Bersih 3 – the attempt to reclaim Kuala Lumpur

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At heart, Bersih 3 had turned into a struggle over ‘the right to the city’ – the nerve centre of politics and the site of resurgent dissent against disenfranchisement, recalls Khoo Boo Teik.

On Federal Territory Day, 1 February 2012, Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah addressed Kuala Lumpur’s middle-class, fiscally savvy and governance-sensitive residents.

“The time has come for us to enjoy a DBKL,” she said, ‘that can be held responsible to the ratepayers, and can be replaced if it refuses to listen… The time has come for… a mayor who is elected by the people…”

“Let’s rise up, Kuala Lumpur,” she urged. And that was exactly what Bersih 3 did a couple of months later – on 28 April.

The third Bersih rally joined demands for electoral reform to the right to the freedom of expression, assembly and movement. With that, Bersih 3 and the regime’s attempt to block it reignited a 40-year struggle over the political and symbolic space of Kuala Lumpur.

Who lives and who works in a city? How should the city be planned and administered? What should it have and how should it look? Who votes, who rules the city, and how should its population, at any rate its less desirable or less reliable segments, be managed?

These socially and politically loaded questions have been applicable to Kuala Lumpur, a city that may be said to have been ‘born again’ not once but twice and each time in strife.

Aftermath of civil war

The first rebirth happened after the 19th century Selangor civil war that was fought over the control of Kuala Lumpur’s tin mines.

When the war ended, “so much blood had been shed at Kuala Lumpur, money lost and effort wasted”, a historian of Kuala Lumpur, JM Gullick, wrote, that “Yap Ah Loy had first to persuade his dispirited followers that it was worth rebuilding the town”. The reconstructed town was “no longer Yap Ah Loy’s” after the government of Selangor moved its headquarters there in 1880.

At independence, Kuala Lumpur, now the capital of Malaya, had four parliamentary constituencies, Batu, Bukit Bintang, Bungsar, and Setapak. In the first general election of 1959, the Alliance won Bukit Bintang while the Socialist Front took the other three constituencies. Two general elections later, the Alliance was completely shut out. Gerakan won Batu and Bukit Bintang, and DAP took Bungsar and Setapak.

Then came May 13 and in its wake, Kuala Lumpur had its second rebirth.

A redelineation exercise in 1972 turned the four constituencies into five new ones – Bandar Kuala Lumpur, Damansara, Kepong, Setapak, and Sungei Besi. From this exercise, the veteran oppositionist Tan Chee Khoon said, “Kampong Baru … was carved out of Bukit Bintang and attached to Setapak” which left very few Malay voters in Bukit Bintang and made Setapak “practically safe for Umno or for a Malay candidate”.

The second response was even more profound. A large part of the tension associated with May 13 arose because the post-election Selangor government hung in the balance: the Alliance had 14 seats, Gerakan and DAP together had 13 and an independent held the 28th seat.

The Alliance continued to rule Selangor. Yet no one could rule out its future loss of the state which would pit an opposition state government against the federal government. If that happened, Kuala Lumpur as the capital of both governments would become ‘a ship with two pilots’, some Umno MPs warned in Parliament.

To pre-empt this scenario, the federal government, with the consent of the Sultan of Selangor and appropriate amendments to the federal and state constitutions, excised Kuala Lumpur and a surrounding area from Selangor to create a ‘Federal Territory’.

‘Disenfranchisement of close to one million people’

In Parliament, Tan Chee Khoon, Batu MP, demanded to know how the federal government would make good the loss of eight Selangor State Assembly seats. Lim Kit Siang called for a prior referendum on the proposed “disenfranchisement of close to a million people and denial… of their right to be represented in the Selangor State Assembly”.

The opposition’s vigorous objections were to no avail. A politico-administrative excision performed on Selangor disempowered some of the nation’s most rebellious constituencies.

“When Kuala Lumpur becomes federal territory,” Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein concluded, “it will not be necessary for the residents of Kuala Lumpur to be represented in the State Assembly.” He added that, “They will be allowed to vote for members of parliament because Kuala Lumpur will then be administered by the central government.”

The opposition foresaw a bleak political future for Kuala Lumpur. The city would retrogress to colonial-era nominated administration, the destruction of the grassroots foundations of democracy, an inferior grasp of local grievances, and the lack of accountability of appointed councils.

The regime envisioned a ‘new’ federal territory overlaid with centralised control, rationalised administration, managerial expertise, technocratic planning, and ‘national character’.

The losing opposition’s vision marked the passing of an era of dissent. The triumphant regime’s dream foretold Kuala Lumpur’s re-birth as part of socio-economic restructuring under the New Economic Policy. The result placed the capital’s politically invaluable physical and symbolic space beyond popular contestation.

History, however, returned in unsettled conflicts and unresolved questions. Thirty-nine years after 1969, Razak’s strategy of cutting away Selangor’s urban heart to immunise the rest of its geobody from opposition contamination was undone. Selangor was ‘lost’ when the PKR, the DAP and Pas collectively won 36 state legislative assembly seats against the BN’s 20.

