My thoughts on the Bersih rally

I promised to write some of my thoughts on the Bersih rally earlier but never got around to it. The main thing is that others have already written what I’d wanted to say, and said it better to boot. The best one is probably this that was linked by Tan Kien Boon. This post on Marina Mahathir’s blog is good too. I’d hate to repeat what others have already said, so I’ll keep my own thoughts brief:

  • The government could have handled things much better if they had moved into damage control mode instead of counter-attacking like that. It makes me wonder if this is a reaction born out of panic and fear of losing power, or whether they actually need to be appear to be tough before the more hardcore elements of their constituency in order to avoid being usurped in an internal power struggle. If it’s the latter, it’s at least good politics even if the results aren’t too great for Malaysia. If it actually is the former, then it’s just plain stupid of them to act like this.
  • Like many other Chinese, I was struck by the high level of camaraderie in the crowd. Since I’ve spent many years living abroad and have little contact with the other races in Malaysia, it was hard for me to gauge how much support the rally had among the Malays. One commentator on QT3 asked me about this and I honestly didn’t know enough about Malaysia to answer. It was extremely heartening to learn that many Malays are far more enthusiastic in their opposition to the Barisan Nasional than the Chinese.
  • A. Samad Said commented that this was the finest display of 1 Malaysia he had ever witnessed. While this sounds cheesy and I have plenty of things to disagree about with Malaysia’s poet laureate, such as his insistent championing of the Malay language, in this instance I am inclined to agree. It was a truly novel experience for me to speak and cooperate with Malays without having to be conscious of our different races.
  • The lameness of the mainstream media is an old subject by now but I think this episode makes it more apparent than ever. Many, many middle-class Malaysians had to read accounts of the event that they personally knew were untrue from eyewitness accounts. It’s hard to believe all these thousands of Malaysians can go back to trusting what these media organizations say.
  • On the negative side, I’m still nonplussed that apart from Ambiga Sreenevasan herself and A. Samad Said, most of the leaders prominent in the movement are attached to opposition parties. Where are the heads of the trade unions, religious groups and other NGOs that are part of the coalition? Obviously the opposition politicians have more incentives to trumpet their prominence, but I’d hoped that the other NGOs could be more visible so as to credibly turn the movement into a more neutral affair.

Despite the lower than expected turnout, I think it’s hard to call the rally anything other than a success, especially after how the government repeatedly shot itself in the foot in its response. People are certainly far more alive now to how much in-grained opposition there is to Barisan Nasional and more cognizant of just how far the government is willing to go to hold on to the power. Most people who turned out at the rally are extremely happy and proud that they did so while those who didn’t go have expressed disappointment in themselves that they missed the chance to be part of something big and important. It’s still a long slow grind towards true democracy but the Bersih rally will likely be remembered as a critical stepping stone along that path.

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