Singapore, 12 July 2011
This weekend I was in Kuala Lumpur to have a ‘looksie’ at the Bersih 2.0 or the ‘Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections’ rally. (Great photograph-timeline of the event here). Frankly speaking, I think the backpackers and tourists who were made to walk about two kilometres into the city centre because of police road blockades looked like they wanted to do more harm to Malaysia than the Malaysians involved in the political reform march. Authorities took rather extraordinary security measures to deter the rally by blocking all roads leading into the city, closing several train stations, stringing razor wire at strategic entry points, and deploying lorries mounted with water cannons near Independence Stadium, where the activists sought to gather. My favourite reaction though was the protest of the protest. In hindsight, it was lucky that my local guide and I were travelling by car and unable to access the city. Though, kudos to the 100 people who did manage to enter the city to ‘brave the horde’ and turn up for the iPad 2 sale at Lot 10 in Bukit Bintang.
While organisers say approximately 50,000 demonstrators gathered across Kuala Lumpur’s city centre for the 9 July opposition-backed rally, police offered a more conservative estimate of 10,000. The rally organisers called for reforms following accusations that the Malaysian election commission is biased towards the ruling party, UMNO and its coalition partners, which has been in power since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. The activists’ demands include an overhaul of voter registration lists, tougher measures to curb fraud and fairer opportunities for opposition politicians to campaign in government-linked media. A general election is not due until 2013 but Prime Minister Najib Razak has not ruled out early polls, after economic growth accelerated to a 10-year high in 2010.
The tear-gassing of the demonstrators, the detention of 1667 people including 16 minors, and the death of a demonstrator has culminated into an official investigation into the claims of police brutality. The massive police crackdown raises the question of why the ruling coalition reacted so strongly. The answer goes back to 2007, when the first Bersih rally drew 40,000 demonstrators, one of the biggest in modern Malaysian history, and engendered the same kind of crackdown by the administration of then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. That rally was widely regarded as the catalyst that drove the Anwar-led opposition coalition to victory in five Malaysian states and broke Barisan’s 50-year-old two-thirds parliamentary majority.
For me, the most interesting element of the rally was the warnings by those opposed to the protests to other Malaysians to not follow foreign examples like the Arab spring. Consequently, foreign NGOs and ‘foreign agents’ have been accused of funding the Bersih 2.0 rally to create chaos in Malaysia. In June, Najib warned Muslims from being divided and influenced by foreign doctrines based on violence and intolerance, and on 1 July, a South Korean intern student was deported from Malaysia while observing Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s , an opposition party, roadshow in Johor and labelled a ‘foreign agent’. The administration also accused foreign media organisations, in particular Al-Jazeera, of sensationalising the event and attempting to portray Malaysia as undemocratic in the eyes of the world.
Interestingly, the culture of street demonstrations was demonised by the administration and state-run media as ‘Western culture’ and not a part of Asian and thereby, Malaysian culture. By discouraging participation in the rally due to its roots in ‘Western culture’, the Malaysian government is walking a dangerous line – the West, I think it’s time you demanded back all your forks, automobiles and air-conditioning technology.