Bersih 3.0: Lessons to be learned — M. Bakri Musa
MAY 14 — Many have asked, in barely concealed rhetorical tone, whether the day would ever come when a non-Malay could be Malaysia’s prime minister. My view is that when such an individual emerges, the question would become irrelevant. Today no one wonders whether America would ever have a black President. It is well to remember however, that it took nearly two centuries before America elected its first Catholic president (President Kennedy), and had to wait another half a century before electing a black (albeit only half) one.
Today, a few bigots and unrepentant chauvinists excepted, no one would deny that Ambiga Sreenevasan, Bersih’s leader, has captured the imagination of all Malaysians, young and old, Malays and non-Malays. This despite the many earlier ugly attempts, and not just from the lunatic fringes of Perkasa, to make her race, sex and faith an issue, with epithets like “traitor” and “the anti-Christ for Muslims” recklessly hurled at her. Thankfully, that fizzled out quickly.
“The irony of the Bersih 3.0 rally,” as Mariam Mokhtar noted in Malaysiakini, “was that it was Ambiga Sreenevasan and not premier Najib Razak who managed to unite the rakyat and give true meaning to his favourite slogan, ‘1 Malaysia’.” Ouch!
There are two relevant observations here, specifically with respect to Malay politics. First, to get support especially among our youth, Malay leaders must articulate issues that affect the Malay masses. Fair and free elections being one, honesty and competence in our leaders would be another. Malay leaders can no longer wrap and thus hide their corruption and incompetence around the cloak of “Agama, Bangsa, Negara” (Faith, Race, Nation — Umno’s slogan). We were disabused of that a long time ago; Bersih 3.0 was a reminder only to those thick-skulled and memory-challenged, or also perhaps intellectually so.
The second is a corollary to the first. Any leader regardless of faith, race or sex can be assured of support from the Malay masses if he or she were to address these critical issues. It has dawned upon Malays (and also other Malaysians) that if Malaysia had had free and fair elections, these corrupt and incompetent scoundrels would not be where they are today, and Malaysia would be a far better country. And if Malaysia had been an Islamic state, as these characters have been endlessly championing for, more than a few would have been publicly whipped for corruption and one or two stoned to death for adultery.
Bersih is a tribute to Malays as we have finally escaped the trap of tribalism, which still ensnares even some of the most sophisticated societies. Malays now judge and follow leaders based on their abilities, not sex, shared racial kinship, or even commonality of faith. This achievement is worth emphasising and frequent reminding. Consider that America is still struggling with the prospect of a Mormon becoming president, this coming so soon after it agonised and finally accepted a black man as one.
Ambiga eschews political ambitions; I applaud her for that. If she were to succeed with the goal of having free and fair elections, she and her movement would have done a great national service, beyond any that could be achieved by the current crop of politicians. As it is, in breaking through the sex, race and faith glass ceilings she has already achieved much and inspired many. She effectively and elegantly demonstrated that we could serve the nation in many other ways besides being in politics.
That Saturday’s event was deeply traumatic, though thankfully not in the same physical sense of lives lost and properties damaged as with Tiananmen or Tahrir Square. Nonetheless it was as momentous as both. Bersih 3.0 cut deeply into the Malaysian psyche, and not just of those whose cameras were smashed, eyes burnt, and heads cracked. It must have also seared the conscience of those ethical police personnel who had been ordered to treat their fellow citizens as thugs and hooligans.
Umno Deputy Minister Saifuddin Abdullah read it right when he said that the violent and chaotic scenes at Bersih pointed to an angry and divided nation. He wisely suggested that Barisan leaders must take special care in addressing this fact. His was a distinct exception among Umno leaders.
Having suffered through that Saturday’s trauma, the nation desperately needed a healing and soothing balm. Alas there was none. Instead of comforting angry citizens and sympathising with their suffering, Prime Minister Najib and other Barisan leaders found perverse pleasure in aggravating the pain of many and deepening the divisions amongst us. Najib sees himself as prime minister of only those opposed to Bersih. Those in Perkasa and Umno found comfort in his post-Bersih shrill partisan utterances; the thousands of law-abiding demonstrators who were exercising their basic rights to a peaceful assembly were definitely not. Such is the calibre and nature of Najib’s leadership. Perhaps we could be comforted that he and Hishammuddin did not brandish their kerises in denouncing Bersih. Yes, I am lowering the leadership bar considerably here.
In my earlier recounting of winners I missed one significant figure, National Literary Laureate Samad Said, or Pak Samad as he is reverently referred to. This soft-spoken writer bravely moved on barefooted after he lost his shoes amidst the tear gas canisters and water cannon attacks of the earlier Bersih 2.0. This time he obligingly posed with his fans in blue, leading many to mistakenly report that he had been arrested! As I said, there were some conscientious police personnel.
