COMMENT In the aftermath of the history-breaking Bersih 4 rally for democracy in Malaysia, there is a natural question that comes up: What now?

Furthermore, deep inside us, sceptical thoughts may arise and people may start to wonder what exactly will be the concrete outcomes: Will the rallies lead to a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak in October? Will the rallies free Anwar Ibrahim and other political prisoners? Will the rallies save the ringgit from plunging further?

Although these are interesting and important questions, I believe they are secondary issues for the rakyat. To start with, we have to understand the meaning of what we have accomplished from the point of view of the political culture of the rakyat.

The political culture of the rakyat is the slow process by which the rakyat is evolving to become itself, and learning to act independently on its own behalf.

The rakyat is constructed as a social force through political struggle and through the process of freeing itself from oppression – all forms of oppression: corruption, racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and the exploitation of the poor, the Orang Asal and the immigrant workers.

To think and act as part of the rakyat and for the rakyat is very different from the thought process of one who is a leader in a political party. The political culture of the rakyat is not simply the means towards a specific end, for example, the overthrow of one set of corrupt leaders to be replaced by another set of elitist leaders.

It is also not equivalent to regime change and the emergence of a two-party system, such as those seen in the West. Even in the West, the troubles of the ordinary people are not resolved by the two-party system that is controlled by the wealthy and by dominant racial groups.

However, what has transpired in Malaysia in the last few days, through Bersih 4, is a fresh and exciting chapter in the recent story of the political culture of the Malaysian rakyat.

Since the launch of Reformasi in 1998, and following the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister, Malaysians have re-embraced street-based participatory democracy as an expression of their grassroots political power.

At that time, 60,000 Malaysians took to the streets to protest what they saw as the authoritarian regime of the then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

While Mahathir had unleashed state repression on his opponents, both from within and outside Umno many times before, the Reformasi protest was an eye-opener for Malaysians, and for the Malay community in particular, concerning the dangers of authoritarian Mahathirism. The culmination of these protests was the eventual stepping down of Mahathir in 2003.

It may have taken the Malaysian people five years, but the rakyat eventually did secure an important victory in their struggle to stop one-man authoritarian rule from becoming permanent.

Many other post-colonial countries have sunk into authoritarian rule and there was no guarantee that Malaysia would not also go down the same quicksand.

Hindraf protests an important milestone

Following the 2007 Bersih rally, the emergence of the Hindraf protests was an important milestone. The historical significance of this demonstration lies in the fact that a marginalised racial group in Malaysia was able to make visible the neglected suffering of its community.

There had been many critical analyses prior to the Hindraf moment concerning the lack of support from minority Chinese and Indians during the Reformasi period. The re-entry of racial and ethnic minorities into protest politics therefore signalled another important step in the development of the political culture of an insurgent rakyat.

For racial and ethnic minorities in Malaysia, the Hindraf street demonstrations finally broke down the fears of violence associated with the threat of ‘another May 13’ that was often used by the ruling regime to maintain coercive electoral support.

These popular historical developments would also, in time, give rise to the emergence of vibrant opposition parties and their successes in the two general elections of 2008 and 2013.

These electoral successes managed to remove the precious two-thirds majority of the ruling regime in Parliament in 2008. After stopping the seemingly endless reign of Mahathir, this was a second important victory for the rakyat, who were now able to stop wanton changes to the constitution.

The general election of 2013 saw another triumph for the rakyat. This time, victory was embedded in the multiracial vote majority of the opposition parties that won. Another seemingly insurmountable barrier in modern Malaysian history had been broken.

The significance of Bersih 4 has to be examined in the light of the story of the slow and steady emergence of a confident rakyat that is learning to claim its power in cooperation and equality with the various identities that comprise Malaysian society.

By defying a corrupt government through civil disobedience, the rakyat has evolved even further in realising that they should only give consent to be governed when a government truly represents their interests and actively acts on their well-being.

Hence, the question of Malay or Chinese participation in Bersih 4 has to be put in perspective. Of course the tactics of divide and rule will be used to break up this evolution of the rakyat. But the rakyat’s evolution has not concluded with the end of Bersih 4. This is in fact a never-ending story.

Just take a look at the magnificent photographs of Muslims praying during Bersih 4 while non-Muslims respectfully supported them and even helped them with their ablutions (wudhu).

A picture is worth a thousand words and it is clear that by breaking segregation and isolation, the rakyat exemplified the principles of an alternative multiracial and multi-religious Malaysian society that is waiting to be fully born.

This is why it is important for everyone to understand what their role is in the development of the emerging rakyat. We cannot criticise leaders if we ourselves do not continue to change, learn and evolve as people who practice taking responsibility and fighting for justice for all.

And to do this we do not need any more leaders. And, as American Chinese activist, Grace Lee Boggs put it, “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”


MOHAN AMBIKAIPAKER is an assistant professor with the Department of Communication, Tulane University, New Orleans, United States.

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