Malaysians, including Penangites, have awakened to their political rights and responsibilities. Francis Loh writes about the Penang Bersih 3.0 solidarity gathering at the Esplanade on 28 April, which received substantial public support.
Aliran was responsible for organising two Bersih 3.0 related events over the last weekend of April. It was a demanding – but also exhilarating – weekend!
On 28 April 2012, in conjunction with the main Duduk Bantah in Kuala Lumpur, and localised equivalents in 84 other locations in 35 countries (including Malaysia).
Aliran organised and facilitated the Duduk Bantah that was held in Padang Kota Lama – the Esplanade – in Penang. An estimated 8,000-10,000 people showed up, filling up more than two-thirds of the Padang. The last time crowds of this size were seen in Penang at a political gathering was during opposition party rallies in the run-up to the 2008 elections (signalling the impending political tsunami of 8 March 2008). In the event, this was the first time that Penangites gathered together legally for a political purpose, outside of the electoral campaign period, as allowed nowadays under the newly passed Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (warts and all), that was only gazetted on 23 April 2012.
I hasten to add that the Duduk Bantah in Penang was completely peaceful! The absence of any ‘untoward incident’ helped the crowd focus their attention entirely on the demands of Bersih 3.0 – instead of being sidetracked by other things, as in Kuala Lumpur.
If, perhaps, the Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) had allowed Bersih 3.0 to gather in Dataran Merdeka, as the Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang (MPPP) had given us permission to use the Padang Kota Lama, the violence that occurred following the breaching of the barricades around one small particular area surrounding the Dataran Merdeka might not have occurred! And the allegations of police brutality, and counter-allegations of an unruly crowd who breached the barriers might not be on the agenda today. There would then be no need to set up any investigative committee, and no debate about whether the nominated members of the committee are truly independent. After all, there is a Peaceful Assembly Act in place and the Bersih 2.0 steering committee was asking to use Dataran Merdeka, surely meant to be a symbol of our freedom and democracy! Alas, the DBKL and the powers-that-be thought otherwise.
The second event was an Aliran Hi-Tea held on 29 April 2012 in a Tanjong Bungah hotel. A full house of almost 500 Penangites attended the buffet tea and listened to three Bersih steering committee members, namely Dato Samad Said, a national literary laureate who is Bersih 2.0 co-chairperson; Dato Dr Toh Kin Woon (a former Penang state exco member turned social activist); and Dr Subramaniam Pillay (a KL-based Aliran exco member who represents Aliran in the Bersih 2.0 steering committee).
Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, the other co-chairperson, was originally expected to be present too. Due to unprecedented occurrence of violence and arrests of Bersih supporters and demonstrators in KL, she was obliged to stay back in KL instead; regrettable, but fully understandable to those 500 people who attended our Hi-Tea. Read the report in this issue of Aliran Monthly.
Demanding but exhilarating
Organising the two events back-to-back was very demanding, but somewhat unavoidable. We had already finalised plans for the Hi-Tea – booked the hotel and made food arrangements, printed and distributed the invitation cards, even purchased the airline tickets for our guests by early March – when rumours of a Bersih 3.0 Duduk Bantah first surfaced.
As part of Bersih 2.0 and its steering committee, Aliran would have requested its members and supporters to join the Duduk Bantah in KL. Since we were involved in organising the Hi-Tea in Penang, we decided not to rush to KL for the Dataran Merdeka gathering, but to organise a localised Duduk Bantah instead, which was also encouraged by the Bersih 2.0 steering committee, to encourage more widespread participation by Malaysians outside KL.
So on 28 April, as more than a hundred thousand Malaysians walked towards Dataran Merdeka, Aliran facilitated the coming together of 8,000 to 10,000 Penangites at the Esplanade to express their frustrations with the electoral process and the Elections Commission.
Because the sky was turning dark and it had begun drizzling, our Duduk Bantah was brought forward to around 1.30pm, instead of 2.00pm as scheduled.
We began with a vibrant round of chanting: ‘Hidup hidup, hidup rakyat!’, ‘Tolak tolak, tolak rasuah!’,’Henti henti, rasuah undi!’, ‘Cuci cuci, senarai undi!’, ‘Bersih bersih, pilihanraya!’ and ‘Tukar tukar, tukar SPR!’
