Can You Hear the People Speak?

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It’s been a long time between posts I know. What can I say except life gets busy? Still, I couldn’t let November slip by without writing something about the Bersih 5 Rally, especially the one in Melbourne I attended and the one in Perth I had a tiny part in organising. On 19 November, I joined the hundreds that streamed to Melbourne’s Federation Square to take part in the protest for democratic reforms in Malaysia.

This is the fifth in a series of rallies that started in 2007 in Malaysia. Global Bersih is the overseas Malaysian arm of Bersih 2.0 that seeks to garner the attention, support and strength of overseas Malaysians to the cause. As I write, the Global Bersih website is inaccessible yet again. Bersih’s mission is fairly straightforward, it has 8 demands that it is urging on the government in Malaysia and they are, to take action to:

1) clean the electoral roll,

2) reform postal ballot system,

3) use indelible ink at all elections to prevent voter fraud,

4) stipulate a minimum of 21 days of campaign for general elections,

5) ensure free and fair access to media for all political parties,

6) strengthen public institutions so they can act independently and impartially,

7) stop corruption and;

8) stop dirty politics.

As a researcher of new media in Malaysia, I’ve kept my eye on the Bersih movement since the beginning. Admittedly, with some skepticism in the years between 2007 and 2016 as the numbers wavered, the cause was temporarily and briefly co-opted and protest fatigue threatened. However, the two rallies I’ve attended in 2015 and 2016 have convinced me of two things, firstly: that Malaysians are tired of being intimidated by authority and are increasingly and rightfully exercising  their franchise as citizens. Now, it would be naive to believe that the odd, annual protest was all that was needed to change the state of affairs. But this is where the second thing I have observed comes in, ie. the resilience and persistence of Malaysians when led capably, sincerely and honestly. This is an insight I arrived at after participation at  rallies, interviews with Malaysians (including those thoroughly disinterested) and Global Bersih organisers. Ten years is a long time for any struggle, but a mass movement that is peaceful, methodical and principled is not one to be trifled with.

The chairperson of Bersih 2.0, Maria Chin Abdullah, has been placed in solitary confinement since 18 November, the eve of the Bersih 5 rally. Today, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) in Malaysia has threatened those holding vigils for Maria’s release with a crackdown. If the Bersih movement had been premised on the charismatic leadership of a single individual such as political leaderships of the past have been in many parts of Asia, cutting off the head of the organisation (in a manner of speaking) would have stopped the rally in its tracks. Fortunately, Bersih is led by a committee, so when one person is sidelined, others take up the cudgel and still others continue to rise to the occasion. Containing Bersih at this point, close to a decade since the movement was started is foolhardy. Much better would be an attempt at genuine dialogue about the concerns raised. I can only hope that eventually the calm and persistent demands of the people receive the hearing they deserve.