Tomorrow, August 31, is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. Shortly after Merdeka Day thirty six years ago, I left Malaysia. I’ve lived away for so long now that I have spent more time in England than in my country of origin.
Yet, nothing grips me as much as major pieces of Malaysian news. Last July for example, when MH-17 was shot down over Ukraine, I was riveted: engaged in both heart and mind, emotions veering between horror and utter disbelief, and finally anger. Hours later, when it was already clear that the plane had not crashed accidentally but had been shot down by a missile, major media networks (in three languages) changed their headlines to reflect this appalling new element. All except for the BBC, which retained its misleading “Malaysian Plane Crashes in Ukraine” as if it had been Malaysian Airlines’ fault, as if the plane’s flight path had not been pre-cleared. I was so incensed that I wiped the BBC app off my iPhone.
This weekend, I have once again been glued to Malaysian news. A 34-hour protest has been taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. People were out in force – two hundred thousand according to the organisers, a mere twenty thousand by the government’s count. Most of the protesters wore yellow T shirts (hastily banned beforehand by authorities), blew into their vuvuzelas and air-horns, prayed when it was time to pray, listened to speeches and made music – all quite peacefully. Many even stayed overnight as had been planned, literally sleeping on the streets and squares of the capital. To see what it was like during the final hour of this marathon rally, see the attached link.
The protest was organised by Bersih (Clean), an organisation which is campaigning for clean, fair elections in Malaysia. This was the fourth rally organised by Bersih. At the previous demonstration before this one, an estimated quarter of a million turned up and police used teargas on the crowds.
Not surprisingly, the Malaysian government – which has a rather low tolerance of dissent – was up to its usual tricks last week. They first declared the rally to be “illegal”. When that didn’t work, the Home Minister banned yellow clothing and T shirts with the words “Bersih 4”. The authorities, knowing that a sleep-in was planned, promptly prohibited the erection of tents.
Despite these absurd obstacles, yellow T shirts abounded on KL’s streets. Demonstrators proceeded with their “sleep-over” – truly a sight to behold. Of course there have been plenty of naysayers, as there always are. People who belittle Bersih for “not going far enough”, and the protest as little more than the huff of a few well-heeled urbanites.
As the former chairperson of Bersih – the redoubtable Ambiga Sreenevasan – has pointed out, Bersih’s rallies take place despite the organisation having little money and no power and in spite of the entire machinery of government being arrayed against them. These rallies rely entirely on “the goodwill of the people”. Which is why they are remarkable: Bersih‘s rallies are tangible signs of a nascent civil society.
Street protest flies in the face of Malaysian tradition. As a nation, we prefer to avoid even the smell of conflict. We stick to safe topics, such as shopping, and of course, food! We can say a lot about food without touching on anything remotely controversial, anything that (we fear) may offend someone. If you spend your life in this “head-down, risk-free” zone, the thought of going on a march where you may be asked to hold a banner or shout and generally take a stand, is rather alien. Mahathir Mohamed, the former Prime Minister who turned up at the rally on both days, gave an interview in which he admitted that it was the first time he had joined a street protest – and he is ninety.
I only learnt about protest as a student at Southampton University in Britain. The experience was incredibly liberating. I discovered what democracy should actually be about. I found that in a truly democratic country, people were free to express legitimate political views, so long as they did not advocate violence on anyone else or infringe on the rights of others. In contrast to Malaysia, I could say what I felt without being shut down, called names or told to leave the country. I went on marches, I held placards, I became an activist. I disagreed vehemently with some people, and still managed to remain friends with them.
The whole process was thoroughly validating. Among my causes: gay rights. There were absolutely no positive gay role models then, and your boss could have fired you if s/he discovered your sexual orientation, no matter how well you did your job. It was such a far cry from today that it is hard to even remember what Britain was like in the mid-eighties. If anyone had told me then that in less than thirty we would be able to marry one another, I would have laughed out loud.
This example goes to show that protest can bring about change. You only have to think of the suffragettes to be reminded that without them, women would never have obtained the vote. Without protest, we would also not be attending universities today.
Could the same natural evolution happen in Malaysia?
On this, the signs are not good. The Malaysian government is one which loves the legitimacy that its veneer of democracy confers, at the same time as it hates the reality. Citizens wanting to hold Ministers accountable: what a nuisance. As for the possibility that the government might actually be voted out of office, perish the thought!
After fifty eight years in power, any government would be tired; this one is especially tired – of criticism from those pesky citizens. In recent days and weeks, Malaysian Ministers have acted with their usual brilliance. In late July, a leading business publication exposed the fact that US$700 million had entered the Prime Minister’s personal bank account. The official response? Suspend said publication for three months. How dare journalists do their jobs! This week, when it became clear that threats and intimidation were not going to prevent the weekend’s rally, the government blocked access to Bersih’s website (within Malaysia).
No wonder America’s former ambassador to Malaysia has voiced his worries. In a recent opinion piece, Mr. John Malott described how there are two faces to Malaysia’s current Prime Minister Najib Razak: the international man who knows what Westerners want to hear, and the domestic man who happily lines his and his wife’s pockets while curbing individual liberties and meddling with institutions.
As if to confirm his increasingly authoritarian streak, the Prime Minister told the nation yesterday: “All forms of street demonstration have to be rejected as they adversely affect peace and order and cause problems to the public.” Apparently, only “immature” people express their views by protesting on the streets. Such words (and his actions) do not bode well.
Where will Malaysia go from here?
Will the Prime Minister step down tomorrow? Unfortunately, this is unlikely.
Will we see greater restrictions on freedom in Malaysia? Possibly.
Could the country veer towards dictatorship?
As an optimist, I believe that positive change will come, but this will take longer than we either think or would like. What is important is for concerned Malaysians not to give up. We need to remain engaged, to stay strong and show that we will demand good governance, no matter how much our own government threatens us. For the sake of Malaysia’s future, we will not go away. Not until we have clean, fair elections and an end to rampant corruption and cronyism.