Yet, Abdul Razak’s plan to govern Kuala Lumpur from the centre held. Despite winning 10 out of 11 parliamentary seats, Pakatan was excluded from Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur whose unelected mayor answered to an unelected minister of the federal territories and urban well-being.

From the end of 2011, expectations ran high that the 13th general election would be held in 2012. Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had already delayed holding an election to seek a personal mandate longer than any previous prime minister.

The Electoral Commission still refused to implement the Bersih demands. In response, the Bersih 2.0 committee planned a ‘Duduk Bantah’ (sit-in protest) gathering at Dataran Merdeka on 28 April 2012.

Once again, the regime baulked at the prospect of a mass rally, especially one to be held where the historic declaration of Merdeka was made. After its public relations disaster over the Bersih 2.0 rally, Najib’s regime devolved the handling of Bersih 3 to the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL).

The regime acted as if it could wash its hands off the matter thus. Instead it compounded the conflict. To the unresolved contest over electoral reform was now added an unplanned confrontation between Bersih 3 and DBKL over Kuala Lumpur’s status and position.

Dataran Merdeka had often been rented for big commercial and recreational events before. But the mayor opposed its use by ‘Duduk Bantah’. He would not permit any ‘political use’ of this public space that he insisted was owned by DBKL.

The mayor’s stance demonstrated desperation rather than an appreciation of changed political realities. As an editorial asked in frustration, “Why haven’t the authorities learnt anything from the past two Bersih rallies? Why offer alternative venues, play nice and say that Bersih has no traction and then outsource the muscling to the police and the city authorities?”

This time the police made no move to shut down Kuala Lumpur. Instead they cordoned off the immediate area of Dataran Merdeka with personnel and barriers. By early afternoon on 28 April, a multitude of protesters several times the mass of Bersih 2.0 marchers had flooded from six major gathering points near Dataran Merdeka.

Social media quickly provided audio-visual evidence of the largest and liveliest ever rally. In solidarity with this peaceful, carnivalesque display of open dissent, rallies were held in other towns and ‘Global Bersih’ organised rallies in 74 cities around the world.

Picture how isolated DBKL, its mayor and the police were, being reduced to guarding a single spot in the entire capital, ringed by an estimated 200,000 marchers.

Was that a spectacle of marchers illegally challenging authority, or of power stubbornly defying the popular will? Had Bersih 3 not exposed the hollowness of ruling the capital by federal fiat exercised by an unelected DBKL controlled by an unelected mayor answering to his unelected minister?

Time stood still

Forget the regime’s anti-Bersih declamations. For that matter, forget the express intentions of the Bersih 2.0 committee. In the shape of a mammoth rally, Bersih 3 had resurrected the issue of ‘local politics’ that had been banished from Kuala Lumpur for almost 40 years.

At heart, Bersih 3 had turned into a struggle over ‘the right to the city’ – as the home of the largest concentration of population, the seat of national administration, the nerve centre of politics, and the site of resurgent dissent against disenfranchisement.

Most observers marvelled at how the mass involvement of non-Malay marchers in Bersih 3 finally gave the movement a genuinely multi-ethnic character. That was vitally true.

And yet one must not let that obscure the historic role of Malay protesters, especially young Malay protesters, whose presence had been the backbone of the Bersih progression since November 2007.

Many Umno politicians, Malay architects and town planners in the 1970s yearned to transform the old Kuala Lumpur by grafting ‘national character’ on what they often regarded as a huge Chinatown. In one of those inspiring twists of history, the mass action of the Malay protesters of Bersih fulfilled that yearning but with a wholly different meaning.

They did not follow anyone’s script. But their repeated action to reclaim their right to Kuala Lumpur’s public space gave the city another rebirth. After Bersih 2007, Bersih 2.0, and Bersih 3, the city had become national all right, for how could anyone still think of it as ‘Yap Ah Loy’s town’, the ‘British seat of administration’, or Chinatown?

Just as Bersih 3 began to disperse as planned, some segments of the rally were attacked by the police who claimed that the marchers had broken an agreement with the police not to approach Dataran Merdeka. One would do the regime too much honour to recount that final and self-inflicted public relations disaster.

What could Najib’s regime do to stop its legitimacy from bleeding away? Shortly before Bersih 3, the regime accelerated the passage of several bills in a day while making time ‘stand still’ by the ‘stopped clock’ in Parliament. Many MPs took that to mean that Parliament would soon be dissolved for a June 2012 general election.

As it turned out the 13th General Election was not held for another 13 months.

Part 1: The Bersih rally that helped bring 2008 tsunami

Part 2: Bersih 2.0 – resurrection at Stadium Merdeka

Tomorrow: The Chinese Reformasi and Mahathir reinvention

This piece first appeared in Malaysiakini.com

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