Opposition to price hikes could be catalyst for grassroots democracy

The students’ raly against price hikes could signal the birth of real democracy if it evolves into a broader socio-economic movement working for the common good, writes Ronald Benjamin.

Photograph: thesundaily.com

Photograph: thesundaily.my

The protest against price hikes on 31 December 2013 organised by students’ movement Turun has great significance in terms of the struggle for the common good through the democratic process.

These brave students did not just represent their movement, but they have taken a sacrificial stand for suffering Malaysian families of all ethnic groups. They did this not knowing what the consequences would be for their own lives.

This sacrifice could be a great moment for the birth of genuine democracy if it could be followed up by a broader socio-economic movement, led by enlightened grassroots leaders representing Malaysians of all ethnic groups, that opposes elitism and the narrow ethnoreligious-centric politics that characterise Barisan Nasional politics.

Our current parliamentary-type functional democracy has failed to articulate a vision of the common good because ethno-religious politicians as well as religious and big business elites appear to be colluding to shape the current socio-political landscape with the vast economic resources at their disposal.

This has narrowed the country’s political discourse to sectarian rights and the views of the big business elites, backed by the neo-liberal foreign rating agencies, to the detriment of unified people’s struggle of the masses of all ethnic groups who have similar narratives as they struggle in their daily lives.

Umno, Perkasa and other extremist groups fear such unity among the multi-ethnic masses that questions the elites’ favoured standing. These groups believe that such thinking could pave the way for the dismantling of an ethno-centric regime.

Besides this, there is a fear among sections of the religious elite of losing control of the Malay masses. It is not just about ethno-religious identity and rights but it is also about power and control.

The incompetent Home Minister Zahid Hamidi’s claim that the protest against the price hikes is a plot to topple the government bears testimony to this argument – as do the the current religious propaganda war against Shia followers and the denial of the right of the Christian community to use the word Allah.

Peace and stability in Malaysia as propagated by the BN government seems more to with asking the masses to tolerate elite opulence and to sustain the control of religious elites over the people. This is supported by a culture of handouts to the rural population who are the backbone of the ruling regime.

For change to take place a mass movement led by multi-ethnic grassroots leaders is vital. The protest movement against price hikes could be used as a case study and a catalyst to create a broader movement for democracy – one that is not dictated by either the ruling coalition or the opposition parties.

This movement should be a beacon of truth and justice without narrow ideological constraints. The sacrifice of the students in opposing price hikes has shown that Malaysians can work in solidarity to oppose unjust systems.

Ronald Benjamin

Ronald Benjamin, an Aliran member, is a human resources practitioner based in Ipoh.

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