This Saturday will prove to be a momentous day for Malaysians, for better or worse. It will be Malaysia’s 21st century defining moment. For those who may have not heard of Malaysia aside from the new Shell telly commercials that began airing stateside recently, Malaysia is a somewhat secular Muslim country that practices a federal constitutional monarchy, a government system heavily influenced by the Westminster parliamentary system and it’s laws based on that of it’s former colonist, Great Britain. Sandwiched between the uber-efficient Singapore to its south and the gracefully bohemian neighbour to the north, Thailand, Malaysia has always been touted as one of the world’s most stable Muslim democracies, one of Asia’s best economies whilst being unique in its racial mix of citizenry and famous for its delectable cuisine. It is also my birthplace, my homeland.
Having been transplanted to Seattle eleven years ago, I have never felt disengaged from the political goings-on in the country that moulded me into who I am today. Before I left Malaysia, the biggest scandal to hit Malaysian politics that made international news was the sacking of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim and his subsequent trial in court for the alleged sodomy of an aide. Then there was the horrendous murder of a former Mongolian model, Altantuya Shaariibuu, linked to a shady submarine deal with the current Prime Minister. As that case simmered down to mere whispers at the local kopitiam and street vendor stalls, it was business as usual. The opposition party has had it’s ups and downs though it gained a lot more seats in the last election. There are a handful of firecracker politicians who we could always count on to bring it on.
But now, the Bersih 2.0 campaign is making a different kind of a headline. It is a movement that has gained a lot of traction, calling for clean elections (‘Bersih‘ is the Malay word for clean). They began by asking for the right to have a peaceful demonstration; a walk by supporters of the cause through a certain route in Kuala Lumpur to hand the King a list of their demands. Through many obstacles, the walk has now morphed into a rally. Bersih is not something new. The organisation, a coalition of 62 NGOs began in 2006 and held a demonstration in 2007 demanding the right to fair and clean elections.
For some inexplicable reason, this notion of thousands of citizens walking in solidarity calling for clean elections seem to scare the pants off the government. They raided the headquarters of the Bersih campaign allegedly without a warrant; flip flopped to the point of no return on whether the march can go on or be held in a stadium; have arrested over a hundred citizens for wearing the yellow Bersih tee shirts,’making yellow a colour of crime’ according to prominent opposition MP, Lim Kit Siang. Even the formidable former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, quite known for his own dominating style of governance, has said this oppressive mode of the current administration will undoubtedly affect the voters in the upcoming elections and turn against the ruling party, which has been in power since independence from the British in 1957. His eldest daughter, the outspoken activist, Dr. Marina Mahathir, takes it further and calls the government’s recent operations against Bersih a sign of fear.
Why is there so much fear of a walking demonstration or a peaceful rally? Is that not how this country gained its independence – by holding rallies, demonstrations and marches during the final years of the British occupation by UMNO, the anchor member of the current coalition ruling party? Are the peoples of this land so ill-equipped to handle the ‘radical’ change that a transparent, fair election might bring to their daily lives? This whole episode waged against the Bersih campaign smacks of cowardice and makes a complete mockery of the oft-used tagline of the Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak – 1Malaysia. One how? By ordering riot police on peaceful protesters? Unleashing chemical-laced water canons on man, woman and child standing up for a better tomorrow? Could this become the tipping point in Malaysian politics when His Majesty the King has to enter the fray and is on opposing sides with the ruling party? Retired army generals have also spoken out against the government on this issue. According to Brigidier General(Rtd) Mohd Arshad Raji, ‘It appears to me now that the authorities are more afraid of the yellow colour; paranoid for a better word, than to safeguard and protect the constitutional rights of the people to a legal assembly demanding for an electoral reform that benefits all Malaysians. He calls on Najib (the Prime Minister), ‘to listen to the people and more importantly to the call by His Majesty the King to confer with the people in order to avoid leading this blessed country to ruins.‘ A global organisation of Malaysians, The BERSIH 2.0 Global Solidarity Network, have put out a statement saying,
“The eyes of the world are now on the Prime Minister and his government, in this pivotal moment that will surely define his legacy in the eyes of Malaysians as well as citizens and governments the
world over. We urge him to rise to the occasion.”
Some wonder if the Arab Spring of 2011 has somehow fanned the flames of this movement. Could we see the spirit of Tahrir Square rekindled in the caverns of a stadium in Kuala Lumpur? Will Muslims and Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, join hands, stand shoulder to shoulder as one to demand a cleaner government? It is our inherent right as under the Malaysian constitution to assemble. Though I must admit to having a nagging fear that it may go the way of Bahrain or Syria. I hope that a peaceful demonstration of the will of the people will not be further perceived as subversive dissent by supporters of the ruling party. With every slap rendered by the government, the Bersih leadership has turned the other cheek. They have been respectful in their willingness to come to a amicable solution. Hundreds of doctors and lawyers have volunteered to be present at the rally. As stated on their website:
“By calling for a just and transparent electoral system, the supporters of BERSIH 2.0 are exercising their constitutional rights enshrined under Article 10 of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution. The Federal Constitution states that citizens have:
– the right to free speech and expression,
– the right to peaceful assembly, and
– the right to freedom of association.
In order for an article of clothing to be deemed illegal, under Section 7 (2) of the ISA, the Minister must make an order for this to be the case.”
There will be solidarity marches in different cities around the world as Malaysians of all colours truly stand, walk and rally as one Malaysia. As my friends and my fellow Malaysians rise up on Saturday morning to join as one in the Bersih rally to be held in the historic Merdeka Stadium (this is where the shout of independence was proclaimed), I will stand, with pride and dignity, in spirit with them. Rakyat kedepan! Citizens to the fore!!