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LETTER | #LAWAN - A unique expression of grievances

LETTER | With cases inching towards 20,000 daily, a death toll amounting to over 8,000, and potentially two million jobs to be lost this year, Malaysians are experiencing the brunt of the pandemic. The social and economic crisis stands alongside one of the most tumultuous points in Malaysia’s political history, as claims of illegitimacy and incompetence are hurled at elected officials.

According to Amnesty Malaysia, at least 39 individuals were questioned or charged in relation to issues concerning freedom of expression, ranging from contract doctors to political satire and the “Black flag” convoy in preparation for the #Lawan protests. 

The right to free speech and expression, which remains at the core of healthy and burgeoning democracies, is crumbling; youth activists, journalists and NGO workers continue to be hauled in by police for threatening existing power structures.

As democracies of the West wrestle with dwindling electoral participation rates, Southeast Asia’s crisis appears to manifest itself otherwise. Imprints of the hope of May 2018 remain in the minds of many Malaysians, with an 82.32 per cent voter turnout as reported by the Electoral Commission. 

In the span of three years, however, backdoor governments, a fractured opposition, and lack of deliberative spaces have paved the way for a weakened democracy. If elections were to occur, do institutional structures have what it takes to tip the scales in the favour of meaningful elections for a healthier representative democracy?

The #Lawan movement, organised by the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR), emerged at a time of discontent with the government. It criticises the mishandling of the pandemic, the absence of debate in legislative spaces, and the failure of the executive to protect all people. #Lawan as a social movement turned to extra-institutional means of protest after institutional methods were exhausted and the rakyat were left unheard.

This ultimately begs the question - what is the parasite weakening Malaysian democracy, and how does #Lawan challenge it? The quality of Malaysian democracy and its degree of crisis can be analysed through Merkel’s mid-range model, in particular the weakened horizontal accountability and civil rights coupled with compromised political rights and rule of law. 

In spite of these factors and an unfavourable political climate that has dampened efforts for change, the #Lawan movement appears to have found innovative ways that potentially offer new hope to Malaysia’s crippling democracy.

Malaysia’s diversity and heterogeneous identities are weaved into the fabric of society. Identity politics is strongly reflected in its multi-party system consisting of predominantly identity-based parties, all of which toe racial and religious lines to play politics.

The lack of horizontal accountability among the legislative, executive and judicial branches has resulted in insufficient checks and balances. The lack of judicial independence is overshadowed by an unhealthily strengthened executive. Similarly, the interdependence of the executive and dominant-party controlling the legislature affords a weak separation of powers, allowing identity politics that start with legislative elections to ring through to the upper echelons of government.

The mishandling of the pandemic has exposed the system's vulnerabilities, with the onus placed on non-institutionalised actors to protect one another. The Bendera Putih initiative and #KitaJagaKita movement witnessed NGOs and non-state actors delivering food and economic aid to those most severely impacted. Malaysians are waking up to the realisation that it is only a very small and distinct minority served by the governing majority. Malaysia is facing a class endemic masked by the facade of race-based politics.

The breakdown of trust and accountability in majoritarian institutions has occurred in tandem with the unequal enactment of the rule of law and compromised civil rights, all of which contribute to a weakened democracy.

The rule of law and law-based governance ensures democratic quality through equal and impartial enactment towards all. The lack of uniformity in the enforcement of the law has been widespread during the pandemic, especially concerning breaches of SOP. Citizens have noted a double standard of legal enforcement between elected officials and themselves. 

This lack of transparency and accountability can be traced back to the weakened separation of powers, supposedly excused by the extraordinary conditions of the pandemic and the prolonged state of emergency.

The lack of uniformity in law enforcement has further led to a compromise on civil rights, specifically pertaining to freedom of expression. This has been visible with selective enforcement of the Sedition Act against 20-year-old Sarah Irdina, or the Communications and Multimedia Act against Refugee for the Refugees co-founder Heidy Quah. 

The clampdown on the right to free speech and expression, particularly in opposition to the government and their methods, treads dangerously close to the path of authoritarianism.

As non-state actors have taken matters of state welfare into their own hands, how has the #Lawan movement supported this shift and, potentially, a new hope for Malaysian democracy?

Civil disobedience is not a new phenomenon in Malaysia, with the Bersih protests a pertinent example of the reconciliation between social action and social change. #Lawan appeared to be simply another form of civil disobedience - by nature not legal but legitimate. 

Legitimacy was given to the movement by the citizens, all of whom as mentioned before had exhausted institutional means and were left unheard, and therefore were forced to transition to the peripheries and attempt extra-institutional means: peaceful protests.

The #Lawan movement was clear and explicit in its demands, including diagnostic, prognostic and motivation framing to ensure clarity and success (Snow and Benford 1988). 

Easily accessible graphics across all media platforms clearly outlined the issue, proposed solutions and implementation as well as the movement’s call to action. The movement organised the grievances experienced by the Malaysian public into three simple demands and accessible ways to protest:

1) The prime minister and his cabinet to resign immediately

2) A full Parliament sitting to run

3) Automatic moratorium for all

More innovatively, the movement spoke to a wide target audience - all Malaysians who had been impacted by the incompetence of the Perikatan Nasional government. 

It capitalised on the rage towards an overworked healthcare system and the plight of the contract doctors; it profited from the anger felt by students missing almost two valuable years of education due to institutional failures; it bolstered cries for help by the most vulnerable falling through the cracks of a broken system. 

The movement’s framing through issues of social justice allowed diverse groups of people, who under normal political conditions may not align, to assemble and mobilise.

In particular, though, the movement mobilised a very specific demographic which arguably made its success distinct, and which suggests it is the beacon of hope for Malaysia’s crippling democracy.

Resource mobilisation remains a central tool to any social movement. #Lawan has mobilised the most dynamic, versatile and important resource that current political structures have failed - Malaysian youth. 

The movement has successfully surpassed established political boundaries to encapsulate youth on both sides of the spectrum, as well regardless of an identity group. This can be attributed to the effective framing by the movement, speaking to a wider target audience in multiple languages, as well as through policy-based rather than identity-based framing.

The privileged, classist responses to the #Lawan protest efforts further reinforce the class-based endemic faced by Malaysian society. Yet the striking ability for Malaysians, and in particular Malaysian youth, to look past identity-based fractures that have dictated political discourse for so long and to unite on the grounds of justice and equality, is a testament to the unifying effect of the #Lawan movement.

A movement’s success is defined in terms of its ability to mobilise resources and individuals to achieve goals and profit from political opportunities (McCarthy 1977). #Lawan is not simply a social movement but a revolutionary one - it aims to radically transform power structures rather than just implementing reforms. It has succeeded by mobilising the most valuable resource of Malaysia’s future - its youth. 

By transcending racial and religious lines to arrive at the very core of the parasite weakening Malaysian democracy, #Lawan offers hope for a generation of passionate youth determined to create an equitable society for all Malaysians.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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