A reflection on Bersih 4

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File photograph: The Malaysian Insider

If enough people pretend as if democracy is real and works for us and live as if it is and does, they change could happen, says Steven Sim.

500,000 people gathered in the capital over the Merdeka weekends.

To those used to public demonstrations in Malaysia, Bersih 4.0 was obviously different. The mood was festive, almost carnival like. There were songs and poetry and performances. I was taken up by the atmosphere so much so that when I was handed the microphone to address the crowd, I sang a song – something rarer than the proverbial blue moon. I sang the old revolutionary song “Darah Rakyat”.

The gathering was inevitably labelled as Chinese due to the overwhelming Chinese turnout. But I like how someone puts it: if there is anything that can be said about Bersih 4 and Chinese, it is that now the Chinese in Malaysia have turned liberal – they actually dared to come out and sleep on the streets during the Hungry Ghost Festival month.

And while we are at it, it was Bersih 4 not 3A*! How liberal the Chinese have become for the sake of their country. (*four is pronounced “sei/si/sǐ” in Cantonese/Hokkien/Mandarin, which sounds like “death”)

The elephant in the room was of course the lower Malay turnout – I will not address this for now except to say that many of the Malay would-be participants are members and supporters of Pas, a highly disciplined political entity. Hence while they support the cause, without the instruction of their leaders, they may not be mobilised to attend in larger groups.

Did Bersih 4 change anything?

But after Bersih 4, some asked, “So what now? Did anything change?”

There are some of course who are sceptical, even cycnical: “So did Najib resign?”

Some justified it saying, “It’s for the long term.”

I think, something did happen right away. After the euphoria, for the 500,000 people who walked and gathered and slept on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and the tens of thousands who gathered elsewhere all over Malaysia, and the world, something changed right away.

In fact, those who were indirectly involved, those who had family members or friends participating in Bersih 4, or those who were deeply concerned followed the event closely. They helped pass the message along, bought a T-shirt, uploaded a yellow-themed photo on social media, deliberately wore something yellow to work or play that day. Something changed for them as well, right away.

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For them and for us, of course we knew way before this that something was wrong, terribly wrong even in the way our government runs the country. But Bersih 4 transformed that cognitive knowledge into an experiential knowledge. Now we know deep in our bones and gut that something is terribly wrong in this country and we have to at least begin to think about alternatives.

When someone is willing to go all the way – buy a T-shirt, travel to KL, risk the regime’s threats, walk and gather in the scorching heat of the capital city, for TWO days, sleep on stone-hard ground under the humid roofless night, not to mention overcome deeply entrenched ideas about wanting stability, “not rocking the boat”, keeping the public peace – and gasp, all this during the darkest month of the year when ghosts and ghouls roam large – it totally changes the person.

The experience changed not only our idea of what’s going on, like I say from head knowledge to heart knowledge; it changed our response towards the issue, compelling us to a greater commitment “to do something”.

And for a moment, no matter how cynical one is about the state of things, when we were there on the streets, hope seemed like a huge possibility. On the streets, the people actually believed, “Yes, something can be done”.

Now to do what?

Three years ago I wrote in my book:

At a time when there are so many noises offering different options, the most pragmatic, and ironically the most revolutionary thing to do is to be still and think, to critically analyse the situation before plunging into yet another reaction leading to a scenario best described by the famous French epigram, plus ça change, plus c est la même chose, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

When everybody is busy trying to do something, take a step back and think, reflect on the problem before jumping into “activity mode” again.

What is the problem?

Because you see the problem is not just about individual greed. It’s not even about Najib. We all know things will not change even if Zahid Hamidi or Muhyiddin takes over. Or Mukhriz or Khairy or anyone else. Hence, it is not enough to just ask Najib to resign.

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The problem is the system.

And not just any system but a system where everything is “buyable” or in our local colloquial, the “can settle” culture. In such a system and culture, everyone is a potential Najib.

It is a system where one can buy one’s way out.

It is a system where we can buy anything from better education to better exam grades to leaked UPSR papers; we can buy fast lanes at airports and hospitals; we can pay a premium for VIP services in hotels or for favours in government departments; we can buy a “get out of jail card”, we can buy security and protection from and against law enforcers; we can buy human services, human organs and heck, even human beings (not in some faraway land, think about human trafficking in Malaysia); we can buy support where none existed – hence the 48 per cent government.

Everything is “buyable” and we are part of the system.

Last week, a constituent called me and asked me to help her. She had stolen about RM200 worth of baby products from a local shopping mall. She wanted me to facilitate an “out-of-court settlement”.

I told her she needed to get a lawyer at this point.

She was frustrated. She mumbled, “For RM200 my life is now destroyed; yet some people got away with RM2.6bn.”

All of us are potentially a Najib.

It is not about personal greed. Rather it is about a system which does not guarantee accountability and transparency, a system in which one can buy one’s way out. That woman above did not have the means to buy her way out. Some others may have. Where then is justice, right and wrong, rights and duties? Everything, every relationship is arbitrated by money – in other words, everything is “buyable”.

In such a system, even democracy becomes too expensive when elections cost a bomb. Today, the Barisan Nasional admitted that it takes RM2.6bn to defeat just one opponent, the DAP, in the last general election.

Democracy then becomes out of reach for many people – especially the ones for whom it matters the most, whose voice desperately need to be heard. Some of us have become too poor to take part in such costly democracy.

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Give us something really practical

Someone pressed me in a recent forum in true Malaysian pragmatism, “Seriously, tell us, give us a really practical advice what to do?”

OK, then.

While we await the system to be transformed by the “big guys”, the grand coalition whatever, my one simple practical advice for the rest of us post-Bersih 4.0 is this: pretend that good exists.

Pretend that democracy exists, good governance exists, human rights exist, justice exists.

What I mean is this: take for example justice – live as if there is justice. You may seem naive; people may laugh at you, but demand justice, pursue it, and provide it. It will always be easier and more convenient to pay our way out. But no, pretend and live as if justice exist.

Demand good governance from your government at all levels: local, state and federal. Demand it as if it is a normal thing to be expected, even for Malaysia. Pursue good governance like a naive young child whose little heart is not yet tainted with the cynicism of “we have no choice, that’s the way things are”. Refuse to accept anything other than good governance. It is immensely easier to do so but do not ever get used to lousy deals.

For democracy, go campaign and vote for change as if all of that really matters! As if changes will come, as if the regime will honour your votes and your voices. As if the election is not rigged – yes I know it’s naive, I told you so – demand and pursue democracy as if it is real, even here in Malaysia.

If enough people pretend as if democracy is real and works for us and live as if it is and does, and we demand it no matter what until we get it, then we will see the high spirit of “yes, something can be done” during Bersih 4 being relived over and over again – now not only on the streets of KL but everywhere in Malaysia. Now tell me if that is not a revolution.

In many words, I really want to say, press on my fellow Malaysians.

Or fake it till you make it.

Steven Sim is the member of parliament for Bukit Mertajam.

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