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The alternative is protest, people

Jason Wong  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | I refer to my previous article, in which I outlined the kind of movement it would take to really pull the support base out from underneath Umno, and stop it from ever coming back.

Since then, the debate over how civil society should respond in the face of our lesser-evil choice in the coming 14th general election has gained a name: #UndiRosak.

Ugly slurs have been exchanged. The relations between Pakatan Harapan and some of its activist supporters have been strained greatly. Much has been written on these debates and I have nothing significant to add, other than to outline starkly the ultimatum Harapan has been offered.

The choice Harapan has made makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of electoral pragmatism; it is totally irrational and hypocritical from the viewpoint of principled struggle.

#UndiRosak precisely has a problem with Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his Umno clone called Bersatu. Until Harapan severs ties completely, we won't be able to take the opposition seriously.

The #UndiRosak critics are right about one thing: our campaign needs to bite BN harder than it currently does. The problem we must now solve is this: What can people do to undermine BN, regardless of which constituency they live in, who their choices are in GE14 and what their level of political consciousness is?

We must have an answer for these people, or we will be stuck exchanging blows on the pages of newspaper editorials.

The current state of consciousness among the Malaysian public means that calling for a full boycott is not the sharpest possible intervention. This is one reason why many of us who defend #UndiRosak do not necessarily advocate it.

That is especially true for those of us who view action outside Parliament, not elections, as the driving force for progress in societies.

Our mutual goal here is to simultaneously wedge Harapan away from race politics while undermining the credibility of “Ketuanan Melayu” to the point that it can no longer be used to lock in rural Malaysia to BN.

To do this, we need a consistent, principled programme of mass activity; it must attack BN policy while at the same time excluding anyone on the Harapan side who has sympathies for those bad policies.

In this way, whether Harapan wins the next election or not, both the opposition and society at large will be better organised to stop whatever attack Najib is saving for after GE14.

We will also be in a better position to hold a new Harapan government to account and force it to adopt an anti-racist position.

A solid programme of mass mobilisation will weaken Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak's mandate going into the election, more than press statements and verbal jabs can.

It will demonstrate that Harapan will support causes like LGBT rights that it does not currently focus on, and it shows that the Harapan leadership is willing to work with a mass movement that is independent and will punish that leadership if it breaks its promises.

Incomplete history

In my last piece, I argued that votes are the weakest expression of democracy.

Every time I have raised this point at a public discussion, some members of the panel react with shock and horror, complain that I am "not offering an alternative", and immediately begin quoting at length examples from local and world history when people 'voted' out their dictators.

This sort of last-mile emphasis is dangerous. Yes, Suharto was voted out. Yes, the 1990 Umno crisis caused the opposition vote to spike. Yes, the wealth-redistributing NEP started after Umno got worried it might lose the Malay vote in 1969. Stuff happens when people vote.

But then what happened? Suharto was replaced by neo-liberals, and the army and religious conservatives are on the rise today. Semangat 46 rejoined Umno, and we waited another eight years before Anwar's ejection from Umno triggered a new wave of protest under the Reformasi movement.

May 13 destroyed the progressive left in this country, which has only recently begun to recover.

A change-bringing vote is almost always also a crisis, an uprising, a long fight, mass mobilisation that opens up space. More importantly, when the mass movement dissipates, the vote loses its weight.

Without this backing, or the threat of it, an election victory is still nothing more than a gamble on change. Struggles outside Parliament enable good votes in Parliament. The reverse, as we see above, is not always true.

Elected leaders do not always follow their promises and even when they try, they can be forced by circumstance to break promises. Before and after election day, it is still our task to make our leaders do as they have promised.

We are witnessing the stagnation and impending decline of the movement that brought the 2013 political tsunami. Movement-building might seem like an idealistic alternative, but for a group of Harapan's size, there are opportunities cropping up all the time.

One is passing us by right now.

I attended Bersih's launch of “Satukan Tenaga, Kalahkan Penipuan” last week, and saw first-hand the degeneration of what was once a terrifying democratic force. Each attendee received a large booklet outlining what they could do to help register people to vote. All good so far.

