by Farah Fahmy
The Malaysian Insider
Apr 29, 2012
APRIL 29 — I read the news with a feeling of déjà vu. Here we are, in April 2012, yet the news feels very much like it was July 2011.
Another Bersih demonstration ends in chaos. Tear gas. Water cannons. Allegations of police brutality. Allegations of the mob descending into violence. Rumours of people dying.
In the aftermath of July’s Bersih demonstration, I wrote an open letter to our prime minister. Although I was half-expecting what happened to happen, what fills me with dismay is that I could write virtually the same letter again after Saturday’s events, and it would still be valid.
The reaction of so many Malaysians towards Saturday’s events is also disheartening. I don’t expect everyone to support Bersih. Any person or organisation that dares to take a stand over something is bound to attract both supporters and detractors; that’s just normal.
What is disappointing is the chorus of complaints about how inconvenient the demonstration is: road closures, not being able to go from A to B, traffic jams, loss of business, and so on.
Granted, these are all valid complaints, but sometimes I wonder if we all need a bit of perspective. Whether you support Bersih or not, think about what they’re fighting for: clean and fair elections.
Why do so many people take this for granted? Elections are important. You all know this but let me just state it: elections are the only way in which we choose our leaders. An election is not a mere ticking exercise that comes around once every four or five years.
Ask yourselves this, Bersih detractors: do you really think our elections, and the way we conduct elections, is fair?
We can’t even be sure that our electoral roll is correct! There have been allegations of dead voters and foreigners on our electoral roll for as long as I can remember. Now the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (Merap) alleges that there are 3.3 million cases of unverifiable voters; the Election Commission (EC) say the number is much smaller: only 42,000. Who to believe?
The truth is, our electoral roll is littered with mistakes. Even if the EC is correct, 42,000 unverifiable voters is 42,000 too many. That number of people could vote in an MP, or be the deciding votes in a number of contests. Don’t we want this corrected?
I’m not saying everything is bad about the way we conduct elections. But neither is everything OK. There is so much room for improvement; don’t we think this is important?
I am also disheartened by people who complained about the inconvenience of demonstrations. Yes, roads were closed, get over it! Roads are closed for events all the time; does everyone complain when roads are closed for a marathon? Heaven forbid that the Olympics would ever be held in Malaysia, if that were the case.
I argue again that demonstrations are healthy for a democracy. Yes, we vote our leader in, but we don’t agree with our leaders all of the time, do we? Demonstrations, properly managed, are a way for people’s voices to be heard. We are not Syria; we are not Bahrain; we are not Egypt. Our constitution gives us the right to assemble in a peaceful manner. So don’t deny us that right. Yes, demonstrations can turn ugly. Yes, a number of people behaved in a dreadful manner yesterday.
But I would argue right back that the authorities were just as provocative. Cordoning off Dataran Merdeka? Putting up barbwire and barricades in my hometown? Please. KL is not Damascus. KL is not Homs. That was unnecessary.
All DBKL and the police had to do was allow the duduk bantah to proceed and work with the organisers on how to get the crowd to exit calmly. Don’t DBKL and the police do this every year during New Year’s Eve celebrations? Don’t DBKL and the police do this every year on August 31?
Be very clear: the way our authorities handle demonstrations does not bode well for everyone. What if you felt strongly about the current spate of child abductions, and wanted to hold a rally against that? Maybe you think that would not be a problem because everyone would support that. Very well. What if you wanted to hold a rally against police brutality in lock-ups, because you knew someone who had suffered that treatment?
I cannot stress this enough: demonstrations are healthy for a country. I know they are inconvenient, but people who hold a dissenting view deserve to have their voices heard in a democracy. This is a right that every Malaysian has, and we would be foolish to discard this right or disparage others who want to exercise this right simply because of a few traffic jams.
What’s more, demonstrations do not need to end in chaos. Demonstrations do not need to end in tear gas and water cannons. Demonstrations can end peacefully. If the authorities in KL don’t know how to do that, no need to come to London or New York, just ask those in charge in Penang, JB and Kota Kinabalu.
What have those Bersih people achieved after standing under the hot sun for hours, some people ask scornfully. Well, even if they do not manage to bring in electoral reforms before our next general elections, they will have shown us two things: one, that there are substantial numbers of Malaysians of all races and religions who believe in a better Malaysia and are willing to stand up and be counted; and two, that our authorities are still living in fear of the politically mature Malaysian.
Whose side are you on?