Shifting the paradigm on Aug 29

Eric Loo
Aug 26th, 2015

We’re currently walking into a political minefield with not so much as a map to guide us through. When a prime minister can openly spew alarmist racial statements and denies any malfeasance despite the leaked documents without any fear of recourse, we are headed for worsening times.

As a people, we’re still divided along sectarian lines. Umno’s racialised politics would see to it that we remain divided in order to stay in power. The prime minister’s rant that Malays would be disempowered without Umno is politically desperate beyond belief.

Deluding the Malays that they can only prosper under Umno, that a non-Malay government will not hesitate to abolish affirmative action is taking the Malay grassroots for fools.And, the wider public should take such alarmist racial polemics for what it is – nutty gibberish.

Politico-economic crises fuelled by the 1MDB scandal and an increasingly fractious ruling party with the party president in denial should offer up new opportunities to mass-mobilise for fundamental reforms in the system and transformational change in how we engage with the political process.

Recollecting my past walks and sit-ins with Bersih in Kuala Lumpur and Sydney, I’m hopeful the movement will in time reach its goals – when it’s well-resourced and its leaders well-strategised to keep the public faith despite the perceptual blocks on its reformist path.

The reforms that Bersih fights for will eventuate if the people can mobilise and shout, like Howard Beale in the 1976 movie, ‘The Network’, “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this any more!” It’d feel good. But, as many are asking, would it significantly change anything?

The fact is we don’t win public support for our cause by being seen as troublemakers. We win support by showing that the troublemakers are the government and the police – given their insistence that the protests be held on another day and place, which sounds reasonable, or risk being tasered, which sounds like a deadly threat.

This is where I find much relevance in walking with Bersih despite its image in my mind as a fledgling fringe movement since it staged its first protest in 2007.

Besides being portrayed in the mainstream media as a public menace intent on disrupting the Merdeka celebration, and spoiling the family weekend picnic, Bersih has so far not shown me a clear pathway of what’s next after Aug 29-30.

Nonetheless, I’ll be heading to KL from Penang this week. Like the multitudes of discontented Malaysians, I’ll probably be playing chicken with the riot squad, knowing that when we return home to our family, our neighbourhood, and our workplace, the corrupt system will still prevail.

So, what else can we do to show the prime minister that “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more”? How might we move from the planned tent stakeouts at Dataran to metaphorically get our foot in Parliament House to engage with the power brokers? Is our task too futile, and the power structure too strong? Sometimes, it feels like it is.

Protest movements essentially draw power from non-compliance and civil disobedience, a throwback to the strategies of the Occupy movements where protesters are willing to break the rules to gain mileage, if not to shut down the system. Bersih, however, has urged its supporters to abide by the laws of peaceful assembly regardless. This, we will.

Patiently mobilise

Bersih must patiently mobilise to gain that critical mass that the government can’t afford to ignore. It needs to show the hard evidence that it has the people’s backing, particularly those who’ll be voting for the first time in the next general election.

Bersih needs to reinvent itself as a people’s movement comprising the backbones of the country – the youth, the religious sector, academia, the media and business. It needs to avoid being seen as anarchistic and, most of all, as a fringe pro-opposition movement with no clear vision of who or what would comprise a transparent and incorruptible government.

To make a significant impact on policies and governance, to achieve fundamental reforms, these take strategic lobbying and orchestrated campaigns, diplomacy and old-fashioned marathon politicking to engage with those in power. If critical attitudinal, ideological and political reforms are to occur in Malaysia, it must first emerge from within Umno and 60 percent of the population comprising the bumiputeras.

This is where the Malay intelligentsia can play its transformative agency role in facilitating the grassroots’ transition from the politics of exclusion to one of integration, which would ultimately benefit the nation and the people.

For all its successes in instigating a politico-cultural conscience for fair elections and transparent governance, I’m afraid Bersih still seems diffuse in its campaign around a concrete agenda. What started as a movement demanding for clean and fair elections has evolved into a hybrid organisation of non-governmental organisations with a range of demands, this time urging the PM’s resignation.

Even if the NGOs are sympathetic to each other’s cause, they do not necessarily speak with one voice.

Aug 29, I hope, would be a paradigm shifter, a landmark protest that would dominate the news cycle indefinitely to keep the agenda on the front burner. We need to break the dominant racialised discourse to make an indelible dent on the Malaysian political consciousness.

What a landmark protest it’d be to see all racial, religious and gender groups in the peninsula and East Malaysia marching with interlocking arms, chanting “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this any more.”

But beyond the chants, I need to see and feel that Bersih 4 would lead to somewhere concrete and practicable. We need to be a paradigm shifter.

Reminder of Rosa Parks

Here, I’m reminded of Rosa Parks who defied the evils of racial segregation when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Park’s defiance sparked the freedom rides and led to the abolition of racial segregation in Montgomery’s public transportation one year later. (I happened to wait for a bus at the spot where Rosa Parks stood when I was on a short teaching stint at Auburn University Montgomery in 2009).

I’m reminded of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller in Tunisia in December 2011. He set himself on fire after he was banned from selling fruits on the streets to earn a living. Bouazizi’s fatal protest against the oppressive Tunisian government sparked the mass people’s protests and civil disobedience around the Arab world.

I’m reminded of Aquino’s People Power, the Arab Spring, King’s Freedom Rides, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, Mandela’s anti-apartheid liberation movement – all these landmark protests have shown that corrupt governments will be dethroned when the people speak with one voice. Ultimate power lies with the people.

Bersih may or may not go down in our history as instigating a ‘Malaysian Spring’ that changed the contents, context and tone of our national conversation. It has, however, certainly achieved a modicum of recognition as a movement that’s a thorn in the government’s side – but inadequately strategic and insufficiently resourced to bring about a complete regime change like the Arab Spring did in Tunisia and Egypt.

I hope this weekend will be a paradigm shifter.

ERIC LOO left Malaysia for Australia in 1986 to work as a journalist. He currently lectures at University of Wollongong, Australia, and serves on the advisory committee of UPI Next, a journalism education and training platform run by United Press International. He edits a refereed journal Asia Pacific Media Educator and conducts journalism training workshops in Asia. Email: [email protected]

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