By Thomas Fann
It was soon after the Bersih 3.0 protest on 28th April, 2012 that I chanced upon a posting on a social media network by someone I knew. Commenting on the huge protest and violence that followed, he said that it is not that he doesn’t support the demands of the protesters but he doesn’t believe protesting is the way to go as it doesn’t solve anything.
It is very likely that many a Malaysian echoes the same sentiments and asks the question – Why bother to protest? Can anything good come out of a protest? Some may even agree with the Prime Minister who said this is not our culture.
I want to suggest ten reasons why we should bother to protest:
Reason 1 – It’s our constitutional right
Did you know that the supreme law of our land, the Federal Constitution in Article 10(1)(b), states that all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms (weapons)? Unfortunately, subsequent laws passed like the Police Act (Section 27) and its new incarnation, the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) 2012, restricts that right.
It can be argued that such restrictions are not in keeping with the intent and spirit of the Constitution which allows us to assemble peaceably. In such cases of inconsistency, we revert back to our supreme law, the Federal Constitution. As law-abiding citizens, our courage and confidence come from knowing this fact.
Reason 2 – It’s democracy in action
We are still a democracy and every citizen has a right to express their views in a peaceful manner. As you glance through the news today, you’d find people from all over the world protesting on a variety of issues ranging from unemployment to the latest government austerity measures, to the way banks are run and to an offensive film. It is not just happening in so-called “less” democratic countries but more so in countries that cherish democracy.
Democracy is not just about casting our votes at the ballot box. It is about us engaging the political process on an ongoing basis through dialogue with lawmakers and government servants, lobbying or petitioning for change in a certain policy, and even protests. Some issues need multi-pronged approach when the authorities are unresponsive.
Reason 3 – It is healthy and needful
People need a space where they could express their unhappiness and it is imperative that they be given that space. Constant suppression of people’s need to release pent-up frustrations could only lead to an explosion of anger as seen in the Arab Spring.
Protests are healthy in the way they show up the feelings of the people and are symptoms of some under-pinning problems, not the problem itself. Using the analogy of our body, protests are like fever or cough. A good physician does not only alleviate the symptoms but also treat the root cause, be it a virus or bacteria that is causing the fever or cough. Good governance means allowing room for protests and paying attention to the root cause for it.
Reason 4 – It highlights issues
Issues that affect communities are many and they are all important to those affected by them. Often times issues would not be made known to the rest of the country or the world without a protest.
This would especially be true in a country where the press and media are not free. How else would we know about problems in our electoral roll and process, about Lynas, Bukit Koman and Pengerang, if not for the series of Bersih and Himpunan Hijau protests? How many more injustices and abuses have gone unnoticed because it was not highlighted by the press and no protest was organised?
Protests draw our attention to issues that may or may not directly affect us but at least we know about them and can decide what to do about it.
Reason 5 – It can bring about changes
It would not be wrong to say that much of the course of world history is shaped by direct actions of the people. Rulers who failed to serve the interest of their subjects are ALWAYS removed, eventually. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Protests led by Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, anti-apartheid protests worldwide, democracy movements in South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Myanmar and Middle East have brought about seismic changes in their countries.
On the local front, the Bersih protests has forced the EC to implement some changes like the use of indelible ink and promises of reforms to the other demands. While it is true that it still falls short of the true reforms we are asking for, it has forced the authority to consider the demands. If any of
the demands are not fulfilled, they would have served to educate the voters of the problems and for them to question why they are unfulfilled.
Reason 6 – It unites people around issues
Issues like injustices, freedom, corruption, abuses of power, crime, land grab and the environment affect all regardless of race and religion.
As a participant in a number of protests over the past couple of years, I can tell you one of the most exhilarating experiences was the joy and privilege of marching side by side with Malaysians of all races, faith, age, and social backgrounds. It was a cleansing experience, being washed clean of years of state sponsored prejudices against our fellow citizens.
When we protest against our shared common concerns, we realize that we share a common desire for a better future. Underneath all the things that make us different, we realize that we are just fellow humans.
Reason 7 – It exposes the authority
The role of the governing authority is to facilitate peaceful protests and to maintain law and order.What all of us, the protesters and the government, should want is a peaceful assembly. Only a very small minority would want a violent and chaotic assembly.
If the stated intent and planning of the protest organiser is towards a peaceful assembly, there is no reason why the authority and the police cannot facilitate it. They just need to provide a public space large enough for the protesters, divert the traffic, deal reasonably with anyone who wants to
break the peace, and allow the protest to proceed.
We have to ask ourselves why they would want to hinder, politicize, demonize and outright attack innocent protesters unless they feel that their shortcomings are being exposed?
Reason 8 – It’s a check and balance
For too long we have had a one-party political system, given that the opposition has always been weak until 2008. Now that we are moving towards a two-party system, we can take heart our democracy is maturing.
Another key component of a matured democracy is the active involvement of the citizens. Some would call this the Third Force. It is needed to hold the politicians in check, to ensure that the promises made during elections are kept. The awakening that our country experienced in 2008 was the awakening of the Rakyat and it is here to stay.
Reason 9 – It’s standing in solidarity with others
Don’t let others struggle for us but stand in solidarity with those who share our belief and are overcoming their fears to make a stand for what is right. It is all too easy to click “Like” on Facebook or even to give money but at the end of the day it is about numbers. Authorities only take notice when there are big numbers of protesters.
I joined in my first protest at Bersih 2.0 because I didn’t want to let others do the fighting (struggle) for me. I want to be there for my own family and for my country.
Reason 10 – It’s doing something
Rather than doing nothing and complaining about things, you are doing something when you protest with others who feel the same way as you do. Admittedly, protest is not the only way to go but sometimes it is the only option left when all other attempts are met with indifference or disdain.
Perhaps there are many who feel the same way as my friend that protests are a waste of time and that it is too messy. To him and others like him, I’d want to ask, “What are you doing then?” Turning up at a protest is the least we can do.
As a nation, we are going through the throes of growing pains and it does look messy – dirty politics, corruption, vote-buying, gangster tactics, hate speeches, expose of scandals after scandals and of course, mega protests. These are normal and will soon pass if we do not give up struggling for justice and for the preservation of our democracy.
We can gain courage from countries like South Korea and Taiwan whose people have to struggle to set their country free from military juntas not too long ago. But once freedom was achieved and democracy established, their countries flourish and today are shining examples of prosperity and peace. Yes, it was messy during transition but it was well worth it.
To the argument that it is not our culture, one only has to look at the history of our nation. UMNO who held mass protests against the Malayan Union and the road to independence was one of protest right up to 1957 and there has always been protests in the subsequent years.
Perhaps there are few men who had to struggle with this matter of protestation in the modern context of a democratic society as much as Martin Luther King, Jr. He has this to say.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.”
Protesting is not a matter of our culture or not. It is a human need to be heard and for our views to be respected. No more excuses, pack your salt and bottle of water, our voices must be heard.
THOMAS FANN blogs at www.newmalaysia.org