Viewed from the stage next to Penang’s Dataran Pidato, the only Speakers’ Square in a public area anywhere in Malaysia as far we know, the Padang had turned into a fantastic sea of yellow! The crowd had dressed in yellow T-shirts and Aliran had prepared some 500 helium-filled yellow balloons for distribution. Also distributed were 500 yellow handouts on which was printed Bersih 2.0’s Eight Demands on one side and Pak Samad’s poem ‘Unggun Bersih’ on the other. We had also brought along several long yellow cloth streamers, which we passed over to the crowd in front of the stage. They waved the streamers up and down to create a wave-like effect.
Many groups had also brought along their own banners and posters, mostly in yellow. There was also a group dressed up as ‘ghosts’ and ‘devils’, apparently to emphasise the presence of the pengundi hantu still hiding in our electoral rolls. These ghosts and devils were a big hit with the crowd, and many snapped photographs of themselves with the ‘ghosts’.
At the front of the gathering, we had erected a big board which was half coloured in yellow with large black letters reading ‘Clean and Fair Elections’. We distributed hundreds of yellow ribbons to the crowd and invited them to stick them onto the board, to turn the black letters to yellow! As well, there was a long banner which read ‘Penangites Support Bersih 3.0’ stretched across a corner of the stage. We invited all present to sign their names on the banner. Thousands did both with much aplomb!
The dressing in yellow, the chanting, the reciting along of Pak Samad’s poem, the releasing the balloons, and of course the duduk in order to bantah – all these were acts that the thousands present could participate in to show their displeasure, and to take a stand in favour of bersih and fair elections. Throughout the afternoon, therefore, there were people shuffling to the front to stick the yellow ribbon or add their signature. It was exhilarating!
Duduk duduk, duduk bantah!
There were also a few short speeches. Dr Francis Loh, Aliran’s president, was first to take the stage. He welcomed all, reminded us why we were gathered in the Esplanade, talked about struggling for our democracy and led the crowd in some chants. Then Dr Mustafa Kamal Anuar, Aliran’s Secretary read the lovely and very uplifting sajak ‘Unggun Bersih’ (Cleansing Fire) by Pak Samad. As he read, the crowd repeated each line aloud, reading from their yellow handouts.
Next, the emcee for the Duduk Bantah Dr Andrew Aeria, also an Aliran exco member, called for the release of the yellow balloons as he announced each of Bersih’s Eight Demands. In fact, Three Additional Demands had been added to the original Eight in the run-up to Duduk Bantah, namely: that the original Eight Demands be implemented by the BN government prior to the holding of the 13th general elections; that a team of international experts be allowed to observe the forthcoming election; and in view of the Elections Commission’s un-accommodative attitude to popular calls for electoral reform, that the current crop of Elections Commissioners be replaced immediately.
These points were elaborated upon by the other speakers, which included Ch’ng Teng Liang, another Aliran exco member, and Ms Lim Kah Cheng, a lawyer and former Penang Municipal Councillor.
The politicians were then given the floor: YB Chow Kon Yeow (the Penang state exco member in charge of local government and transport), YB Abdul Halim (the Speaker of the Penang State Assembly) and finally YAB Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister. We had reminded the politicians to be brief and to speak to the point on Bersih’s demands. They were most co-operative.
Chanting followed after every speaker. ‘Hidup hidup, hidup rakyat!’, ‘Bersih bersih, senarai undi!’, ‘Tukar tukar, tukar SPR!’ Again and again.
There was yet another chant which we had not rehearsed but which was picked up by the crowd spontaneously, and reverberated again and again: ‘Duduk duduk, duduk bantah!’ It was first directed at the group of photographers and journalists who stood up around the stage, and later to any group of people who blocked the view of the people at the back. All told, the people chanted at were cooperative.
Strength in numbers
Our intention for that day was always to highlight the Demands of Bersih 3.0 for free, fair and clean elections. We wanted to ensure a peaceful assembly without any incident.
Admittedly, it was with some anxiety that we learnt that most of the Penang-based NGOs that we usually work with like Suaram and Himpunan Hijau would not be around to help us in Penang on 28 April because they had decided to persuade their members and supporters to go to KL instead. That meant that Aliran would have to organise the Penang Duduk Bantah almost single handedly!
