drivers and businesses or could cause traffic jams.
These groups seem to forget that peaceful protests are a hallmark of democratic, developed nations, and that avoiding some amount of traffic disruption is not more important than citizens’ civil rights.
In fact, as political scientist and Bersih 2.0 steering committee member Wong Chin Huat points out — a peaceful demonstration may actually drive business into central Kuala Lumpur.
BN-supporters have argued, not without some truth, that in reality Bersih 2.0 is now deemed a general protest rally against the government in power, and not just about electoral reforms per se. To say, however, that Bersih’s agenda is to “seize power” is rabble-rousing unbefitting of a senior government minister.
It must also be remembered that there is context to Bersih 2.0, and that it is not just having a protest for the sake of having one. Having been blatantly shut out from observing the April Sarawak election, the coalition decided to organise this 9 July gathering to press for electoral reform with their eight demands.
Showing solidarity creatively
For those disinclined to march but still intend to support demands for electoral reform, there are other ways to show solidarity. Solidarity to a cause does not mean uniformity.
Some Bersih dissenters say protesters should go march somewhere else, not the city centre. Although that reasoning is flawed, there is food for thought. Why, after all, follow Putrajaya in their obsession for a monolithic, centralised and unimaginative way to prove a point? Those in the activism, arts, music or youth scenes can ensure the people’s voices are heard through other means, and other centres beyond KL.
Some are already starting to emphasise creativity, humour and new ideas as fresh ways to get the message through. Why not little groups of five or less “gathering” in whatever colours they feel like, in all parts of the country? Peace inspired flower-giving or sweeping roads, a la the “Flash Mop” by a small group of artists in Kuala Lumpur in 2010?
While one supports their friends and foes’ right to march, one could also easily take part in small shows of solidarity. In all instances, there are ways to peacefully show that public spaces are for the common people.
There are many things about this march that are not clearly black or white. By framing the march as such, both ends of the spectrum risk missing the opportunity to engage with thousands of Malaysians who may not want to march but still feel the urge to show their public spirit or civic-mindedness.
There are however some non-negotiable principles in all of this. Violence, threats and unnecessary arrests are unacceptable. It is the duty of the police to protect any Malaysian who wishes to protest peacefully. Hauling people away for wearing T-shirts is not okay. Police intimidation is not okay. Issuing death threats to people is not okay. These acts do not reflect the “thriving democracy” Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak boasted about when he appeared on CNN’s Talk Asia in November 2010.
It’s fine to disagree with the march. In fact, it’s great that Malaysians are so willing to express their views and debate openly about national issues. And it’s a personal choice whether one marches or not on 9 July. But it would be an unconscionable act of detachment however, to stand by silently while aggressive vitriol and heavy-handed measures are inflicted upon peace-loving Malaysians.