Bersih and the dangers of protests and revolutions — Sebastian Loh

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AUG 26 — Imagine if the year were 2019 and the Prime Minister of Malaysia were PKR’s Azmin Ali, Pakatan having won a historic election the year before. Hundreds of thousands of Umno supporters are camped out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, demanding for his resignation. The capital is paralysed and so is the larger economy. Pakatan voters would be apoplectic at such a prospect, accusing Umno protesters of taking the country hostage and ignoring the election results. And yet in the present day, they seem intent on doing the same through Bersih 4.

Many Pakatan supporters have calling for prolonged and persistent protests against Najib to force his removal. They take inspiration from the people power revolutions in the Philippines and Indonesia that successfully ejected Presidents Marcos and Suharto respectively. But they forget the far more sobering and ominous precedent found in the endless and self-destructive protests of Thailand.

For almost a decade, pro- and anti-Thaksin forces in Thailand raged in ceaseless protests that felled successive governments and crippled the economy. Indeed, there are striking parallels between the man at the centre of the Thai protests — former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra — and our own Prime Minister Najib Razak. Both are highly controversial men accused of corruption and ardently opposed by yellow shirts.

The experience of Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring also proves instructive. The hundreds of thousands of protesters who sent the dictatorial President Mubarak packing returned a mere two years later to demand a resignation of another president – this time President Morsi. The military seized the opportunity and control of the country, and now Egypt remains under the thumb of another dictatorship – one that some say is even worse than the Mubarak regime.

There is a real risk that, should Bersih succeed in removing Najib from office, our very Malaysian crisis spirals into a Thai (or Egyptian) one where wholesale occupation of the streets becomes the natural means by which we eject and “elect” our government. It is a reckless calamity that we shouldn’t wish upon Malaysia. If you’re already distressed over the state of our economy and the falling ringgit, just you wait until duelling mobs become a fixture in our politics.

So why then do so many relish a protest-led overthrow of Najib? What is the root of their doe-eyed infatuation with revolutionary change? The answer is this — revolutions are exceedingly simple and exceedingly romantic. They all share the narrative that the righteous and oppressed People will triumph against the wicked and corrupt elite. The story ends when The Man is chased away with pitchforks and The People live happily ever after. Except, in real life, they rarely do.

The French Revolution deposed a monarch, then saw the country ravaged by the aptly named “Reign of Terror” — a period when thousands were executed under the mere suspicion of being an “enemy of the revolution.” That was followed by the rise of Napoleon — not exactly a democrat himself.

The Russian Revolution booted the Tsars, then birthed the totalitarian Soviet Union. The Iranian Revolution expelled a Shah, then fashioned a theocratic dictatorship that rules to this day. And so on and so forth. While there were “benign” revolutions, history as whole has been terribly unkind to mobs demanding the heads (metaphorically or otherwise) of their rulers.

Even where revolutions “succeed”, change is tepid at best. Decades after the collapse of the Marcos and Suharto regimes, corruption and mismanagement are still rife in the Philippines and Indonesia. By every metric, Malaysia is less corrupt, more economically prosperous, and more economically competitive — you may consult rankings by the World Bank, World Economic Forum, Transparency International, and others.

And that strikes at the heart of the issue – good governance is much more than just changing governments through protests or even the ballot box. Too many Bersih enthusiasts are convinced that removing Najib or even Umno from power is the magic bullet that will “save Malaysia” and bring her into a post-racial, post-corrupt era. If you believe that, then you’re as naive as the Americans who believed that toppling Saddam’s regime would result in a liberal democracy in Iraq.

As the cliché goes, change is hard and charge takes time. First and foremost, there has to be an alternative to the existing order that is positive, inclusive, comprehensive, and coherent — words that, coincidentally, neither describes the current Iraqi government, nor what remains of Pakatan Rakyat. The Iraqi government may be fighting for its life against a psychopathic terrorist organisation, but at least no one doubts it exists at the present moment — the same cannot be said about Pakatan.

The solution is obvious. Those who plan to march this weekend would better serve themselves and this country by working to build a credible and viable opposition, than participating in, at best, a meaningless protest, and at worst, a reckless attempt at revolution. They should pressure the opposition parties into taking clear and coherent stances on issues, present a comprehensive and binding governing plan, and put forward a credible candidate for prime minister. After all, as (mostly) opposition voters themselves, they surely have more leverage over the opposition than the government.

Imagine if the year were 2018 and a Pakatan voter could say with conviction, that he (or she) is voting not only against Barisan National, but for Pakatan Rakyat. Wouldn’t that be something? Reforming political parties, winning elections, and actually governing is much harder than protesting against this or that. And it takes a much longer time too. But we know this – history punishes those who take shortcuts.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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