However, we were concerned that ‘untoward incidents’, the term used by the OCPD of the George Town District, might occur. Yes, we were wary of Perkasa-types showing up to disturb the Duduk Bantah as they had disrupted several public protests that Penang-based NGOs had previously organised in Dataran Pidato, the last one being the Himpunan Hijau solidarity gathering in Penang on 26 February. On that occasion, the Perkasa-types had heckled the Penang chief minister who had also attended the gathering. So our concern to prevent any untoward incident occurring was not unwarranted.
But we also knew that if a large crowd showed up, these Perkasa-types would not dare to make a nuisance of themselves. As it turned out, a few of them did show up at the Duduk Bantah on 28 April, as reported in the media. Probably they were surprised, perhaps scared off too, by the thousands gathered!
On our part, we were pleasantly surprised that so many people showed up that afternoon. When we decided to organise the event, we had hoped originally that some 300 to 500 people would show up. In fact, this was what we told the OCPD who was particularly concerned about the numbers who might show up, presumably to help them prevent anything untoward occurring.
In the days leading up to Duduk Bantah, we thought, perhaps, that one thousand people might show up. This number was estimated using the number of positive replies to the invitations to attend the event that had been set up on Aliran’s Facebook profile. The rule of thumb, we were told by some younger members, was that only half the number of people who say they are coming for an event would actually show up on the real day! Apparently, this rule of thumb did not apply on this occasion.
We suspect that the thousands that attended were probably driven by one of two, or both factors; first, the chief minister announced that he would be attending Bersih 3.0 in Penang. Consequently, many members of his party as well as from the other Pakatan parties decided to show up too. And second, after Aliran had met with the police, we issued a statement clarifying that the police did not consider that our gathering in the Padang would pose any security threat. Indeed, we announced that we wanted the event to be peaceful, even fun-filled, as we presented details about the interactive activities planned for the afternoon.
That said, we also believe that at a more general level, Malaysians, including Penangites, have awakened to their political rights and responsibilities. They are not unwilling to turn up for events like Duduk Bantah, especially if they are conducted peacefully. After all, the rakyat, in the 2008 election, had decided that they wanted to deny the BN their usual two-thirds’ majority, to egg on a two-coalition system, and to vote for change in several states.
Part of this awakening is manifested in terms of the critical blog postings, facebook updates, youtube clips and tweets that Malaysians, especially the young, share with one another nowadays. From this point of view, the large turnout in the Penang, and especially the major KL Duduk Bantah is not surprising. There is a knock-on effect that connects making critical comments in the social media, voting for change in the polls, and participating in peaceful assemblies. Politicians of all hues, please take note!
Claiming our rights, acting responsibly
Finally, a word of thanks to those who worked behind the scenes to help Aliran organise the Duduk Bantah: a team of lawyers from the Legal Aid Committee, a few dressed in their court fineries, were present. Did you notice them? A St John’s Ambulance, complete with a doctor and ‘mobile medical team’, that is, medical aides with bicycles, were on standby throughout the afternoon too. Thank heavens neither had much to do.
A donor sponsored the water which was distributed. Alas, we had only brought about 1,500 bottles instead of the required 8,000 to 10,000! Another donor sponsored the helium gas that was pumped into the yellow balloons which helped to turn the afternoon of democratic struggle into a festive occasion as well. We are also grateful to an artist who prepared the banner and bill board.
Thanks also to the MPPP for the use of the Padang and to the chief minister who helped to facilitate acquiring the permission of the MPPP to use the Padang. There is also the Penang Police, who were on standby to prevent anything untoward happening. Though it was at first somewhat intimidating meeting them – what with their recording and videotaping all our meetings – the Penang Police deserves our thanks too. For us, as for them, it was a first public gathering under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.
The last words of thanks go the Penangites who showed up that 28 April afternoon. Not only did we show that we could assemble publicly in a peaceful manner, we also cleaned up the Padang together! That was most responsible. For the last chant of the afternoon was ‘Bersih bersih, bersih padang!’ Otherwise, the MPPP would have imposed a penalty on Aliran for littering. Hence the afternoon ended with a gotong-royong to clean up the field, leaving it perhaps cleaner than when we first entered it. Shucks! We missed the opportunity to clean up Dataran Merdeka.
Dr Francis Loh is president of Aliran