Without a doubt the year 2015, politically and economically, has been one of the most eventful in Malaysian history. And in this year of unprecedented political turbulence, the Bersih 4 rally certainly has been one of the most reported, talked and debated about topics, triggering a broad spectrum of emotions and responses.
To its supporters, Bersih 4 has been an immensely successful rally. The organisers, Bersih 2.0, declared the gathering had achieved its goals by bringing thousands of Malaysians to the street thereby sending a loud and clear message to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. Detractors, unsurprisingly, dismissed the rally as an ill-timed, illegal and politically-motivated attempt to topple a democratically-elected government.
While there were no shortage post-rally analysis in the print, electronic and social media, most lacked intellectual depth, objectivity and neutrality. This analysis attempts to fill this gap by providing a systematic and impartial assessment of Bersih 4. The first part will examine the strategic impact while the second section attempts to determine, using mathematical tools, the actual number of people who turned up for the rally.
Was Bersih 4 a success?
To evaluate this question, we need to compare it against the rally’s stated objectives - clean and fair elections, a transparent government, the right to demonstrate, strengthening the parliamentary democracy system and saving the national economy. However it was an open secret that the real purpose of the rally was to force Prime Minister Najib out.
In this aspect, unlike its predecessors, Bersih 4 failed in its mission. In fact the rally ended up producing the opposite and unintended effect of strengthening Najib’s position by committing strategic hara-kiri.
Firstly the organisers failed to marshal enough people - the attendance fell well short of the targeted number of minimum 500,000 people. One of the key prerequisites to trigger a regime or leadership change similar to the Arab Spring revolutions is the mass mobilisation of the citizenry - in this case bigger is always better.
Unfortunately the crowd for Bersih 4 was considerably smaller than the previous versions and way short of the 1 million mark that the organisers had hoped for.
Secondly, the composition of the crowd was predominantly Chinese (estimated between 80 and 85 percent) while Malays, Indians and other ethnic minorities were conspicuous by their low turnout.
A survey by the independent Merdeka Centre revealed a deep cleavage across the ethnic groups on the perception toward the rally. The poll found that Bersih 4 was strongly supported by the Chinese (81 percent) while a majority of Malays (70 percent) firmly opposed it. The failure of Bersih to attract Malays especially the disgruntled Umno members indicated that while Malaysians might be unhappy over the current political and economic situation, they are not angry enough to demand that the PM step down.
Lastly, inviting the former PM Dr Mahathir Mohammad fatally compromised Bersih’s integrity as the ex-premier is the anti-thesis to the ideals of democracy and human rights. By joining forces, many felt Bersih had betrayed their own principles and opted to follow the Machiavellian approach of the ends justifying the means.
Who were winners?
The biggest winner of Bersih 4 was the arch-villain of the earlier versions - the police. Despite the cops’ uncompromising stance and post-rally tough talk, on the day of the protest itself they were admirably restrained and even facilitated the event. They are, without doubt, the real winner of the rally.
The runner-up is also an unlikely candidate - Najib. The missteps and failures of Bersih organisers unwittingly played into Najib’s hands. The lack of Malay support, the overwhelming Chinese presence, the presence of Dr Mahathir and uncivilised acts by some protesters adversely impacted Bersih’s credibility as a civil rights movement and severely damaged their claim of representing all Malaysians.
One of the more encouraging aspects of Bersih 4 was the conduct of the rally participants which contrasted markedly with the previous editions. This time the rally-goers kept their discipline by ensuring the demonstration stayed peaceful and trouble-free. They would have been easily one of the winners if not for the ugly antics of some protesters who undid all the good work of the majority.
The shockingly uncouth and disrespectful acts of stepping upon and urinating on the photos of national leaders, burning hell notes bearing the pictures of Najib, performing funeral rites for the PM and his wife, vulgar placards and posters, etc. completely eclipsed the positive and progressive behaviour of the majority rally-goers of Bersih 4.
Who were the losers?
The biggest losers of Bersih 4 by some margin was DAP. The Chinese-based party worked extremely hard to mobilise their supporters to attend the rally by using their print, electronic and social media as well as their extensive party network. DAP’s cyber unit, in particular played a critical role in supporting these activities.
The party managed to whip up the emotion of the Chinese community to a fever pitch just like they had managed to during the last general election. So it was no surprise that tens of thousands of Chinese from all corners of Malaysia descended upon KL for the rally. It was reported a few thousand ethnic Chinese Malaysians crossed the causeway from Singapore to attend, while there were also reports of people flying in from overseas to participate.
However, these massive show of force by Chinese, also had an unintended consequence - it created a deep sense of uneasiness among the other communities. The general feeling among the Malays was that the Chinese are bent on usurping the Malay political power using Bersih as a convenient proxy. This led many Malays put aside their reservations about Najib and stick with him in the greater interest of protecting the community’s interests.
DAP has long been accused of being a Chinese-based racist party by Umno/BN and this accusation was only reinforced by what transpired during Bersih 4. Rightly or wrongly, the rowdy acts of some ethnic Chinese protesters toward Malay leaders were interpreted as an affront to the Malay community with the blame placed square on DAP’s aggressive political tactics.
This was not helped by the messages in the social media by Chinese Bersih supporters who insulted the Malays as cowards, unpatriotic and easily bought for not attending Bersih 4.
Another big loser of Bersih 4 was the organising committee, Bersih 2.0. Many people had questioned the electoral watchdog on the objectives of the rally since these deviated from the original charter of fighting for free and fair electoral system. The inclusion of additional three demands of “a transparent government, strengthening the parliamentary democracy system and saving the national economy” smacked of political opportunism.
Bersih’s continued silence in the aftermath of shambolic party elections of PKR and DAP and their tacit support for the highly undemocratic ‘Kajang Move’ prompted some critics to question the NGO’s true motivations. Bersih’s active participation and leadership of almost every anti-government protests also raised doubts in the minds of Malaysians on the NGO’s independence and political neutrality.
Many Malaysians also disagreed with Bersih’s choice of dates (which coincided with the Merdeka Day) and location. The NGO leaders’ willingness to work with people such as Dr Mahathir for political expediency too did not go down well with some sections of rakyat.
Estimating Bersih 4 crowd
There were various estimates of the number of participants of Bersih 4 rally ranging from 500,000 (Bersih) to 20,000 (the government).
Perhaps the best-known static crowd-counting technique is called the Jacob’s Method and this involves simple mathematics of multiplying density with area size. Associate Prof Ray Watson of the Melbourne University’s Mathematics Department suggests a density of 0.42 person per square metre for a typical rally in his celebrated paper to the Royal Statistical Society.
Using this guideline and Free Map Tool to estimate the area of Dataran Merdeka, I arrived at the area size of 10,300 square metres. A simple calculation results in an estimated crowd size of 24,524 people which is much nearer to the estimation made by the police. Logically it is impossible to fill in 500,000 in the Downtime KL.
While there were also crowd in other locations in KL, there were much smaller in numbers and would not make much difference the above number.
In summary, we can conclude that not only Bersih 4 failed to achieve its goal of regime change but more importantly the organisers also overestimated their influence and misread the public mood. This resulted in a rally that lacked both the requisite quantity as well as quality (the right ethnic mix) thus severely compromising its own case.
Bersih also missed the golden opportunity to force Najib out and the window of opportunity has now firmly closed. It is also highly likely that the government will no longer view Bersih as seriously as before and ignore future rallies by them.
This failure also sends an ominous message to the Pakatan and the anti-Najib faction in BN - that they will not have the people’s mandate if they try to move a motion of no confidence against the PM when Parliament reconvenes in October.