Side Views

Occupy Dataran Merdeka: The crisis of Malaysian ‘Capital’ — Boon Kia Meng

April 27, 2012

APRIL 27 — We live in strange and heady times. Just over a year ago, the entire world felt the liberating tremors from Tahrir Square to Zucotti Park, New York City. The Arab Spring gave birth to a new generation of anti-authoritarian struggles, making 2011 the iconic year for protest movements everywhere, just as 1968 was to the previous generation of social activists and organisers. 

Be it clear dictatorships such as Mubarak’s or oppressive and exploitative systems such as capitalism in America, ordinary Egyptians and the Occupy movement in the American continent have shown us the true meaning of people’s power, firing our imaginations that another world is indeed possible.

For us here in Malaysia, the time has come for us to pause and reflect on what’s really happening right before our eyes. The radical philosopher Georg Lukacs reminds us that “those who live through great historic transitions rarely realise it at the time”. I believe we are experiencing such a moment, and it is taking place in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, in a space collectively owned by all Malaysians — Dataran Merdeka.

What began as a students’ protest to abolish PTPTN, allied with Occupy Dataran’s aim to reclaim public spaces, has birthed something new in the social-political culture of this nation, pushing the limits and boundaries of what we mean by “democracy” in Malaysia. When the state continues its charade of “reforms” through the Peaceful Assembly Act or the amendments of the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), with all other legitimate channels of expression closed to ordinary citizens, the rakyat has no other option but to occupy our parks, squares and streets in our cities until our voices are actually heard and our demands met.

This is the reason for the students’ and Occupy Dataran’s encampment in Dataran Merdeka, since April 14. The gathering of Bersih 3.0 tomorrow will be the biggest demonstration yet of the rakyat’s struggle against authoritarianism in Malaysia.

It is often hard to still ourselves under the daily grind and pressures, living under the constant risk of eviction by DBKL or gang violence by semi-clandestine thugs, to pause and reflect on what is actually happening in Dataran Merdeka, to get a sense of what this battle over space in Dataran actually means in the larger scheme of things. I would like to draw from some of my personal experiences and impressions of being in the encampment and what these could mean for all of us, in terms of the socio-economic and political forces at work in Malaysian politics today.

The actuality of class conflict

Kuala Lumpur Mayor Ahmad Fuad Ismail’s statement is very telling indeed about who matters to the state and who gets priority to use and enjoy public and national assets such as a public space like Dataran Merdeka. In a moment of sheer naivete or perhaps, an honest gaffe, the mayor cited Nestle’s 100th anniversary celebration last month as an example of what he deems an acceptable function at Dataran, giving the justification that “the company has invested a lot in this country…” His Freudian slip betrays the truth that an unholy alliance exists between the investor class, namely the owners of giant corporations and banks such as CIMB and Nestle, and the state’s apparatuses of coercion in the form of the police and DBKL officers. What Ahmad Fuad is effectively saying is that the investor class behind Nestle, McDonald’s and CIMB has the right to enjoy public spaces and assets, such as Dataran Merdeka, whilst the seven million inhabitants of Kuala Lumpur city, of which the majority is made up of the working class, students and children, count for nothing. The state and financial nexus, in other words, the collusion between big business and the government is unmasked for all to see. The battle for Dataran Merdeka is really a class conflict, and class warfare is alive and well in Malaysia today. For once, the emperor is seen without his clothes, given our peculiar Malaysian fetish for racial politics. Class is the real issue, not race.

It is this truth that makes it such a tragedy that those gangsters that attacked our camp at 2.36am last Thursday were attacking the very people who are on their side in this class war. How I wish the brother (gangster) who hit me could see that the cause of his lack of economic means or options in life is not the activists of Occupy Dataran, nor the students, but the present system of exploitation and injustice, maintained and policed by the police and DBKL, amongst others.

It is also no coincidence that analysing the battle for Dataran through the lenses of class struggle between Capital (the investor class and their state protectors) and Labour (the working class and students) makes more sense out of the mahasiswa’s struggle to abolish PTPTN loans. It has been a global trend, since the 1970s (stemming from the history of neoliberal economic policies, of which I will not go into details here), where governments (under the dominance of Capital), in the name of austerity budget cuts, began to shed their moral responsibility in providing free education to college and university students, making citizens pay for the costs of tertiary education themselves. What is really happening here is that the investor class, in asserting their increasing power and devising ever new ways to drive up their profits, won the battle in cutting their costs for training their own potential labour force, i.e. the students. The system we have now is one where the labour force (students and their parents) are forced to pay for their own training (i.e. university and college education), which the investor class will then readily exploit and use at minimal cost.

This is coupled with the fact that workers’ wages have been systematically repressed and remain stagnant for the last 15 years, while profitability rates continue to soar. With rising costs of living, which include the price of education, is it any wonder that Malaysian household debt continues to rise unabated and a whole culture of credit is encouraged and abetted by the banks and financiers? Capitalists require the consumption by working people and their children, and if their wages do not suffice, we just have to give them more credit to ensure our profits continue. PTPTN is just a symptom of this growing culture of debt and students saddled with such debts are merely collateral in this class struggle. Are we seeing the rise of debt-peonage in our midst, even as we heard this week that the amount of student debt in the United States has just passed the US$1 trillion mark? We do not need Occupy Wall Street to tell us that and I’m sure glad that our mahasiswa is sounding the alarm before it is too late.

Another world is possible

Even as I write, our encampment has just been broken up by DBKL officers at 4am this morning. Once again, the coercive powers of the state are used to beat down the legitimate demands of ordinary Malaysians. We were forced to retreat, even as we enter Day 14 of our beautiful occupation of Dataran Merdeka. Outnumbered and threatened with brute force, we reluctantly walk away, unbowed. 

Being at the encampment, mingling with the students and occupiers from Occupy Dataran, I begin to see fresh contrasts emerging, between the old ways of living and thinking, and the new ways that we are just learning to put into practice. What is the new normal at Camp Dataran?

When we see ordinary Malaysian mothers and sisters bring us our daily meals; when we see our fathers and brothers provide us with countless tents, umbrellas and mats; when we see Malaysians of all colours and creeds sharing our food, water and shelter; when we care for the security of one and all, in spite of official and vigilante violence; when we participate in open discussions and conversations on what we care about the most in our beloved country; when we imagine and create art for the pleasure of all; when we have free classes and share different skills; when we speak and truly listen to each other; where the homeless find friends and are treated as equals. All these, with no illusions that many of the old habits of competition and bickering still exist in our midst, alongside the new.

We are undefeated because tomorrow we occupy Dataran Merdeka with Bersih 3.0. Another Malaysia is already emerging.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.