Malaysia’s masses protest against corruption

Aug 30th 2015 | KUALA LUMPUR | Asia

A grand day out – Large but orderly marches keep the pressure on an embattled prime minister

TO LISTEN to the dire pronouncements from Malaysia’s authorities, you might have expected a riot. But the big rally which took place in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, organised by Bersih—an electoral reform group angered by allegations of corruption in government—was a calm and joyful affair. Bersih (which means “clean” in Malay) reckoned that 200,000 marched to the capital’s central square on Saturday afternoon to demand the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak; the police pegged the crowd at 30,000. Almost everyone wore Bersih’s signature yellow T-shirts—despite the government’s claim, at the eleventh hour, that they were illegal. One yellow-swathed campaigner waved a sunshine-yellow placard: “You can ban a T-shirt”, it read, “but you can’t ban an idea”.

The rally began at 2pm on Saturday and continued overnight. Parents came with teenage and grown-up children (infants were discouraged). Supporters on Twitter quoted lines from “Les Miserables”, and at least one rally chief tried to lead crowds in some of its tunes. A few campaigners sported bags that read “My prime minister embarrasses me”; one handy protestor had carved a pint-sized model of Mr Najib from polystyrene, which perched on a swing inside a cage.

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Mr Najib has been on the back foot since early July, when a report in the Wall Street Journal alleged that payments of nearly $700m had entered his bank accounts in 2013 (he denies wrongdoing, and says he has never used public money for personal gain). The government said the rally was illegal, and blocked the organisers’ website. The state news agency quoted Mr Najib as saying that the protestors appeared “shallow and poor” in their patriotism for holding the rally so close to Malaysia’s independence day, which falls on Monday. Students were warned that joining the protests might endanger their scholarships; the foreign ministry said it would identify Malaysians participating in assemblies held in solidarity abroad. One big worry was the promise made by a pro-government group to hold a counter rally. Its leader had claimed to be planning training sessions for participants which would involve swords and long knives.

As it turned out, police presence was low key, and its leadership pragmatic. The careful organisation of the protest doubtless helped. Having accepted that they would not be allowed to enter the capital’s main square, organisers erected their own barriers at its entrance to keep protestors away from police lines. Where roads remained open to traffic—and initially only those closest to the square were closed—stewards parted the crowds for public buses, which chugged on incongruously. Law students with gas masks, who stood ready to advise any detained protestors, had little to do but observe.

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Assuming the protest concludes peacefully on Sunday night, Bersih’s rally will mark a big step forward for civil society in Malaysia, where the culture of protest is still nascent. In the past similar demonstrations have been dispersed with water cannon, tear gas and arrests. This time the government’s panicky and ultimately unenforced ban on Bersih T-shirts has served only to convince protestors that such edicts can in future be ignored. One shadow was the relative paucity of ethnic-Malays in a rally dominated by Malaysian Chinese. To some observers that confirmed worries—vigorously denied by the protest’s organisers—that the country’s politics is dividing more firmly along ethnic lines.

Few attendees expect the demonstration to bring immediate change. But the prime minister’s opponents got a big boost on Sunday afternoon, when Mahathir Mohamad—an elder statesman who has for many months called for Mr Najib to step down, and who stopped briefly at the rally on Saturday—returned to make a supportive statement. Attention now shifts to a big international conference on corruption, which—quite by chance—is being held near Kuala Lumpur from September 2nd. It is still not clear whether the prime minister will attend.

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