Bersih 3.0: Two visions for democracy?
KUALA LUMPUR, April 30 — Studying abroad last year, I missed Bersih 2.0 and felt a sense of regret each time I listened to the stories my friends had to tell of their experiences that day. Providence permitted my attendance at Bersih 3.0 last Saturday.
In the past few years, this is a story that has been unfolding at an accelerating pace: the story of Malaysia striving to grow as a democracy.
As legitimate as Bersih’s demands are, what drives people to brave the crowds and the inherent risks of such a gathering? Mere intellectual assent to Bersih’s demands shouldn’t be enough to bring thousands to the city streets.
I suggest a major reason for the decision of most people to flood the streets of KL on Saturday was a desire to be a part of the story. For those who agree to Bersih’s demands, along with it is the recognition by many that they must themselves be the agents working for the desired outcome.
I must first confess that I left soon after Datuk Ambiga called the rally a success and advised people to disperse slowly before 3pm. I headed home, reflecting on my part in the story, ready to write out my thoughts when I arrived home. Of course, everyone now knows that the rally drastically changed — but I only found out after getting text messages on the LRT and checking the news myself upon reaching home.
This put me in the unique position of having lived out one version of the story in my mind (based on what I had experienced up to that point), before having it rewritten as I learned of the actual outcome of Bersih 3.0.
Thus, I had two sets of reflections: one based on the alternate history I had thought would transpire, and one based on actual history. Instead of scrapping one and presenting the other, I felt that together they would offer a glimpse into the yearning for democracy by Bersih supporters.
An ideal world
As I reflected on the parts of Bersih 3.0 I had been a part of — the sense of belonging I got from seeing so many like-minded people, the sense of cheer that grew along with the crowd’s size and the euphoria at chanting together — I realised that the most powerful moments were those where significance was distributed to all people present. In contrast, the speeches of leaders could not give us a fraction of courage that singing “Negaraku” together did. In other words, the power comes from the collective — when democracy is at its strongest.
Democracy, in its (ideal) goal of distributing power to all individuals, satisfies what the philosopher Hegel called the “struggle for recognition”. Along with the humbling realisation that one plays only a small part in the whole comes the terrifying revelation that one is at last playing a part.
Paradoxically, the way to significance is to take on that small role, not necessarily losing yourself in the masses, but involving yourself in the part that every citizen in a democracy is called to play. Many present at Bersih 3.0 would have seen it as their civic duty for the country they love — even though their individual voices would not have been heard.
This contrasts with the archetypal literary vision of the hero, where significance is derived from individual acts of heroism. But as is evident in Bersih, the power of the movement lies in its numbers and not in any one person — the large turnout was the crucial reason Ambiga called it a success before advising us to disperse. The government and Election Commission need not listen to a few solitary voices no matter how valid their arguments are, but they cannot ignore thousands of citizens merely showing up in Kuala Lumpur even if all they do is sit down and chant slogans.
This is why it is crucial that Bersih remains a civil society movement — hijacked by personalities and politicians, it may get more sound bites at press conferences and visibility but it will lose all legitimate power.
So why the push for democracy? So that citizens can finally attain significance by taking on the role they are all called to in society. In a rally like this, each plays only a small part but it is nonetheless the appointed cross to bear. Nothing more, but also nothing less. We are not merely spectators, but agents bringing about genuine democracy in Malaysia.
The real world
I had left believing that democracy, the sharing of power, was good for Malaysia because it brought the most good for its people in their struggle for significance. If this account sounds overly idealistic, reality hit me hard and fast when I heard of how the rally ended.
I won’t speculate much here on the causes of the chaos that transpired, except to say that amidst the theories of involving provocation and saboteurs, there were undoubtedly Bersih supporters who acted with violence. Many friends of mine are outraged that our contribution will be tainted by the senselessness of these individuals.
This could not bring me further from the (brief) vision I had of my ideal world. Bersih was meant to showcase the best of us, and make a case for why democracy should work. Even those who were cynical and expected a harsh police presence would have remembered the accounts from Bersih 2.0 of the collective spirit and people helping one another in the face of danger. But to have violence instigated and perpetuated by those pushing for democracy went contrary to what many hoped for and expected.
But even as my optimism gave way I maintained my belief that democracy is what Malaysia needs and what we must continue to fight (peacefully) for. However, while I briefly saw democracy as a vehicle to Malaysia’s good because if fulfils people’s drive for significance, I now see it as necessary for a different reason.
The end of Bersih 3.0 showed that the line between good and evil runs not across party lines or those for/against a cause. The line runs down the middle of every human heart. Without diminishing the culpability of the government and police, even earnest supporters of Bersih were shown to be capable of violence and hatred. The writer C.S. Lewis said that democracy was necessary because “no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows”.
In other words, we need democracy not because we are good, but because we are fallen and imperfect. The dilution of power amongst a nation’s people is necessary to avoid any one person or group to have the platform for unleashing the evil that potentially lies within. This doesn’t void their potential for good, but it is naïve to believe that we are each not capable of the slow descent to corruption.
A single vision
But this also means that those seemingly on the side of evil and corruption must still know what goodness is. Just like Bersih supporters revealed their worst when provoked, perhaps the best of those leaning towards violence lies deep within, conditioned and numbed into impotence but waiting to be redeemed.
The sobering events of April 28 (leading to my opposing reflections) need not leave us in a state of hopelessness. The best and the worst of human nature were showcased — but both make a strong case for the need for democracy in Malaysia.
What we must remember is that the fight for democracy lies not just on a national level to combat corruption and injustice — it lies within as we struggle each day to do the right and moral thing. So for all of you who went peacefully and courageously, who didn’t throw the first stone (literally) and who turned the other cheek (figuratively): blessed are you peacemakers.