Are Malaysians Losing Interest In Bersih Rallies?

IMHO, it's time Bersih reinvents the way they push for change.

Cover image via Flickr/ Pocket News

I've been an active participant in both the local news scene and Malaysian politics for the last few years now.

Over the past 10 years, Malaysians have witnessed the political scene transforming a great deal. Bersih rallies have become one of the main reasons for the changes.

I first started news reporting for Malaysiakini as an intern in 2012 and I've been with SAYS for a little over a year now and one thing remains evident to me - Malaysians are restless for change.

19 November will mark the fifth Bersih rally since the first one kicked off on 10 November 2007, nine years ago.

Bersih's first rally was said by many as one of the main catalysts that led to the 2008 tsunami elections.

Image via Finance Twitter

Barisan Nasional, the nation's ruling coalition since the country's independence in 1957, failed to make a two-third majority in the parliament in the 12th General Elections that many dubbed as the Tsunami elections.

The name came from the sudden major shift of people that voted for the opposition parties, leading to them winning 82 seats out of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat and banking 47.79% of the votes. That was the first time since the 1969 general elections that BN failed to make a two-third majority in the parliament.

How does Bersih fit into this historic change?

That same year, opinion research firm, Merdeka Centre ran a survey to better understand how Malaysians feel about the state of the country then. Aside from the usual concerns about fuel subsidies, rising crime rates, and shortage of goods, for the first time in a long time, a large group of Malaysians were equally concerned about corruption, mismanagement, free and fair elections, freedom of speech and racial equality.

One of Bersih's main aim was to push for thorough electoral reform that will alter and "clean-up" Malaysia's election process and also seek for the Election Commission (EC) to be an independent body. This is to ensure that the election commission is completely free of any influence of either the ruling party or the opposition coalition.

Not only did Bersih create the much needed awareness about the importance of clean and fair elections, but it also stirred up the debate about freedom of speech and expression in Malaysia.

Who were the founding members of Bersih? Here are some background information on how the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections was born:

Bersih was launched on 23 November 2006, in the presence of several opposition party leaders and NGOs including then PKR president Dr Wan Aziziah Wan Ismail, DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng, former PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa, Maria Chin Abdullah, to name a few.

The organisation was then made up of NGOs and political parities but after their first rally in 2007, they decided to relaunch Bersih as Bersih 2.0, independent of any political parties.

Maria Chin Abdullah is currently the chairperson of Bersih 2.0 with Shahrul Aman B. Mohd Saari as the deputy chairperson. Altogether, Bersih 2.0 has seven National Steering Committee Members and six regional vice chairpersons.

According to the official Bersih 2.0 site, there are 93 endorsing NGOs under Bersih as of 21 May 2016.

Moving forward, Bersih has held four rallies over the past nine years, determined to fight for clean and fair elections in Malaysia.

The fourth rally was held last year, over the span of two days from 29-30 August, with about 200,000 people taking part in the rally in Kuala Lumpur alone.

Bersih 3.0 held on 28 April 2012.

Image via Adisafri

Bersih 3.0

Image via Emaze

Hundreds of people have been arrested over the Bersih rallies, and participants of the rally have even gotten hurt during the rally, especially in the third Bersih rally held on 28 April 2012.

The authorities released a court order, banning any protest in Dataran Merdeka and on the day of the rally, most roads leading into the city was blocked by the police. That did not stop the protesters from taking part in the rally, with many gathered around the Masjid Negara, Masjid India, Pasar Seni and KLCC area.

The rally was supposed to be a peaceful sit-in but things took a sour turn when the authorities started firing tear gas and water cannons. According to Bersih, 512 people were arrested and about 70 people were badly injured from being beaten up by unidentified police officers.

Bersih 4, the overnight rally:

The fourth Bersih rally came in the midst of the 1MDB issue that completely wrecked the nation and dragged Malaysia and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak into the world of massive corruption scandals.

The American Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Switzerland's Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) are running investigations on the state investment fund led by PM Najib Razak.

Adding that to their list of reforms, Bersih called for PM Najib Razak's resignation over the 1MDB scandals along with nine other institutional reforms that were simplified into:

1) Clean elections
2) Clean government
3) The right to dissent
4) Protect parliamentary democracy
5) Save the economy

The rally gathered almost 500,000 participants in both Malaysian and 65 other cities globally and ended peacefully at the stroke of midnight on 31 August 2015.

