Had I been in Kuala Lumpur the past weekend, I would have done my best to attend the Bersih rally to voice my displeasure about the state of our electoral system.
Being in London, I remained glued to my laptop till the wee hours of the morning scouring the Internet for news, which included refreshing the Malaysiakini pages an inordinate number of times. Later in the day, I attended a Bersih-inspired rally in London, which drew a smaller throng of people but no less committed.
My friend Josef, reminded me at the London rally, that at a fundamental level, these events are about creating a democratic space. This space was dramatically created yesterday, whether some liked it or not. What I find truly unfortunate is that the rally is now being characterised by many as an opposition rally with some opposition personalities taking centre stage. Yesterday's rally must not be seen as an opposition rally.
While membership of Bersih includes five opposition parties, it also includes many non-partisan civil society groups, whose focuses range from workers', women's and human rights. Certainly, many of the individuals I know who attended the rally in Kuala Lumpur are not supporters of particular political parties. I would include myself in that category.
The last time Malaysia saw demonstrations of this scale was during the reformasi period almost 10 years ago. I cannot help but reflect on how my attitudes have changed since then. At the time, I was dead set against the demonstrations.
I viewed the demonstrations as having a potentially adverse effect on the economy. This, in turn, may ultimately hurt the pockets of the man in the street who probably cared more about feeding his family than who was leading the country. I agreed with change but dramatic change, I thought, would only bring instability.
To some extent, similar arguments could be raised about yesterday's events. However, I now believe that the need for change is increasingly urgent such that peaceful civil disobedience is a legitimate means to an end. In the 10 years since the height of the reformasi movement we have seen that putting blind faith in our political leaders have not resulted in the changes many had been hoping for, not even the changes we had been promised.
Press freedom is at its lowest in years, our tertiary institutions flounder in international rankings, corruption continues to be endemic, national unity is fraying, inefficient and discriminatory policies continue endlessly. Apart from all this, the economies of neighbouring countries appear to be performing better than our own.
I believe that if our leaders do not get their act together and attune themselves to the demands of the people and the global economy, the consequences will be far graver for both our economy and national unity in the long term. Such an outcome, I believe, would hold far worse implications for the man in the street and his children than a single peaceful demonstration ever could.
To me, the Bersih rally was about accountability. Accountability is also at the heart of calling for the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and a robust investigation of the Lingam tape . These connected events have had a broad level of support. It shows that this is not just the opposition but the rakyat, regardless of their political persuasions, demanding greater accountability from public office bearers.
By rebuffing such demands and calling for the arrest of those leading such efforts, the government is signaling that it does not want to be more accountable to the people. In doing so, the government is doing itself more damage than a hundred rallies could ever do.