First published in theSun on 24 November 2016, here.
In the lead-up to Bersih 5, many conversations with friends centred on whether there was any point in having street rallies. Many felt that despite large turnouts to such protests over the last few years, no change had really taken place. In fact, many felt the situation had deteriorated even further.
It is in the nature of civil society movements to call for a particular, usually radical, change. These can range from calling for the abolishment of a certain law or policy, or the removal of a leader. Having seemingly unreachable targets is sometimes the point; if it was easy, why all the effort to organise a mass rally in the first place?
First, one could argue that it is precisely because the believers in a certain cause had already exhausted all other alternative options that they turned to the streets. You might first write to your representative, whether local councillor, state assemblyman or Member of Parliament, depending on which law it is you are unhappy about. Then, you might form an NGO or think tank to write policy briefs. But when such efforts have gone on for years to no avail, there are very limited avenues left available.
Second, street rallies are, after all, a legitimate means of expression. Article 10 in the Federal Constitution protects every Malaysian’s right to freedom of speech and expression, and to assemble peacefully and without arms. The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 also makes it legal to have public protests, and in fact puts the onus on the police to redirect any counter-rallies if they expect clashes to take place. Peaceful assembly is essential to a functioning democracy, and hence why it is widely enshrined in local and international law and conventions as fundamental freedoms. This is not some Western-based notion alone but stems from the human necessity for people to cooperate and collaborate to pursue their interests. Vibrant assembly is a crucial element of a fair and just society.
Third, rallies are an efficient way of bringing strangers together who would otherwise have no way of guessing the volume of people believing in a common cause, especially important in a time when activism is largely limited to reading and sharing news from an electronic device. There is great value in sharing a physical space and moving in or away from the same direction together.
These are collective visceral experiences that spur people on to, very simply, be motivated to do more.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm in fact wrote rather cheekily that “next to sex, the activity combining bodily experience and intense emotion to the highest degree is the participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation … it is by its nature collective … through which the merger of the individual in the mass, which is the essence of the collective experience, finds expression”.
But one might claim these to be merely self-indulgent experiences, because no actual policy change can take place as a result of rallying.
Much better to work from the inside through existing systems, it is said. It is perfectly valid to work from within the system, and those who do so should continue persevering.
However, the majority of people do not work within government and they have no access to the corridors of power.
I would in fact argue that the past few Bersih rallies were actually able to demonstrate significant milestones, which would not have been possible without the thousands on the streets and subsequent pressure to act.
Recall that it was only after the Bersih rally in 2011 (Bersih 2) that the government formed a Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform, which conducted public hearings in six states and presented a report to Parliament the following year in 2012.
Although most of the 22 recommendations have not been implemented, one was: the proposal to allow Malaysians residing overseas to vote at Malaysian embassies or missions. This is now a reality. Malaysians living overseas no longer have to fly back to exercise their right to vote.
The Election Commission also eventually implemented the use of indelible ink in the last general election, which was one of the key demands of Bersih in 2011, although the ink was easily washed off. Finally, international as well as local registered Malaysian organisations have also been permitted to observe the elections.
These are small incremental changes, and certainly much more needs to be done – calls for reforming the administration seem to fall on deaf ears.
But this is where civil society learns from each round of social action. In order to pinpoint the most accurate pressure points of a government they seek change from, sometimes things need to happen multiple times before the most effective form of action is uncovered.
Even then, why would a government resisting reforms demanded by mass rallies have to actually respond and listen to its citizens?
A truly democratic government has to be shown explicitly that a significant part of its electorate that put it in power will sway at the ballot box if it does not enact the reforms demanded.
This is why the numbers at rallies are important; the visual impact of the masses coming out is important; the diversity in age, race, class and creed is important. All these are essential to show these demands do not just represent narrow interests or a small section of society.
Especially in Malaysia’s highly racialised and regionalised politics, mixed ethnic composition and East Malaysian participation in such rallies are crucial factors.
It might also serve Malaysians’ memories to note that rallies are not a new thing in this country. In 1946, it was members of Umno that publicly demonstrated against the British-created Malayan Union. They even wore white headbands to signify their mourning for the loss of the Sultans’ political rights, which they said were being reduced.
Two years later, the Malayan Union was dissolved and replaced by the Federation of Malaya on Feb 1, 1948. How long more do we wait before we see some form of change?