Zooming in on what is going in Malaysian society in the aftermath of recent demonstrations organised by lawyers, the Bersih coalition and Hindraf, Khoo Boo Teik observes that the goodwill that was shown to Abdullah Badawi in 2003-2004 has largely evaporated. Is there is a whiff of reformasi in the air now?
Is Reformasi back in town? Possibly; it may have returned this year with three marches that brought some new names, a lot of new actors, and a number of new ways of saying things.
Bar Council, Bersih and Hindraf
The Lawyers’ March of 26 September was led by the Bar Council. The marchers headed for the ‘Palace of Justice’ in Putrajaya, calling for the head of the then Chief Justice. Exasperated with the ‘rotten state of the house of Denmark’, the protesting lawyers and social activists demanded an end to the corruption, hence subversion, of a key institution of state.
The Bersih Rally of 10 November was organised by Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections). From different locations in Kuala Lumpur, the rally wound its way to the Istana Negara to hand a petition to the King. Bersih’s participants demanded a cleansing of the electoral system to break the crippling shackles the Opposition faces in every general election.
The Hindraf Rally of 25 November was called by an ad hoc Hindu Rights Action Front. Its supporters, coming from different parts of the country and starting at different points in Kuala Lumpur, went to the British High Commission. The Hindraf leaders had prepared to hand a petition to Queen Elizabeth II, ostensibly to demand the historical restitution of the rights of British-imported Indian indentured labour.
Variety and number
The phraseology of the demands differed. The slogans varied. The marchers were of different backgrounds. None of that was in doubt.
This much was certain, too: their numbers exceeded expectations – 2,000 lawyers and activists in Putrajaya, 40,000 marchers with Bersih, and 30,000 for Hindraf.
More than that, the stridency of their missions indicated a deep frustration and seething anger at The Machine of the Barisan Nasional. Yet, no level of government threats and police warnings could prevent the expressions of those sentiments from being locally blogged and globally seen and heard.
Cheap and vulgar
One of the regime’s favourite responses was to argue that rallies and marches burdened local merchants, unnerved foreign investors and turned off foreign tourists.
‘Violence’, we are piously told, ‘is not part of our culture.’ We agree. The marches and protestors were orderly and trying their best to avoid trouble until the police dispersed them with force.
Indeed, why has ‘water-cannon and tear-gas violence’ against peaceable marchers become so much a part of the culture of the ‘Red Helmets’ and their political masters?
It was easy but cheap to divide or belittle the lawyers and social activists: ‘only 2,000 lawyers out of the Bar Council’s 13,000 members?’
It was simple but stupid to stigmatise the Bersih marchers: ‘They were not civil society, they were instigated by The Opposition.’
And it must have been fun (for seemingly urbane columnists, such as Rehman Rashid) but vulgar to ridicule the Hindraf protestors: ‘trillions of ringgit, did they say, and, really, whatever would the Queen say?’
Diversity and common cause
This is no time to play any name-and-blame game with the tens of thousands of marchers who had had to contend with warnings, threats, court order, water cannons, tear gas and Red Helmet charges with batons and shields.
In the heat of each event, the protestors of each rally, let alone outside observers, might have been engrossed with their own cause, and seen it to be separate from the other causes.
Still, there is a far deeper common cause among them than meets the jaundiced eye.
The Bar Council was right to demand judicial reform and punishment for those who corrupted legal institutions right up to the highest judicial offices. If there are no independent and impartial judges to oversee it, the ‘rule of law’ would be meaningless for different strata, diverse groups and ordinary citizens.
It’s fanciful for some to liken peaceful rallies to anarchy on the streets. But, without an honestly administered system of justice, legal practice would simply be dominated by powerful predators.
Bersih and Hindraf
The Bersih coalition was right to insist on levelling the electoral playing field, not least because the next general election looms.
Only the BN and the Electoral Commission believe that the administration of elections is faultless. Everybody else knows otherwise. Without reform, the electoral system will remain so heavily loaded against the opposition as to undermine the integrity of electoral contestation and democratic representation.
Nor were the Hindraf supporters nyanyuk by any means. It was useless for the well-fed and well-clothed Samy Vellu to say no Indians here are without food and clothing.
It was futile of the ‘Prime Minister for all’ to deny any unfairness to Indians. Those who make a virtue of the New Economic Policy can’t so blithely wish away the sense of deprivation that pervades the Indian community.
The historical deprivation of the poor and powerless requires restitution by present-day policies and measures. Otherwise, accountability, transparency and fairness are mere words while selective neglect and marginalisation co-exist with cronyism, discrimination and privilege.
