Bersih’s cart before horse

JULY 30 — A friend called from Melbourne late yesterday. Asked me if Malaysia has reached its tipping point, and I said I’m not entirely sure. But it struck me as an afterthought that perhaps more accurately at times it appears as if as a people we have been tipped over from the point — any meaningful point really — by our own volition.

Anyways, there is a rally coming your way.

Bersih wants you to sleep on the streets of Kuala Lumpur this August.

[The Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih) had its inaugural rally in 2007, November 10, which mustered 20,000 and broke the mould of national passivity to democracy. In 2009, the second congregation brought record numbers and captured the imagination of multicultural Malaysia despite heavy-handed police action. The third one in 2012, was a tale of two rallies as a highly-festive opening gave way and ended with tear gas and arrests. Thereafter — before and after GE13 — the speculations on when Bersih 4 would transpire have gone on indefinitely, till yesterday’s announcement.]

Bersih’s previous successes render them potent, would that ominous reputation remain so with this call to action?

On the 29th day of Octavius’ month they intend to fill the city with sleeping bags and stay there to the eve of Merdeka in order to achieve an objective, or two or even 14. 


Mostly to end the Najib Razak administration, apparently. Tall order when you consider that he’s just axed his deputy. Ignoring the large sledgehammer that just swung hard, without skipping a heartbeat, they want to replace the prime minister of the country through an open act of dissent from the electorate — a major street protest to change government.

Massive ask. Huge challenge.

“But if you are at the store, you might as well pick up a few more trinkets” thinking crept conveniently in as Bersih is now not only ASKING for the PM’s resignation when they begin gathering August 29 and initiate night-long festivities till daylight of August 30. They have 13 other demands (don’t worry they are numbered).  Which include the establishment of an independent police complaints and misconduct commission (IPCMC); and freedom of information laws at federal and state levels.

Where do I stand?

Why the animosity, some might ask. I don’t have any, I’ve been at all the Bersih rallies and been successfully gassed each time — though they do not match the sheer madness of the 2007 Hindraf rally.

So I have had skin in the game.

I want them to succeed because asking for fair and free elections resonates with a population long suspicious of intentions when it has the words politics, power or democracy.

They thrived on that for years.

However, a cursory look at their website presently will show that they are hardly bipartisan this time around.

They might want to clear the air about being more about process and less about fitting one group’s agenda.

They might want to avoid being like the politicians they work hard not to mimic. When Pakatan Rakyat — new, old or in transition, you tell me! — say two years after the last general election that 52 per cent of the country are with them, eyes roll. The majority of the country voted on May 5, 2013 for Pakatan because they were of the opinion on May 5, 2013 Pakatan deserved their vote.

There is no basis for Pakatan leaders perpetually asserting they speak for the people, because of one voting day. While a democratic vote is valuable it changes too, and no one owns the votes except the people. Politicians have to earn the vote over and over, day after day till the next election.

Politicians don’t own voters just because they got a lot of votes at any poll. Same applies to activists, they don’t own protesters just because they showed up the last three times. They have to ask, and they have to ask before deciding — or risk appearing not dissimilar to the neo-feudal overlords they confront. People are not pawns, I believe that is the gist of Bersih. Perhaps they should read their own propaganda.

So declaring in lieu of the seismic shifts in power without consulting the people who will form the frontline of any Bersih rally is hubris.

To call for a rally within 24 hours of events — some of them still unravelling?  

A bit premature, whichever manner it is examined.


Children always argue, which superhero is superior to other superheroes. The approach to resolve this at a playground commonly is to list the strengths, past battles and personal relationships.

Where is Bersih right now, and where will it be exactly a month after when the masses descend on the city would be instructive if one is willing to learn from children.

A bit of inventory taking helps.

The rally for the first time is pivoting to a campout in the city. Never done in large numbers before, how would large groups of people who are largely operating in silos self-organise themselves for a prolonged sit-in?

The last weekend of August is also a long weekend with Merdeka on a Monday. Bersih would be accused of politicising a national holiday.

Traditionally all armed services display prowess and pride on Merdeka Day march past, and they would be training over the week leading to the big day. Would thousands of protesters waking up in downtown KL to waves of tanks, armoured vehicles and seamen with guns on August 30 be within the planning of Bersih’s steering committee?

In the past, the Pakatan parties rallied behind Bersih rallies, will they do so again?

Firstly, DAP is not synonymous with street expression. They are not the party of protest, they are the party of being right. In facts, in suspicions and in convictions. Their supporters don’t throng squares in numbers.

PKR has been fairly ambivalent on the appointment of Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi as deputy prime minister and the rumour mills are swirling on what the future holds in regards to previous personal relationships and the new political equation. How invested will they be in the latest protest thrust on them?

Though the biggest question — and most relevant — hangs over the beacon of street activism, PAS. There is a reason for the large presence of the Islamic party’s uniformed cadres at rallies, they are best equipped to handle a large PAS supporters’ presence. For years, rallies make or break depending on PAS’s rank and file who wait for the party’s call for participation.

PAS is now a work in progress. The winners of the last party election are not impressed by them being hanged, drawn and quartered by the liberal press. How much sway they have over the grassroots compared to the rebels mounting a new movement will be clearly seen at Bersih 4.

I fear for the outcome here.

The level of support to oppose the administration from removed deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and also ex-minister and still Umno vice-president Shafie Apdal is unknown. They are not necessarily going to work within “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” theme.

And I have forgotten to say that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has yet to post a blog on the events yet!

Let the dust settle

With all these unknowns would Bersih — with its limited cards to be played — be in a better place to decide on what works best for their cause or the larger democratic picture, after a few more days.

FB cover page and profile page of Bersih 2.0 Official Facebook, which clearly indicates it is regime change not process improvements at the top of BERSIH's agenda.
FB cover page and profile page of Bersih 2.0 Official Facebook, which clearly indicates it is regime change not process improvements at the top of BERSIH's agenda.

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Going to the streets is a big decision where thousands who follow you will pay their own personal price for their conviction.

To exhaust the goodwill out of haste would be demoralising for the unnamed many who count on Bersih without reservation.

While the enthused are keen as ever to participate, Bersih by the dint of its previous performances will have its next rally judged by its quantity — a logistical complexity equal to the genius of Eisenhower’s planning for D-Day if to astound Putrajaya — rather than quality — eager and brave members of almost structure-free organisations willing to hack it out in ramshackle makeshift tents without fear of authorities.

Or at least wait till they have their press release in Malay too, lest they get the more brutal critique of being middle-class hubris.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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