These days, people are getting more and more acquainted with their political and social rights.
Protest movements are now a normal part of the political process. People have frequently participated in mass protests for two major purposes - firstly, to influence the policy-makers and secondly, to impact public opinion.
On one hand, they put pressure on the political authorities for recognition as well as to get their demands met.
On the other hand, they seek public support and to stimulate the population of their cause. Changes in public opinion can help movements to reach their goals by making decision makers more responsive to their demands.
Usually a protest brings together either a specific issue or a set of issues, and most of the time it is concerned primarily with the general grievances of particular groups of people.
For instance, the Great Depression in the 1930s struck the United States with a surprise force and transformed the American political and economic landscape.
The consequent misery of soaring unemployment rate and economic collapse, agitated many protest movements.
The number of people participating in demonstrations has increased in almost every corner of the world including Malaysia. We have had historical episodes of protest way before the Independence.
Starting with the Tunisian protests in December 2010, more than a dozen Arabic countries subsequently have encountered major protests with various political consequences in what has been popularly known as the ‘Arab Spring'.
These developments have caught the observers by surprise as although the Arab world has been always known as a continent of conflict, however its authoritarian regimes are also recognised as fundamentally strong enough to curb any dissents.
While the problems are in socio-economic in nature, it was the frustrating political expectations of reform that actually led the people to the street.
The Europe continent has not been exclusive in the wave of protests. In May 2011, a series of demonstrations occurs in Spain asking for "Real Democracy Now", social justice and against political corruption.
The massive series of demonstrations that started on May 15 gathered people from all classes and ages. These are still on the go and have spread to other Western countries, from Iceland to Greece.
The right for organised protest, although is not absolute, is commonly seen as an indication of three crucial fundamental human rights - the right of assembly, the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of expression.
It is often apprehended that restraining popular dissents will eventually drive them to the street, making them politically more dangerous.
Can protests result in political change?
The protest intensification raises questions about the motives of these ever more frequent protesters.
Why do people take part in these mass protests, and why do they spread like a wildfire?
Can the protests after all bring to political change?
First and foremost, desire to participate is a precondition for participation. Participating is an attentive action as it requires risk and implication of choice.
For many years, protest has been widely used as one of many techniques to challenge existing power structures and bring about progressive change.
The most direct and immediate impact of protest is the visibility of the cause. In short, it helps in getting voices heard.
The restoring of democracy also arise from protest movements, for instances in the French and American Revolutions, and modern day protests in South Africa, India, and the like.
All anecdotes of protest have political implications, especially in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries whereby the demonstrations are most of the time either strictly controlled or banned totally.
Ultimately, however, what will determine whether change comes to other countries will not be the demonstration effect from Tunisia, but how governments respond to the challenge.
In some cases frustration cultivates violence which in turn brings to repression.
While in other cases, protests have been fortunate enough to be successful and met with accommodation.
If the government remains its reluctance to alter the traditional ways of dealing with the political dissents and to allow some kind of institutional participation, then the government is definitely put itself in a very delicate balance between maintaining power and retaining legitimacy.
If some kind of change takes place, how things go will be most probably not in the government's control.
KHOO YING HOOI is an academic staff member of Universiti Malaya.