Other dates, other demands
Let’s not forget easily. 26 September, 10 November, and 25 November belong with other dates, other moments of discontent and struggles for reform that haven’t been achieved.
Remember 1998–1999, and the Dataran Merdeka demonstrations against Anwar Ibrahim’s maltreatment, the ‘shopping for justice’ sprees against his ‘black eye’ and ‘arsenic’ episodes.
Think back upon 27 October 2000 when 2,000 people commemorated ‘Operasi Lalang’ outside the Kamunting Detention Camp. Recall 5 November 2000 when 50,000 people ‘gathered’ along the KESAS Highway.
Let’s not be fooled either by those who attack one cause to weaken all others. Consider: If Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s ‘Buy British Last’ government saw fit to host the 1998 Games of the British Commonwealth, why can’t Hindraf link the Indian community’s present problems to the past practices of the British Raj?
Another historical connection beckons. Where would we place the collective demands of the Bar Council, Bersih and Hindraf if not beside the Permatang Pauh Declaration, Towards a Just Malaysia (the manifesto of the Barisan Alternatif), and Suqiu’s 17-point Appeal?
All these return to the requisite foundations of a broad movement to achieve genuinely democratic politics, inclusive social policies and true inter-ethnic respect. Only such a national movement can face the 14-member BN Machine.
What a machine?
The Machine that rules the country is not truly an equitable, consultative, consensus-driven, power-sharing coalition. That characterisation is mere BN-speak.
In theory, BN is an Umno-led standing coalition of component parties. In practice, Umno dominates while its ‘non-Malay-based’ partners are reduced to being institutionalised Kapitan China and Kapitan Keling (with no insult intended by this use of a historical term).
Umno has boasted and warned that it can rule on its own. (The party actually can’t – not if it doesn’t want to destabilize the entire society and economy.) Its BN partners evidently believe so. Hence, they allow themselves to be flattered or ordered, praised or scolded by Umno, depending on how they fit in with Umno’s plans and whether they can control their communities.
After the Hindraf rally, for instance, MIC’s S. K. Devamany made an ‘oh-so-mild’ criticism of BN policies towards the Indian community. For his pain he had to meet with BN National Whip Najib Tun Razak, after which Devamany expressed his ‘regret’ that he said anything at all, and that was only for an utterance in Parliament.
Can anyone remember the last time an Umno representative, having made inflammatory and insensitive statements, in or out of Parliament, was sent to meet with the President of a ‘non-Malay-based-party’ and afterwards required to express his or her regret?
By now, the leaders of the MCA, Gerakan and MIC – to take only the major non-Malay-based parties – are too cowed, too compromised, or too calculating of personal costs and benefits to ‘stand up to’ Umno.
All right, there is Dr Toh Kin Woon, but his brave and honest voice is the exception that proves the rule.
Reformasi against the Machine
But … outside BN, Toh Kin Woon’s voice is not alone. This year, the Bar Council, Bersih and Hindraf rallies outflanked the Umno General Assembly.
Confronting marchers who wouldn’t stand down, and facing demands that wouldn’t go away, all the keris-kissing, monkey-bashing and boastful blustering, so arrogantly vociferous last year, came to little more than a whimper.
Many of our ‘national leaders’ self-righteously tell ‘the West’ to understand the roots of grievances against Western powers. But our ‘statesmen wannabes’ are themselves incapable of learning about the roots of domestic grievances.
Instead of engaging with the Indian community beyond Samy Vellu’s charmed MIC circle, the government has charged 31 Hindraf marchers with ‘attempted murder’ for an alleged attack on a policeman during the rally.
It may be soothing for Abdullah Badawi – but it is blind – to dismiss the deep seated grievances of so many sections of society as ‘lies, baseless allegations’. It may be thrilling to turn up the repression – but time will show how foolhardyit is to move so against what will surely blossom as the ‘Hindraf 31’.
Abdullah, ever lofty in his rhetoric, must know, if his intelligence gatherers have told him anything useful, that the goodwill that was his in 2003–04 is largely gone.
Bersih’s majority Malay protestors demonstrated that the Reformasi-kindled hopes of reform and expectations of ‘progress for all’ have been dashed.
Hindraf’s Indian supporters showed that non-Malay resentment has been revived by Umno’s elitist, narrow-minded and aggressive reassertion of ‘restructuring’.
And lawyers would sooner walk their talk than fall for more invitations to ‘work with me’, ‘work to change from within’.
Perhaps one isn’t hallucinating to detect a whiff of Reformasi in the air. To recover its spirit, and achieve something with it, we must first realise this: If we are for judicial reform, if we are for electoral reform, and if we are for social justice, then we must all be Bar Council, Bersih and Hindraf.
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