Malaysia’s Civil Society in light of the Bersih movement

Bersih 2.0, a civil society-led movement for clean and fair elections, organized a large protest rally, dubbed Bersih 4, in Kuala Lumpur on August 28 and 29 in 2015. In its fourth street rally, the movement called for the resignation of current Prime Minister Najib Razak. He has been criticized for mismanaging the national investment company 1MDB, which is around $11 billion in debt, and transferring a dubious donation of about $700 to what is believed to be one of his private accounts (WSJ 2015). The Malay word bersih translates literally to clean. Bersih 2.0 organized its first three protests ahead the 12th and 13th General Elections, in 2008 and 2013 respectively. These protests are an integral part of a newly emerging space for the expression of dissent by civil society.

In an opinion piece published by a local news site, political scientist and former Bersih Steering Committee member Wong Chin Huat posed the question: “Why are there so few Malays in Bersih 4?” (Wong 2015). Ethnicity shapes the public sphere more than any other factor in Malaysia. That the largest ethnic group, the Malays, was clearly underrepresented in Bersih 4, as was the third largest group, the Indians, is a challenge to the Bersih movement. Can the protest be fully representative if it has been predominately led by the Chinese, who are the second largest ethnic group? Although Wong suggests we shift our attention away from ethnicity by focusing on the role of protesters as concerned citizens, the situation demonstrates that the imbalance of power among different ethnic groups remains a central obstacle to equal citizenship in Malaysia. A poll suggested that Malays refrained from participating in the rally due to a bias against public unrest and disorder. Instead of this cultural interpretation, Wong suggests we look through the lens of power. Sharing power to overcome the constitutive difference between ethnic groups is the fundamental challenge in Malaysia’s ongoing socio-political transition. Ethnic Malays are located at the very center of the nation state: The United Malay National Congress (UMNO) has been a dominant ethnicity-based government coalition since independence from Britain was achieved. The Malay ethnicity is legally established by affiliation to Islam, following adat, a traditional body of rules, and the use of the Malay language. Together with the indigenous people, Malays are defined as bumiputra, sons of the earth. Vast affirmative action policies have enhanced the position of the once economically underdeveloped Malay cohorts in the economy, education system and national historiography. Ancestors of Malaysians with Chinese and Indian descent predominately migrated into the colonial economy. With the negotiated independence from Britain, they received citizen status, the right to practice their religion, and education in the group’s relevant languages, but they never lost the connotation as the migrated other entirely (see Puthucheary 2008).

The present-day ‘race’ categories are a product of colonial administrative practice and blur the actual diversity within these ethnic groups. In order to highlight the constructive character of these categories and reject the biologist notion of ‘race’, this article refers to ethnicity (see Holst 2012: 19). The political landscape in Malaysia is organized along ethnic lines, with parties attempting to negotiate the best position for their own ethnic group in the communal power balance. Wherever the prevalent balance is seen to be endangered, authoritarian mechanisms can be effective (see Weiss 2006: 34-35). Hence, Bersih is acting in a complex and contradictory socio-political landscape, in which it always risks breaching the boundaries of the tolerated playing field. Wong states: “We [Bersih] aim to empower Malaysians so that independence is a psychological reality that they fear neither each other because of differences nor the authoritarian government,” (Wong 2015). This article will map out the position, limitations and strategies of the movement, in order to approach the question of what role Bersih plays in this empowerment process. Therefore, this article extends its view from Bersih 4 back into the movement’s activism in recent years. Until now, Bersih has not received the necessary scholarly attention. Based on extensive personal fieldwork, this article attempts to close this gap and offer a framework for better understanding the Bersih movement.

Where to locate Bersih in its socio-political environment?