Then I got to the section where they explain how things will change. There was no explanation. Just seven iterations on "vote". Get your friends to vote, call 10 people to vote, "vote, vote, vote". Then came the speeches about #UndiRosak and redelineation and reform-can-only-come-from-Mahathir.

I got no response when I asked if they were planning any rallies. I want to believe that privately, Bersih understands the flaw in this strategy. On Feb 19, we got news that the court threw out a challenge to the EC's redelineation in Malacca and Perak.

Bersih has made a heroic effort to beat back the redelineation in Selangor too. But what will they do when the courts throw out that case (and there is a very good chance they will)?

There should be protests outside these courts. There should be protests outside the EC offices. If, as Mahathir insists, we have only a few more months before BN plunges Malaysia into the dark ages and arrests us all, doesn't that give us even more reason to fight the government on all fronts?

Many other opportunities

Why stop there? In the last month alone we've had Rafizi Ramli's second whistle-blowing charge; the torture and murder of an Indonesian maid; a new censorship law disguised as a "fake news" law; sexist journalist union representatives; a woman attacked for not wearing tudung; hijab bans; mandatory hijab rules; state asset sell-offs; the witch-hunt of Nur Sajat; dodgy Mara deals in Australian properties; Felda land scandals; a housing affordability crisis… and the list goes on.

We might disagree on whether voting in Harapan will fix every one of these things, but surely we can agree these are useful things to mobilise around? At the very least we can agree that doing so would be an excellent way to make Umno uncomfortable?

The one protest we saw in the last month with opposition involvement was the one against Trump's Jerusalem announcement, which seemed to have been called to match Umno's own rally.

Civil society is still small and fragmented, thanks in no small part to Dr M. We rely, where we can, on the platforms of larger groupings like Harapan and Bersih to spread our message and grow. We need them to support, attend and ideally build protests.

If Harapan continues to ignore the reality that movement building has contributed greatly to their success so far, then their electoral support will continue to stagnate. This will be true whether #UndiRosak exists or not.

Activists will continue to organise around these issues independently. There's a women's march already planned for March 10 in KL calling for an end to sexism and the wage gap. The Temiar people continue their blockade of loggers in Kelantan.

Harapan could mobilise for causes like these and take on their demands while differentiating themselves from BN.

But as long as they would rather play "he-said-she-said", promoting these actions will remain difficult. The government will have greater confidence to silence activists.

People who have been hit with biased court charges, like Fahmi Reza (photo) and Adam Adli, not to mention whistle-blowers like Rafizi, don't gain much from angry press releases. But protest actions have a chance of de-legitimising or even reversing the verdicts.

If I was petty, I might say to the pundits: "If you are not willing to march with us, you don't deserve to complain about the country." But that is not how democracy works. Real change is hard.

Most of us need groups to work with. Even if Harapan did not exist, how many of us would be reduced to begging BN for favours, or just keeping our head down and ignoring it all?

The fact is, we need Harapan's grassroots base to mobilise on the streets if we want to force change. Whether this happens now, through the leadership of the MPs or through frustration with the MPs after GE14, depends on the actions of the Harapan leadership in the coming weeks.

A movement-building strategy is slow and ugly but it pays dividends in the long run. We're not merely trying to win an election here. We're trying to destroy a toxic ideology.

Why should we compromise hand-over-fist to win the votes of hapless rural Malays who have been fooled into supporting the racist Umno? Harapan will only be stunting its own growth.

We have to do everything we can to win them to a truly progressive position and this is the only right way to do it.

People power is a precious thing. It is like a muscle. Use it, and it grows stronger. Leave it, and it withers away. GE14 lasts one day. You have to make yourself heard on every other day of the year too.

That's what I'll be doing while the pundits high-five themselves about how wonderful their substitute Anwar Ibrahim is. Don't just vote. Hit the streets with me. Especially if you're with Harapan.

JASON WONG is president, Malaysian Progressives in Australia (MPOZ), which is a movement of young Malaysians in Australia who strive for open dialogue of political reform in Malaysia.

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

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