On Friday August 28, 2015 I checked into Hotel Lotus near Masjid Jamek LRT about 6pm. I had parked my car in Brickfields and took the LRT into KL city centre. Was a little embarrassed as I had not taken the LRT. I am part of the spoiled generation that drives around KL. It was a good experience and extremely convenient by LRT.
After checking into the Lotus hotel, I then walked around the streets of KL. First to Sogo area and then to Dataran Merdeka to Bar Council, to Pasar Seni and then back to Lebuh Ampang and finally back to the hotel. The last when I did this was while doing my Form Six back in the 1970s
Saturday morning I was up early and was out on the streets by 8am joined by two others from the Proham monitoring team. We started our duty and therefore was on my rounds around Masjid Jamek area and Pasar Seni. I stayed on through whole of Saturday and Sunday and only checked out of the hotel on Merdeka day. This was a long period of observations and interactions. Oh yes, lots of walking and very good for my heath.
My role was alongside fourteen other Proham volunteers who were monitoring the Bersih 4 peaceful assembly. Proham volunteers were located at four locations on day one: Sogo, Pasar Seni, Masjid Negara & Dataran Merdeka. On day two at Dataran Merdeka.
What are some lessons and reflections over the 2 days at Bersih?
Ten key reflections as I review the event and see the future hope and prospects for Malaysia. A fuller PROHAM report will be out soon but these are some quick reflections.
First, People Power: what impressed me was that people came out in spite of the warning by both the Minister of Home Affairs and the IGP that this was an illegal assembly and that they had banned the yellow T-shirt. In the post 2008 political changes such speeches and action by authorities is clearly inconsistent with democracy and citizens’ rights. Political leaders in public office must review their positions in the light of universal human rights and consistent to global democratic practice. Declaring peaceful assemblies’ illegal needs some serious review and the Ministry of Home Affairs must abide by UDHR standards.
Second, it was a very peaceful gathering. People were very festive in their mood. They were very cheerful. There was singing and blowing of the horns and at times very musical with the chants but often deafening. I am impressed with the Bersih leadership led by Ms Maria Chin Abdullah who kept to their word of not moving into the restricted Dataran area as well as dispersing at the end. This shows that peaceful assemblies are possible.
Third, the Police Role: The Police had a hands off approach except for some limited traffic role. The two traffic Police I spoke to at Jalan Tunku Abdul Raham were very helpful directing and assisting those in vehicles. It really looked funny that the people of Bersih were free to walks around but the Police were confined into the barrier area in Dataran Merdeka area. They were behind the barriers which restricted their role over the two days.
I firmly belief that the Police need to review their role in a peaceful assembly. Our Police must also learn the lesson on how to manage this relationship with civil society and citizens. Police must continue to play their role of traffic control and security. It is also they duty to protect peaceful demonstrators. They must be the Police for all Malaysians ie neutral to political influence and firm on crime and wrong doing. In so doing they will gain the respect of the people. There are clear human rights protocols which can be observed and it is time that PDRM be seen as defenders of human rights and seen to be impartial in the execution of their public duties.
Four, the ethnic dimension & issues: There were a sizable number of Chinese at the streets but one cannot say that this was a Chinese Tsumani as there were Indians as well as a smaller number of Malays. I also saw groups of Orang Asli community. Bersih 4 is very different from the Hindraft march in 2007. Also on both nights the dominant number of speakers were from the Malay community.
While noting this we must ask the critical question why the Malays did not came like how they did in previous Bersih marches. Some have said it is due to the absence of PAS? Others indicated that the Malays were really threated by Chinese presence and yet others indicated that Bersih 4 was high jacked by DAP and their agenda. It is really unfortunate that some have turned this into a Malay verses Chinese issue when it clearly is not.
We have more questions than answers at this point. Does the small turn out of Malays mean that the majority community is not serious about fighting corruption? It is important to note that the call of Bersih 4 was not on ethnic issues like Chinese schools or discrimination but on fundamental governance issues pertaining to anti-corruption.
The Bersih and civil society movement has to learn a lesson that it must win the hearts and minds of the majority Malay community to effect change. They can undertake this as the major task to reach out to both the rural Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. The middle class movement must convince the bottom 40 the implications of corruption on their lives.
Five, the message – Anti corruption & call for public accountability: This is a call for good governance and transparency. There was a strong expression of unhappiness with the leadership of the Prime Minister especially in the handling of IMDB and the funds in his personal account. Barisan supporters will be unhappy with this call but the popularity of the PM was really down and the call for his resignation was central to the Bersih 4 event. This is real wake up call for the PM and team as this is not an end but the beginning of two year campaign for change towards greater compliance to democracy, human rights and good governance.
Six, Acts of Patriotism - Being there for two days I witnessed that while there were many Chinese the event was presented as a national patriotic event contrary to the views of some political leaders.The reactions from the ruling elites have been about the numbers who gathered? Was translated into a Malay- Chinese confrontation, between legal and illegal but they have missed the point that in the spirit of Merdeka - the Bersih rally was about enhancing the freedoms of all Malaysians. The singing of the Negaraku, flying the national flag and conducting the public event in Malay is reflective that even within a majority Chinese crowd these national symbols are their symbols as they themselves Malaysians.
Seven, the Mahathir moment: The visit of Tun Mahathir on two occasions is very significant. Tun has been viewed by many within the civil society movement very negative feedback due to the Operations Lalang and other elements in the suppression of human rights. However Dr M’s presence and his recognition of people power is reflective of the changing mood for greater democratic space. Personally I think this is one of the major achievements of Bersih 4 to have Tun M visit. Unfortunately I missed both occasions when he came but am impressed that he did come. He braved the negative criticism of the ruling authorities. It is hoped that Tun M will not just campaign for change of PM but also institutional reform.
Eigh, the visible expressions of religious prayers. This is significant as there were prayers by the Muslim groups out in the open and in the company of many Chinese. There were special prayers at the Catholic Church. These are very positive signs as the people recognised the diversity and respected it. The availability of places of worship as resting places is also significant. However I was told in some cases the place was not open in the night for people to speech or rest. This is unfortunate.
Nine, Business prospered. Some informal sector folks selling drinks by the road made some quick money. They were the entrepreneurs on the streets who capitalised the occasion. All of these were Malay petty traders and they saw the opportunity. Likewise all the restaurants made good money during this period and in the case of some they rang out of all the cooking materials.
Ten, cleaning up. One unique dimension of Bersih 4 was the volunteers clearing up the rubbish by a group of well minded Malaysian citizens. While they were committed for greater transparency in governance, their commitment to cleaning the roads clean is amazing. All the workers are volunteers and they gave dignity to the City Hall road sweepers.
In the post Bersih4 phase, the Cabinet and Parliament must review the position of democracy, human rights and good governance in Malaysia. The Bersih4 demands must be studied and the key relevant agencies must have dialogue sessions to address their concerns for the nation.
There must be institutional reforms and civil society must be invited to play a constructive role. The public sector must view all Malaysians as integral for national development. The role of civil society must be recognised as a partner in development and voice of dissent must be give the democratic space. The relevant authorities must see Bersih4 as a constructive movement. Failure to do this will result in further civil society action for the betterment of the nation.