The urban areas on the peninsula’s west coast are the most ethnically diverse. During British rule, these areas saw the largest inflow of foreign labor. Even though about 70% of Malaysians now live in urban areas, 71% of parliamentary seats are decided in rural or semi-rural constituencies (Merdeka Center 2013). This malappointment is one mechanism that curtails the chances for alternative political factions to come to power. Urban areas grew with export oriented industrialization. Accordingly, education improved and private sector employment created new income opportunities. From these developments emerged a middle-class that sees itself as rather independent from state structures. Today, the middle-class is facing the challenge of reproducing its lifestyle, as the costs of living are increasing faster than salaries (Embong 2013). In the late 1980s a new form of activism emerged out of the middle-class, and was critically active in the field of women’s rights, democratization, and human rights. Those issues were addressed independent of ethnicity. Weiss and Hassan described this emerging segment in Malaysia’s civil society in New Left terms, with the activists rooted in a certain class, but campaigning on behalf of society as a whole (2003: 10). This advocacy-oriented segment in the public sphere remains dominated by small-scale organizations, characterized by a minor middle-class base with limited funding, and is highly vulnerable to state intervention. Those who challenge hegemonic discourse develop the capacity to forge supporting coalitions to secure activism from state intervention, as far as possible (see Lee 2011). Around Reformasi in 1998/99, civil society actors contributed their expertise in forming coalitions to put forth the first alternative opposition manifesto. Through this platform, several ethnic-based opposition parties presented the first alternative to the incumbent regime. One remarkable feature was the idea of ‘justice for all,’ which suggested a needs-based, as opposed to ethnicity-based, politics (Kuttan 2005). Later on, when the alternative opposition coalition split over a disagreement about the role of Islam in Malaysia, the reform movement cooled down. The situation changed in 2007, ahead the 12th General Elections, when various street protests took place in Kuala Lumpur and Putra Jaya. The first Bersih rally was one of them. The movement originated among a group of actors from political opposition parties and civil society organizations. In 2006, the group presented a joint communiqué to the public. Comparable with Reformasi, the borders between civil and political society proved to be very permeable (Weiss 2003: 70). From 2010 onwards, civil society organizations took over the leadership, which is symbolized by the extension of the name to “Bersih 2.0”. Bersih 2.0 transformed into a non-partisan movement, but continues to invite parties from all sides to collaborate on the issue of clean and fair elections.

How does Bersih mobilize from its position?

For advocacy-oriented actors in civil society, cooperation is crucial to mobilization. Protest initiatives are often organized by a small circle of activists who mobilize a rather random crowd of participants. Random because they might be attracted by the event as such, but not linked to the civil society organizations and their cause. ‘Fun’ activities, namely the focus on an event atmosphere rather than rallies, keep the entrance barrier to participation low. It also appears that a less conflictive, broad topic facilitates participation and thus, familiarization with public action (Höller and Lagade 2011). By joining forces with political parties, Bersih has linked itself to an imaginable mechanism of change - the regular general elections. On the other hand, the movement also benefits from the mass mobilization networks offered by political parties. These networks, maintained by both government and opposition parties, are the result of a curious imbalance in Malaysia’s highly politicized public sphere. Relative to its population, Malaysia has the largest political parties in the region. Their competition on an unlevel playing field lends credibility to the ‘democratic’ system (Noor 2012). Maria Chin Abdullah, present chair of Bersih, explained that the movement alone could have only mobilized around 30,000-50,000 participants for the Bersih 3.0 rally in 2012 that pushed for substantial electoral reforms. Together with the political parties, it was able to mobilize some 100,000 people. When Bersih organized a fundraising concert event a few months later, instead of the intended 10,000 only 500-800 people participated (Höller and Chin 2012). In the forefront of the 13th General elections in 2013, Steering Committee members of Bersih used mass events organized by political opposition parties to address the public. Toh Kin Woon, Bersih representative for the Northern Peninsula, explained in a personal interview that activists in Penang need to rely on the political party structures that already exist in semi-urban outskirts. Cooperating with parties offers support in organizing public events but also security from attacks by thugs (Höller and Toh 2012). Apart from coordinated activities in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, independent activist groups in Melaka, Johor Bahru, Kucing and Kota Kinabalu initiated small Bersih 3.0 protests, parallel to the one in Kuala Lumpur.

How does Bersih frame its actions?