So, how much change has Bersih brought? Let's take a look at the eight Bersih demands and whether it has brought about the changes the organisation desires:

1. Clean the electoral roll

BERSIH: The electoral roll is marred with irregularities such as deceased persons and multiple persons registered under a single address or non-existent addresses. The electoral roll must be revised and updated to wipe out these ‘phantom voters’. The rakyat have a right to an electoral roll that is an accurate reflection of the voting population. In the longer term, BERSIH 2.0 also calls for the EC to implement an automated voter registration system upon eligibility to reduce irregularities.

2. Reform postal ballot

BERSIH: The current postal ballot system must be reformed to ensure that all citizens of Malaysia are able to exercise their right to vote. Postal ballot should not only be open for all Malaysian citizens living abroad, but also for those within the country who cannot be physically present in their voting constituency on polling day. Police, military and civil servants too must vote normally like other voters if not on duty on polling day. The postal ballot system must be transparent. Party agents should be allowed to monitor the entire process of postal voting.

3. Use of indelible ink

BERSIH: Indelible ink must be used in all elections. It is a simple, affordable and effective solution in preventing voter fraud. In 2007, the EC decided to implement the use of indelible ink. However, in the final days leading up to the 12th General Elections, the EC decided to withdraw the use of indelible ink citing legal reasons and rumours of sabotage. BERSIH 2.0 demands for indelible ink to be used for all the upcoming elections. Failure to do so will lead to the inevitable conclusion that there is an intention to allow voter fraud.

4. Minimum 21 days campaign period

BERSIH: The EC should stipulate a campaign period of not less than 21 days. A longer campaign period would allow voters more time to gather information and deliberate on their choices. It will also allow candidates more time to disseminate information to rural areas. The first national elections in 1955 under the British Colonial Government had a campaign period of 42 days but the campaign period for 12th GE in 2008 was a mere 8 days.

5. Free and fair access to media

BERSIH: It is no secret that the Malaysian mainstream media fails to practice proportionate, fair and objective reporting for political parties of all divide. BERSIH 2.0 calls on the EC to press for all media agencies, especially state-funded media agencies such as Radio and Television Malaysia (RTM) and Bernama to allocate proportionate and objective coverage for all potlical parties

6. Strengthen public institutions

BERSIH: Public institutions must act independently and impartially in upholding the rule of law and democracy. Public institutions such as the Judiciary, Attorney-General, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC), Police and the EC must be reformed to act independently, uphold laws and protect human rights. In particular, the EC must perform its constitutional duty to act independently and impartially so as to enjoy public confidence. The EC cannot continue to claim that they have no power to act, as the law provides for sufficient powers to institute a credible electoral system.

7. Stop corruption

BERSIH: Corruption is a disease that has infected every aspect of Malaysian life. BERSIH 2.0 and the rakyat demand for an end to all forms of corruption. Current efforts to eradicate corruption are mere tokens to appease public grouses. We demand that serious action is taken against ALL allegations of corruption, including vote buying.

8. Stop dirty politics

BERSIH: Malaysians are tired of dirty politics that has been the main feature of the Malaysian political arena. We demand for all political parties and politicians to put an end to gutter politics. As citizens and voters, we are not interested in gutter politics; we are interested in policies that affect the nation.

After nine years, apart from the implementation of indelible ink during election, little has changed.

The government has cleaned up the electoral roll from time to time, especially before the elections but things like dirty politics and corruption are almost impossible to solve with just rallies

Malaysians protesting against corruption in the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Image via Al Jazeera

In 2013, for EC chairman, Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof claimed that the electoral roll has been cleaned and is regularly updated, rubbishing Bersih's claims that the electoral roll is tainted with irregularities.

As for the topic of corruption here, a TIME article about the state of global corruption titled, "These 5 Facts Explain the State of Global Corruption", discussed five countries' state of corruption, including Malaysia's. Among many other things, it said that, "Malaysia exemplifies how corruption drives can fall short in countries with a single political party and weak governing institutions."

In 2015, online news site, Sarawak Report published a series of reports about the debt-ridden state investment fund 1MDB and PM Najib Razak's alleged involvement in it.

That led to major changes in the Malaysian political scene, including a cabinet shuffle that saw then Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin being kicked out of his post and eventually sacked from UMNO. While PM Najib Razak has stressed that the decision was made purely for the stability of the ruling government, it was questionable as the removal came not long after the former DPM raised one after another question about 1MDB.

It is undeniable that Bersih is doing a commendable job creating awareness and pushing for changes through its rallies, but 59 years of broken systems and political turmoil cannot be changed by merely hosting annual marches.

Most Malaysians, sadly, have resorted to speaking about the issues here only on the Internet or during teh tarik sessions but when it comes down to it, we shy away from being part of the changes or leading it. "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Quoting Gandhi might sound a little cliché, but we can't expect the country to be well governed and corruption-free if we don't practice it ourselves.