The 76-year-old Pak Samad shamed many Malaysian retirees whose lives revolve around golf, tending their orchids, and ratap (meditation) at the suraus. Pak Samad has given us much with his literary talent; he now inspires us with his leadership and tenacity. He best personifies the essence of Islam, “Command good and forbid evil.” He saw evil in the conduct of our elections and sought to forbid it; he saw the good in Bersih and supported it.
Bersih 3.0, like earlier rallies, exposed the gross ineptness of the authorities in managing dissent and handling crowds. The mindset of the authorities is locked in the premise that any view at variance with the official stand must ipso facto be treasonous and thus must be actively suppressed — both the idea and its subscribers.
These leaders pay only lip service to the notion that democracy is essentially a contest of ideas, and that freedom of peaceful assembly and association is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For added assurance they invoked our hallowed tradition to justify their suppression. Demonstrations and mass rallies are just not part of Malay culture, they haughtily claimed.
They conveniently forget that it was mass demonstrations and rallies that derailed the Malayan Union even after it was ratified by the Sultans. Our senior police officers should review their departmental archives to see how their British predecessors adroitly handled those rallies that aborted the Malayan Union. Those colonial officers had every reason to be contemptuous of the uppity brown natives with their notions of independence. Yet the colonial authorities did not react as our native officers and leaders did to their own people that Saturday. Had the colonials been as indiscriminate and vicious in their treatment of all those natives demonstrating for merdeka, there would not be an Umno.
Our police should be guided by the Public Order and Preservation Ordinance (POPO) that specifies, among others, using minimal force, issuing ample warnings, identifying the ringleaders, providing ready avenues so the crowd could disperse easily without harming themselves and others, and most importantly, rendering assistance to the injured instead of kicking those already down. Laying down razor fences effectively shut dispersal routes. Someone suggested that the unexplained interruption of the public transit system towards the end of the rally was a meticulously planned malicious scheme to strand and thus trap the demonstrators so they could be easy prey for rogue cops. Until a better explanation is offered by the authorities, I share that view.
Yes, POPO was a British idea; but it is a good one and I see no reason why the natives could not learn from it. Indeed POPO is already on the books; just apply it.
We send our officers abroad on “study” tours and while there they visit such places as Disneyland. However, they missed seeing how well the Disney staff handles crowds. This incompetence in crowd control is not limited only to public officials. Observe the Malaysian Airline counter at Los Angeles Airport. They let the crowd spill over onto the neighbours’ areas. You would think that they would learn from the other airlines, like opening the counter earlier, having the supervisor open additional counters, or putting a separate line for those most likely not to encounter problems like single travellers and those with no checked baggage, for example.
It is this, our unwillingness to learn from and emulate those who are successful, that is our major cultural deficit, not our fondness for rallies and demonstrations.
Related to this ineptness in handling crowd is the more serious problem of our inability to deal with our differences. Malaysia has been a plural society for generations if not centuries; I would have thought that it would be in our genes to not only expect differences amongst us but also to tolerate if not embrace them. Thus dealing with our differences should be second nature by now, especially with our leaders. Not so.
Not only do our leaders have this difficulty in dealing with differences in viewpoints, they also have difficulty agreeing on what have been agreed upon. They spout respect for citizens’ right to peaceful assembly and then put undue requirements for having one. The permit process is to facilitate the expression of that right. By knowing the time, place, and likely number of participants, the authorities could then intelligently prepare to ensure that the event would be peaceful and without incident. The permit process is not to be subverted as an underhanded mechanism to thwart this right to peaceful assembly. A right is meaningless if associated with insurmountable conditionalities.
Likewise; these supposedly “transforming” leaders pay due homage to the virtues of free and fair elections. They keep harping that citizens do not need to demonstrate on the streets as they have plenty of opportunities to express their approval or disapproval of the government come election times. They conveniently neglect or refuse to acknowledge that the very electoral process, from phantom voters, restrictions on campaigning, stuffed postal ballots, and lopsided drawing of parliamentary districts, is deeply flawed and far from equitable.
When you have to rig elections to stay in power you know that you do not command popular support despite the elaborate outward showings of otherwise. Yes, rigged elections may let you gain or retain power, the goal of all politicians, but that would not be enduring. You can hoodwink citizens only for so long, eventually they will wise up, as Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak ultimately found out. Both commanded overwhelming majorities in all their “elections.” If only they had allowed protests and rallies when they were so “popular,” they would have discovered the ugly truth much sooner and would have been spared a fate far worse than just being thrown out of office.
Najib, Muhyiddin, Hishammuddin, et al., today speak with the same bravado and defiance as Hosni Mubarak and his cronies did right through the Tahrir Square demonstrations. Mubarak deluded himself into thinking the Arab Spring was instigated by “outsiders” and that “real” Egyptians still loved him! Likewise, Umno leaders still fervently believe that their party is the citizens’ overwhelming choice and that Bersih 3.0 is the work of “outsiders” and “traitors” intent on doing in the Umno government. These leaders never learn!
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.