Why does Bersih need more Malays?

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File photograph: The Malaysian Insider

The question of Malay participation in Bersih should be seen as more than just an effort to fulfil ethnic quotas, observes Nicholas Chan.

“Why aren’t there more Malays?”

The question was asked many times for the Bersih 4 rally.

This should be taken as a good thing, for it signals a sense of awareness towards inclusivity and representation, both gems of democracy.

But I suppose a better way to reflect on the rally, especially as we ponder about the question of “what’s next after Bersih?” is to ask,

“Why does Bersih need more Malays?”

The aforementioned rationale of inclusivity and representation aside, I believe there is a deeper and more ambitious project that can be uncovered if we examine the issue from this angle.

To appease the security dilemma

Well, if Bersih is seen from the realpolitik angle where the ulterior motive is just to oust the prime minister, then one can definitely argue that it needs the eager participation of the biggest communal group of Malaysia.

As any claims of legitimacy within a democracy hinges on assumed majoritarian support, moves to counter that claim will have to offer a scenario which disproves that. Basically, a picture that says, the majority have spoken.

However, this oppositional positioning of Bersih vis-à-vis Najib risks undermining the former because it forces Bersih into the same discursive ground of Malaysia’s party politics.

An arena that is populated by an increasingly dysfunctional democracy, sustained by a political ecosystem that is racialised and religiously inflamed, resulting in a security dilemma that is fuelled by ethno-centric zero-sum logic.

A paradox created whereby the sense of security of the Malays requires the insecurity of the non-Malays, as researcher Michael Magcamit of the University of Canterbury puts it.

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Within this unhealthy ecosystem where communal relations can only be sustained by “mutual distrust”, one can assuredly argue that Bersih or any mass mobilising civil society movement needs more Malay participation because it needs to appease the sense of insecurity amongst the Malays.

Or to aspire to be something greater?

However, this reasoning misses one salient point; that Bersih is a civil society movement. While its agenda is definitely political, its aim, unlike political parties, is not to garner votes.

And because it operates outside of a political nexus that is seemingly paralysed by an unpopular government and a rudderless opposition, it can aspire to be something greater.

Despite its limitations, one cannot deny what Bersih 4 achieved is a remarkable feat: a massive turnout for a 34-hour assembly that ended peacefully.

This is a demonstration of the mobilisational and organisational capacity by a non-government organisation that even some political parties can only dream of achieving. Unless the party can afford to do so on a pay-per-entry basis.

Examined against a backdrop of widespread political cynicism where a crisis of confidence is faced by the government and arguably, the fragmented opposition; the fact that there exists another platform where a significant mass of people can turn to should not be under-appreciated.

It signifies that there is a demand for a political space where the people can voice their demands via a channel that is not tainted by partisan politics, relieved of the disappointments and moral baggage (or lack thereof) that follows the symbols and icons of political parties.

Some quarters had argued that Bersih is the front for an opposition party. But even assuming this frivolous logic is true, the fact that the party has to hijack Bersih for its causes and not the other way round speaks a lot about the liability of being a Malaysian politician now.

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An interesting observation about Bersih is how ‘faceless’ it is. Sure, there were prominent individuals or even politicians that were present at the event, but they were never exalted to a position where they became the public face of Bersih.

The ‘face’ of Bersih is the many faces who attended the rally. A picture of Bersih is either the colour of yellow or the sea of yellow formed by the many yellow shirts that were present.

Civil society as the democratic space Malaysia needs

Perhaps this is what Malaysia lacks at the moment: a thriving space provided by civil society where the people can come together and speak for themselves.

An organic vehicle that is not tied to a parochial cause or specific identity marker (see how even our Chambers of Commerce are racially denominated) – which gives it flexibility to accommodate the shared aspirations of the people.

This is especially pertinent within the context of a two-party system where the people are often force-fitted into extreme poles that are antagonistic and non-compromising.

The outcomes of such situations are never favourable, they could result in political gridlocks or worse, communitarian conflicts as a proxy war of unresolved power and ideological struggles.

And if we allow our imagination to take a step further, this critical space, when it achieves a representative buy-in (which is why the hypothetical ‘Bersih’ needs more Malays), might be the middle-ground needed for the Malaysian to recuperate, reconcile and renegotiate its way forward.

To be sure, a strengthened civil society will not replace electoral politics or political parties, nor should it; that would have defeated the purpose.

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But it can play a larger role within it. To push for reforms, to hold dialogues politicians shy away from, to provide platforms for ideas deemed too bold or too imaginative to be championed by our usually conservative politics.

And that civil society movement does not even need to be Bersih. What Bersih 4 – and its previous rallies – did was demonstrating that this space is needed and can in fact be created by civil society.

Therefore, this plea for Bersih to have more Malay participation should be seen as more than just an effort to fulfil racial quotas; a viewpoint that belongs to an entrenched old thinking which affects many areas from the way our tourism advertisements are designed to how our policies are rationalised.

Instead, it is to argue a case where we might have an alternative route – and granted, that will also be a long and winding road – where we can find a way to move beyond the ‘quota’ mentality, and the prejudices and insecurities associated with it, without the politicians who aim for office in the driving seat.

As the usual political process continues to fail the people, it is only natural to look for alternatives outside the usual mechanisms. Progress in democratic reforms can be initiated, accelerated and sustained by civil society, see the Civil Rights Movement of America.

And that is why, Bersih, or more importantly, what comes after Bersih, will need more Malay participation.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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