Mark Lee reports from Malaysia on the Bersih rally, a cause against corruption he sees as troubled yet necessary.
Standing in the frontline of the Bersih (which in Malay means clean) 5.0 rally on Jalan Travers, I was overcome with a sense of overwhelming wonderment. In the midst of a pro-Bersih security blockade on one end and a barricade of armed policemen on the other, behind me stood erect thousands of Malaysians. Race was not a factor. Every yellow-shirted individual was fuelled by a common purpose: to demand the resignation of MO1 — widely-accepted to be Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak, the sixth Prime Minister of Malaysia – over the recent 1MDB financial scandal taking the nation by storm.
Despite being wholly supportive of the democratic right to peaceful assembly, I have not been able to fully embrace the idea of Bersih. Like many a Malaysian, I have developed a melange of lethargy and burning rage directed towards those responsible for the kleptocratic order of the Malaysian state. Still, this fervent anger has never culminated in my personal support for Bersih. The movement often appears heavily politically-motivated due to the involvement of the Opposition, not to mention bogged down with the presence of dubious, formerly pro-government figureheads like the 4th Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad, as well as Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Muhyiddin Yassin. A former ally of the Prime Minister, he was swiftly removed as the Deputy Prime Minister after publicly questioning Najib over his involvement in the 1MDB issue.
Taking into account the backing from prominent former Barisan Nasional politicians – the ruling coalition since the early 1970s – their reasons for supporting Bersih seem more bitter than sincere. It feels onerous to look beyond their actions during their time in government, as Bersih concerns itself with bringing about a “cleaner Malaysia”. Let’s brush that aside for a moment and look at the bigger question: does Bersih work? To explain and perhaps assuage the general state of exhaustion many of my peers experience daily, I decided to take it to the streets. Getting up close and personal with rally-goers and politicians, I believed, would help me build some semblance of faith in Malaysia’s future.
Arriving at the starting point around 8:50 on a Saturday morning, the sacrifices being made by those fighting for a better Malaysia were immediately evident. Armed with banners demanding the arrest of “MO1” and hoisting the Malaysian flag, a senior citizen shared his sole reason for joining the rally: “I will not be here much longer, but I want the younger generation to experience better days ahead.” This appeared to be a common sentiment shared by everyone I met along the way, many of whom believed it was important to cast away the usual tidak apa (never mind) sentiment – highly atypical of Malaysian society.
During the first two hours of the event, prominent figures from all factions of the Opposition as well as artists like Fahmi Reza, known for his depiction of Prime Minister Razak as a deceptive clown, dominated the crowded street with their impassioned speeches – plus a cheeky twist to Vengaboys’ Shalala Lala, meant to satirise Razak’s recent karaoke session with Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte. Whilst certainly a morale-booster for many, it served a limited purpose, if any. Protestors began their strenuous march toward Merdeka Square right after – or so they tried.
Tensions escalated exponentially as rallygoers were met with a strict police barricade, faced with the prospect of ending their journey there and then. Armed with water cannon and authorised to use force, members of the police force were convinced into negotiating with the main organisers of Bersih 5. When Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan informed protestors to back down peacefully, some voiced out their anger to me. A dissatisfied, world-weary man, in particular, summed it up succinctly: “Berapa kali nak Bersih lagi ni?” (“How many times more do we need to have the Bersih rally?”)
Therein lies the crux of Bersih’s problem: with its fifth reincarnation, has it increased the political momentum across the country? There is, in fact, no resounding answer. On the one hand, Bersih has given the citizens of Malaysia a way to channel their despair. Yet, the rally does appear to have little to no power over capacitating essential change – we express our rage for a few days and it’s right back to business. Moreover, Malay voters from rural areas are often left out due to Bersih’s urban-centric nature. It has failed to reach out beyond major cities, and in that sense has not managed to enthuse the masses.
The saving grace of the movement, perhaps, is Maria Chin Abdullah. A Bersih figurehead, she was detained and placed in solitary confinement for 10 days on the basis of the draconian Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) recently introduced by Prime Minister Razak – a law meant to combat terrorism. Charges have been dropped, yet a permanent scar remains. The establishment’s hostile approach to the movement itself has made Mrs Abdullah a symbol of the injustices inflicted by those in power upon innocent people. More importantly, the reason behind her unwarranted arrest has gained traction internationally. The threat to freedom of speech in Malaysia has never been more strained, and it’s time for the world to find out. Maria Chin Abdullah has – in a sense – brought the Bersih ideology one step closer towards its goal of raising awareness and catalysing a permanent shift in the political sphere.
If ever there were a perfect way to describe the intense exasperation I felt after attending the rally, it would be the insightful “Mad as H*ll” scene from Network. Peter Finch’s character describes the dangers of apathy – the sort of apathy Malaysians cannot afford at this stage in history. Yet, Finch’s rant also points out something important regarding the general public – there is a lingering depression from the political madness we face. This could not be a more accurate encapsulation of my Bersih experience. Although it was inspiring to see my fellow countrymen come together in a display of solidarity, I struggle to see the viability of Bersih in the long run. Still, there appears to be no feasible alternative at this point. Giving up and going home is not a solution. The revolution must be televised — what better time than today?