Malaysiakini NEWS

End of the road for Bersih?

Neil Khor  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT The last 48 hours has been most exhilarating. A lot of Malaysians, particularly wearing yellow and doing their bit for democracy, had a very good time in Kuala Lumpur.

They can now go home pleased with themselves. Work done and mission accomplished.

What they are really saying is that I have done my bit. Next time, far in the distant future, when my grandchildren ask whether I made a stand, the answer is a resounding yes.

I was with the 200,000 or 20,000 (depending whom you ask) who stood up for a better Malaysia.

The reality is a far and distant cry from what actually happened.

The last 48 hours were also the last spurt of the 2008 Tsunami.

Street protests that started by Indian Malaysians (remember Hindraf) and that cascaded into a tsunami of votes denying the Barisan Nasional its traditional two thirds majority ended in a carnival of yellow.

Finally, the government has wised up. No need for any kind of crackdown and allow the people to gather. The two day event – there was never enough steam to last even 48 hours – allowed middle class urban Malaysia to feel good about itself.

The government also looks good and on Aug 31, roll out the bands as we all celebrate National Day.

From this moment onwards, let us hope that we have successfully buried idealism in politics. We need pragmatism and we need it in huge doses.

Rally would not result in change of gov't

Even the Bersih leaders know that the rally would not result in a change of government.

The prime minister has demonstrated that he is not going anywhere anytime soon. His message to Umno is clear. To his team, he has done nothing wrong at least not in the legal sense and the new attorney-general will most likely clear him.

Najib Abdul Razak ( photo ) said that the people who gathered in Kuala Lumpur have no love for the nation. That he could easily call upon a far larger crowd and that they care nothing for the rural folk.

The prime minister struck the nail on the head and one might say the nails into Bersih’s coffin precisely because he understands Malaysians better than the middle class urbanites.

Firstly, numbers at a demonstration means little if photographs can be digitally enhanced. It does not matter who did it but there is very little credibility left once these images are circulated.

The argument goes that crowds do not an election make and unless the urban revolution can spill into the rural streets, it is really the end of the road for the 2008 tsunami. In short, there just isn’t enough mixed seats left to win come 2018.

Secondly, by failing to breach the rural divide – by being unable to mobilise even the semi-rural folks to participate – Bersih’s concerns, which have always been ideological rather than bread and butter issues – failed to connect with the masses.

In short, the government now realizes that the rural vote bank is safe. It is certainly ironic that the very architect of that logic – the prescient Dr Mahathir Mohamad ( photo ) actually visited the rally, albeit for a few moments.

It brings into focus that for politicians there are really no principles and even less so for the crowds who swarmed around the very man who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years. But nobody remembers history or even Anwar Ibrahim for that matter. A few months in jail and your nemesis become a rallying point!

So, it is only appropriate that the PM highlight how Bersih’s organisers are not able to connect with the rural heartland. Information and publicity materials were mostly in the English language as well as Mandarin.

There was just not enough leadership in the national language in the campaign. Without the PAS machinery, it is clear that the urban revolution will be safely contained in the cities.

Lastly, it is a stroke of genius to plant into the minds of the rural folk that those citizens who support Bersih do not love the nation. It is not a question of loyalty but more an issue of inclusivity.

How can one trust this group of urbanites with the future of the country if they are only out there to assuage their own selfish conscience. “I did my bit for the country, I slept on the street for one night and I cleaned up after myself.”

Nice platitudes but such hardships are an everyday reality for many that cannot be switched off. In the meantime, the government continues to give out BR1M and dish out aid.

Ringgit continues to plunge

Malaysians in more than 40 countries – including in the world’s key capitals – protest to highlight the nation’s problems thus making our credit worthiness even less attractive.

Perhaps that is ultimately a show of love as the Ringgit continues to plunge and we prepare for yet another round of price increases. This must be a great way to “save” the country.

The reality is not so sweet. Unfortunately, our brand of street protests is not couched in real desperation. Revolutions often start with intellectuals but it is the struggling masses that see it through.

The petit bourgeois – the middle classes – are never at the forefront of anything radical. In all cases, we want the good life to continue. In this case, for Najib to resign his premiership and hand it over to the next Barisan Nasional MP, who can then help us to maintain the status-quo.

Bersih’s strategy of appealing to the conscience of political leaders has had its day. I doubt very much it will translate into bigger electoral victories for the fragmented opposition.

If anything, it is back to the drawing boards for civil society. One sliver of hope remains: the activation of people who would otherwise remain apathetic. Remember the floods in the East Coast last year?

This network of concerned citizens can definitely turn its attention to dealing with real issues, on the ground problems that will improve living standards throughout the country.

With Bersih now in Sabah and Sarawak – albeit having ended sooner rather than later – the organisers realise that change can only come if it takes root outside our comfort zones.

So, what is next for Bersih? I see a network of micro-neighbourhood level action that is truly colour blind and that serves to connect Malaysians at the individual level.

Only then can the movement breach the walls that politicians have put up to separate us. Only then can we truly connect.


NEIL KHOR completed his PhD at Cambridge University and now writes occasionally on matters that he thinks require better historical treatment. He is quietly optimistic about Malaysia's future.

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