Demonstrations the new reality as Malaysians get buzzed on social media

People demonstrate during the ‘Turun’ anti-price hike rally in Kuala Lumpur December 31, 2013. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
People demonstrate during the ‘Turun’ anti-price hike rally in Kuala Lumpur December 31, 2013. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 7 — Mass protests are gradually becoming part of Malaysian culture as citizens gain greater political awareness and mobility through social media, a Barisan Nasional (BN) lawmaker and analysts have said.

Umno’s Kota Belud MP Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan said that Putrajaya has acknowledged the inevitability of demonstrations, pointing out that the authorities had allowed the “Turun” rally on New Year’s Eve last Tuesday, where thousands flooded the capital city to protest against price hikes for various goods and services.

“Protests cannot be stopped,” Abdul Rahman told The Malay Mail Online recently.

“At the moment, it’s only (the) opposition. But soon, you’ll have all kinds of groups; they will take it to the streets,” added the Umno supreme council member.

Besides the “Turun” protest that was organised by the student movement and backed by opposition pact Pakatan Rakyat (PR), a separate rally was recently held by journalists to push for press freedom.

International newswire AFP reported some 50 journalists and activists protesting at the capital city last Saturday against the suspension of the weekly, The Heat.

The Heat was suspended last month after publishing an article on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s “big-spending” nature in overseas trips and other matters.

Political analyst James Chin said that more anti-government rallies can be expected in the Klang Valley, but noted that what Putrajaya fears is mass protests in rural areas, Umno’s traditional support base.

“They know the urban areas are already opposition-held seats, so it’s less of a problem. The other big problem is that the rallies could easily be a major Malay youth thing and that will impact the rural seats in the next GE,” Chin told The Malay Mail Online, referring to the 14th general election.

People gather in front of the Bar Council during the ‘Red Pencil Protest’ organised by the Movement of Angry Media (GERAMM) in Kuala Lumpur January 4, 2014. — Picture by Choo Choy May
People gather in front of the Bar Council during the ‘Red Pencil Protest’ organised by the Movement of Angry Media (GERAMM) in Kuala Lumpur January 4, 2014. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Barisan Nasional (BN) retained power in Election 2013 last year on the back of support from rural areas, but won just 133 seats in the 222-seat Parliament, losing seven more seats than in 2008.

Recognising its popularity in the cities, the DAP has announced plans to capture the rural vote in Sarawak with its “Impian Sarawak” (Sarawak Dream) campaign.

With the campaign, the opposition party aims to improve basic infrastructure in nine constituencies in the East Malaysian state during the first four months of the year. 

Previous projects included providing piped water, clean water and upgrading a longhouse at various villages.

Umno-controlled newspaper Utusan Malaysia accused the Malays of being easily manipulated into betraying their race and religion by joining the “Turun” rally.

In an editorial last weekend, the broadsheet also suggested that Malays were being ungrateful to the government by attending the protest against the rising cost of living. 

A protestor cover his face from the effects of tear gas fired by riot police during a mass rally organised by Bersih 3.0 calling for electoral reform in Kuala Lumpur on April 28, 2012. — AFP pic
A protestor cover his face from the effects of tear gas fired by riot police during a mass rally organised by Bersih 3.0 calling for electoral reform in Kuala Lumpur on April 28, 2012. — AFP pic

Dr Lim Teck Ghee, Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) director, observed that Putrajaya has, of late, given leeway to Malaysians to hold mass protests after a period of intolerance towards political dissent under the Mahathir administration.

“Our nation’s late enjoyment of it is an indication of how politically repressed we have been and how much we have been under the thumb of authoritarian regimes,” Lim told The Malay Mail Online.

“But that fear factor is now gone. There is a more politically conscious and critical younger generation able to mobilise quickly through the new social media and less fearful of the government’s warnings, threats or even hostile actions,” added the political analyst.

There are some 13.3 million Facebook users in Malaysia as of July 2013, the majority of whom are aged between 18 and 34 years.

The authorities had allowed various protests to proceed peacefully in the Klang Valley last year, including rallies against a proposed hike in assessment rates for KL properties, against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), and against the May general election results, among others.

The absence of heavy-handed police action at such demonstrations was in stark contrast to the tear gas and water cannons used at previous street protests, like the three Bersih rallies for free and fair elections.

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