December 11, 2007
Big public gathering no. 2 and my take on it, previously published on Bolehland
BERSIH: Demonstration Malaysian-StyleTricia Yeoh The strangest response given to the recent BERSIH gathering and rally is that “street demonstrations are not within the Malaysian culture”. Now that single line has left me baffled and trying to extract its underlying profound philosophy. For historical record, the coalition of non-governmental organizations and political parties called BERSIH (Malay for ‘clean’) organized on Saturday afternoon the 10th November 2007 the largest street demonstration of the decade in Malaysia, where 40,000 members of the public gathered to demand for electoral reforms in the country. There were four specific demands within the memorandum eventually submitted to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (King) at the Palace, namely a thorough cleanup of the electoral roll to exclude fraudulent registrations, the use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, the abolition of postal votes for the armed forces and fair access to the media. Despite having applied for a police permit for the said peaceful gathering, this was denied. The demonstration was therefore considered illegal in the eyes of the Government. The following have been some of the responses to date, of the gathering on the streets of KL. Our Prime Minister warned the people not to challenge him because “bad things would happen”. (Real issue is not addressed here) His son-in-law, the rising star in UMNO Youth, likened demonstrators to “beruk” or monkeys, on the streets. (Forgetting that he has on many occasions, himself taken to the streets to similarly submit memoranda. He must now cease to lead any sort of demonstration whatsoever, I suppose, if he intends to protect the integrity of this very statement.) One Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department called the opposition “pondan” or wimps. (Issue not addressed either) When interviewed on the same day, our Deputy Prime Minister stated that demonstrators were unwelcome because they were warrant to destroying public property and perform acts of vandalism, and that it was bad for the country’s public image. (Nor here) And finally, just yesterday, he said that street demonstrations were not part of the Malaysian culture. He substantiated this by saying that such demonstrations only lead to the possibility of ruining what we have built for the country. This response is intriguing in two ways: he targets both the content and the nature of the rally. First, the content. The very reason for which the demonstration was held was to alert the public as to the destruction that unfair elections would have upon the country. His statement assumes that what is being built for the country – presumably solely by the Government, in his opinion – is fully constructive; whereas any motion against this – any remote disagreement with the Government – is destructive. Whilst the Government is earnest in building up the country as constructively as it can (with some unusual shortsightedness at times), disagreements with Government should not be sweepingly categorized as being destructive in nature. Far from it! If one were to rationally examine the demands of BERSIH, one realizes that these are precisely the hallmarks of a democracy that Malaysia has constantly called for within its many national policies. The third strategic challenge of Vision 2020, the country’s roadmap, is to foster and develop a mature democratic society. Surely the country’s leaders can agree that a flourishing democracy is grounded upon free and fair elections, the very mantra of BERSIH. Those making general criticisms about the demonstration without so much as addressing any of the core issues involved are, by default, shooting themselves in the foot. Second, the nature. To say that street demonstrations are not part of Malaysian culture is absolute hogwash. Our very national fabric is woven and spun out of protests and demonstrations. It is so historically essential to what Malaysia is today. In 1946, the Malayan Union was formed by the then British Government. This was vehemently opposed by the Malay aristocrats as it restricted powers of the Malay rulers, and reduced special privileges of the Malays through looser citizenship requirements. In fact, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was formed out of this very opposition to the Union. It was due to widespread public protests orchestrated by UMNO in 1946 that the British relented and achieved a consensus with the Malay rulers and UMNO to replace the Malayan Union with the Federation of Malaya. If not for these street demonstrations, special privileges of the Malays would not have been preserved. This is just one historical account of how demonstrations were the necessity of last resort, in the face of unfair practices. Think about the various protests conducted by brave local heroes against foreign oppressors, highly venerated within our history text books. Surely history cannot lie to us. Surely there must have been some mark of wisdom taken by these leaders guided only by the need to do ‘right’. The world has seen its fair share of demonstrations, dating back to 1917 when women of the Congressional Union for Woman’s Suffrage marched boldly to the American White House to endorse a Constitutional amendment giving them the right to vote. I can vote today as a woman because of what took place exactly 90 years ago. Myanmar’s monks peacefully demonstrated on the streets of Yangdon recently in protest of its military Government and its dictatorial ways. Pakistan’s lawyers marched in Islamabad to protest the unlawful sacking of its Chief Justice. Demonstrations only take place when the public is so greatly concerned about an issue that silence is not an option. People come by the throngs and multitudes to state clearly that they desire change, knowing this is only possible when there is strength in numbers. To say that Saturday’s demonstration was destructive is false because its four succinct demands are entirely constructive towards the formation of a mature democracy, in line with Vision 2020. To say that Saturday’s demonstration was not part of the Malaysian culture is false because it is precisely due to street protests and marches that we have crowned Malaysia who she is today.
To say that the people walked for a better Malaysia is accurate because the call for free and fair elections can only resonate deeply amongst those who desire justice in the ballot box.