We hate corruption, but some of us would rather "hand out" money to traffic officers instead of getting an official summon. These things may seem insignificant but when done repeatedly, it actually condones the very behaviour and actions that we think are wrong.

While that is my sentiment towards the Bersih rallies, young Malaysians that have attended the previous rallies are also thinking twice about attending it this year

Bersih 4

Image via Flickr/Pocket News

Curious to know what Malaysians think about these rallies for election and political reform, I spoke to a few Malaysians in their 20s and 30s and their opinions were pretty surprising.

"It is a waste of time, I wouldn't bother rallying every other year for something that is pointless." said a 23-year-old professional. He explained that he does not see that point of being part of something that seems more like a festival - with tonnes of people gathering, walking around with satirical posters.

"Don't think the government is going to change the system if we do that. Creating change is more difficult than that," he added.

Another 30-year-old banker who used to participate in the rallies has given up on it.

"I went for the first three Bersih rallies because I felt like it was helping Malaysians be more vocal and for the awareness it created about issues we never spoke about in the past. But I did not go for Bersih 4 and I am not planning to attend this year's rally either because to me, it feel repetitive."

She said that the awareness has been created and now Malaysians know what's wrong with their country. It is bigger than just protesting now, register to vote, and don't just complain, she said.

It feels like Malaysians are slowly losing interest in these high-strung rallies. In the midst of that, we came across a tweet by human rights lawyer Syahredzan Johan who said, "Butterfingers > Bersih".

For a little context, the famous rock music Rockaway Festival will be held on 19 November at 3pm, the same day as Bersih 5. The largest rock festival in Malaysia has an impressive line-up of both local and international artists, including the comeback of Malaysia's iconic Malay rock band, Butterfingers.

Not wanting to draw conclusions about his 'Butterfingers > Bersih' tweet, we asked the prominent lawyer his thoughts about it. Here's what he had to say:

"My tweet about Butterfingers was made in a jest, in response to tweets where many people pointed out that Rockaway falls on the same day as Bersih 5. I do not necessarily think that Butterfingers is more important than Bersih," he said.

Having made that clarification, he added that he thinks the Bersih rallies are important for the government to know that the people are not happy with the electoral system and demands for changes. Syahredzan also said that until the demands of Bersih are met, their cause will remain relevant.

Do you think Bersih can bring about real changes?

"Well, some recommendations have been adopted such as the indelible ink, but more importantly Bersih has normalised public rallies and made people realise that rallies and demonstrations are part and parcel of democracy."

"Bersih 5 will not bring immediate changes, certainly. But that does not mean that we should not demonstrate if we feel strongly about an issue," said Syahredzan.

Humam rights lawyer, Syahredzan Johan

Image via Hakam

If that's the case, should you be going for Bersih this year?

In my opinion, the Bersih rally is all about creating awareness and promoting free speech. So, if you are a firm believer in exercising your freedom of expression, then attend the rally by all means. Bersih needs the support to show the government that Malaysians haven't lost their voice.

Here's the thing - even after four major rallies, clown posters and Internet discussions, free speech still has a long way to go in Malaysia. There are still many draconian laws that do not allow us to freely express our thoughts about "sensitive issues". Be it politics, religion or race, we should be allowed to discuss these issues freely, especially in a democratic country like ours.

Going back to Bersih 5, I will be attending the rally this year as I'll not only be reporting for duty, but also because I want Malaysians, including the government to know that democracy is something that needs to be practised. We need to be proactive with voicing out our concerns and helping the government understand how we feel about the state of things in Malaysia.

All in all, Bersih deserves a great deal of recognition for being the pillar of democracy and political reforms in Malaysia.

It has forever changed the way Malaysians react to political and social issues and introduced the country to democracy and free speech.

Bersih 4

Image via Dariah Goh, SAYS

Malaysians are no longer passive and uninterested in things around them. We are actively discussing problems, thinking of solutions and are very well in the way of becoming a full-fledged democracy.

I completely agree and support the cause Bersih is fighting for, but it is perhaps time to be more creative with creating changes.

Instead of just rallies, the money collected for this cause can be used to better educate Malaysians on social and political issues. Help them understand that they play an active role in the system and that they can change it if they set their mind to it.

Change, as mentioned by Syahredzan is not something that happens overnight, but with education, perseverance, awareness and hard work, we all have the power to make Malaysia the country we want it to be.

Is Bersih still relevant? What do you think?

While we're talking about Bersih, democracy and politics, here's why you need to be more politically aware:

Also, read all the latest updates and developments for Bersih 5 here:

Haven't had the chance to catch up with the 1MDB drama? Here's everything you need to know about it:

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