Coming of age: Malaysian democracy matures
|Kapil is an advertising strategist based in KL, who likes nothing better than to figure out why people behave the way they do. Naturally this forces him to spend most of his time lounging in coffeeshops and bars. He can be reached at [email protected]|
MAY 4 — In my last column, I had argued that Bersih 3.0 was jumping the gun and it ran the risk of alienating its base of civil society supporters if it was perceived to have been hijacked by the opposition. While that may still be true, what is undeniable is that it attracted even more support in terms of numbers than Bersih 1.0 and 2.0.
Something is afoot and it goes far beyond the debates on who instigated the violence, or the choice of venue, the actual numbers and the police response. Bersih 3.0 could well emerge from a future vantage point as the moment when Malaysian democracy came of age.
Was everybody who attended Bersih 3.0 at Dataran Merdeka there to ask for free and fair elections? Of course not. There were the anti-Lynas protestors, the Reformasi guys, Occupy Dataran members, Anti-PTPTN demonstrators, opposition supporters and even agents provocateur who just wanted some action. But by far the one common thread uniting them was anger against the present government.
Anger against inflation and the consequent decline in living standards, anger against multimillion ringgit corruption, anger against declining education standards, anger against electoral manipulation and finally anger against a government that just did not seem to be listening to the people.
What allowed this anger to take the form of a massive demonstration on the streets of KL was the complete absence of fear. Over the years people cowed by sweeping discretionary powers given to the government by the ruling coalition in terms of arbitrary imprisonment and shackling of the right to judicial review, combined with no access to a free and fair media could only accept what was dished out, palatable or not.
Today, the anger is constantly simmering, fuelled by a vibrant alternative media which through its interactivity provides a potent platform for like-minded people to exchange and consolidate their views. Mobilisation of supporters is also made easier through the widespread use of broadband and 3G. Bersih 3.0 became a magnet for anybody with a grouse and therefore much bigger than a mere demonstration for clean elections.
In its largest sense, April 28 marked the coming of age of the Malaysian citizen, finally able to demonstrate that ultimate power lies in the hands of the people, and the people can overcome differences of race, religion, gender, age and income and unite to demand a voice in the affairs of the country. Participative democracy is finally here, moving beyond the five-yearly exercises at the ballot box. They were there not only to ask for more democratic freedoms, but also for better governance.
Their wonder at what had been accomplished was on Facebook, on Twitter and at the mamak stalls and it was much bigger than Bersih; it was about actually experiencing what democracy at work could feel like and they loved it. This is why Malaysia is not Egypt, and an Arab Spring-type of uprising is unlikely. More than ever before the real fight will be fought in a democratic context.
In the context of the upcoming general election (GE), Barisan Nasional may be forgiven for being perplexed by the apparent contradiction between the steps it has been taking to reform, including the setting up of a PSC on electoral reform, repeal of the ISA, amending the PPPA and passing the Peaceful Assembly Act, and the ever-increasing disenchantment of the people with it.
However, the average voter to a large degree understands the difference between BN making changes to laws that go some way towards restoring Malaysian democracy to its intended form, and BN enacting policy reform that actually leads to good governance.
As long as its tolerance towards corruption is perceived to be high, as long as its economic policies are seen to benefit only a few and adding on to the debt burden of the country as a whole and as long as it is seen to be lording it over the people rather than serving humbly, this anger can only grow.
Even the time-tested formula of racial politics seems to be unravelling fast, as evidenced from the multiracial composition of the participants on April 28. While race remains a real fault line in the political life of Malaysia, a large number of people are beginning to realise that there are larger, more fundamental issues at stake, and the very future of the country is coming to depend more than ever before on wise governance rather than racial chest thumping via Ketuanan Melayu-like slogans.
When declining petroleum reserves, declining economic competitiveness and declining educational standards threaten to derail Vision 2020 to a piece of trivia that falls by the wayside, and Malaysia to another developing country that once had promise, is racial supremacy really the one thing worth fighting for?
With the democratisation of media, BN’s old strategy of different messages for different audiences will not work anymore. 1 Malaysia and Perkasa make for unrealistic bedfellows. NFC and ETP are not compatible, nor are PKFZ and GTP. Unless BN can organise itself in a manner that enables it to be seen as helping all Malaysians achieve their dreams in an honest manner its days are numbered, in this GE or the next.
The only reason it may survive without real reform in this GE is that for the thinking voter neither is ABU (Anyone but Umno) a promise of better governance. The fissures between the component parties of PR, as evidenced by the Kedah fatwa debacle, also give pause. Is PR just a marriage of convenience that will unravel given its inner contradictions if it gains federal power? There will always be people who prefer the tried (even if not trusted) to the new.
However, April 28 has shown that the time has come for a political entity to come to the fore on the back of a vision for a post-racial Malaysia that represents the political, economic, social and spiritual aspirations of all citizens in a humble, transparent and accountable manner.
Who will it be?
* The views expressed here are the personal views of the columnist.