Mostly, Bersih does not target the government or the coalition parties directly. Instead, the movement focuses on processes and institutions, especially the election commission and election regulations. Bersih presents those mechanisms as depriving the Malaysian people of their universal democratic rights. The rakyat, Malay for people, is central to Bersih’s rhetoric, in both Malay and English statements. It stands for a unified and disenfranchised people, beyond ethnicity and religion. Those who participate in the expression of dissent are described as selfless patriots fighting for a truly democratic nation (Bersih 2.0 2009, 2012a, 2012b). Chin Abdullah explained that to openly challenge the incumbent regime would be too harsh in the present socio-political environment. Various hurdles have led the movement to choose a moderate approach. The most crucial hurdle is ethnicity (Höller and Chin 2012). An opinion poll, conducted before Bersih 4 by the polling institute Merdeka Center, affirms this. It showed that 43% of respondents felt favorably and 47% felt unfavorably towards the Bersih movement. This is a relatively balanced result overall, but it was distributed unevenly: 70% of Malay respondents were unfavorable, whereas 81% of Chinese and 51% of Indian respondents were favorable (Merdeka Center 2015). The UMNO-led government still symbolizes the special rights and privileges of Malays. The specter of a minority ruled Malaysia is a commonly deployed by the government to secure its position.. Public relation fights on these discursive grounds can turn out to be costly for advocacy actors. Against this backdrop, the incorporation of Malays into the movement remains a difficult task. The number of Malay civil organizations, namely those not linked to the state or government structures, is small. For Bersih 3.0, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) helped close the gap of mobilization among Malays by contributing a significant number of protesters from its large mass base. The predominately urban, non-Malay and secular oriented activists in Bersih pose an additional challenge to Malay membership. Critical organizations like the religious-based women’s rights organization Sisters in Islam have the potential to alienate more conservative activists (Höller and Chin 2012). Bersih is concerned about this internal imbalance, and included A. Samad Said, a well-known Malay author, as a co-chair on the Steering Committee. This move became necessary after state-controlled mainstream media began to depict Bersih as a minority-driven movement under former chair Ambiga Sreneevasan following her attendance at a queer festival in 2011 (Höller and Said 2012).

The use of English as the working language reflects the middle-class origins of many activists. During Bersih 3.0, press statements circulated first in English and only later in a Malay translation. Nowadays, Malay receives a more prominent status in public statements and social media. Toh observed that class-based communication is limiting the outreach of Bersih (Höller and Toh 2012). The Bersih 4 opinion poll supports this: respondents with a higher household income reported feeling more favourably towards Bersih (Merdeka Center 2015). This was also apparent in polls regarding Bersih 3.0 and voting patterns during the 13th General Elections. Bersih lacks an adequate strategy to approach groups beyond its own class efficiently. By providing occasional cash handouts, food subsidies or investments in community projects, the government provides effective short-term incentives for rural constituencies, Aspinall describes (2013). The urban middle-class continues to be Bersih’s focus, as it is the movement’s central support base. Chin Abdullah assesses that this segment prefers a moderate, and therefore less destabilizing transition of power. UMNO as such should remain in politics as an opposition force (Höller and Chin 2012). Accordingly, Bersih is offering a rather open framework to accumulate support. Sreneevasan described the movement as a “lighting rod” for a heterogeneous array of discontented citizens, motivated to link themselves to Bersih by diverse issues (Ooi and Sreneevasan 2012). The movement demonstrated this uniting force, for instance, by incorporating Himpunan Hijau, Green Assembly, into the Bersih 3.0 rally. The movement against a rare earth plant participated under its own logos and color theme. Colors and symbols became interwoven in the social media posts, attire, and posters displayed by scores of protesters.

Post-Bersih 4: What are the current challenges?

Bersih became a catalyst in a diversifying public sphere. As Wong explained, Bersih is targeting two aspects in the transition process: First, it works towards a citizenship beyond ethnicity. Second, it challenges an authoritarian system that has cemented ethnic borders. With a large turnout and parallel events in East Malaysia, Bersih 4 was another successful claim of space for civil society to express dissent. By demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation, it reinforced the potential for civil society to serve as a watchdog aside from the election process. That a harsh state intervention did not overshadow the rally is an encouraging sign of the authorities’ hesitation to intervene. However, police did declare the rally as illegal and banned garments combining Bersih’s yellow color with the rally logo. Despite this, people were keen to follow Bersih’s call to the streets. Regarding ethnicity, Wong expresses the wish to abandon the practice of evaluating actions or events by applying ethnic quotas as a benchmark for relevance and success. The discussion above showed that ethnicity is a determining factor for the movement and the environment it is acting in. The imbalance in Bersih 4 contradicts the movement’s goal to unite the rakyat. Due to the implementation of hudud, the opposition coalition split and PAS did not mobilize for this rally. This possible explanation for the low Malay turnout underlines the limited mobilization capacities of civil society actors. Currently, Bersih is not addressing the process and possible effects of a shift in the ethnic power-balance. How are clean and fair elections beneficial for all ethnic groups if they shift political representation? The question extends beyond ethnicity as well, considering that support for Bersih increases with household income. Low incomes as well as rural structures come with different political outlooks and languages. In one of its latest projects, Bersih set up citizen groups to object the regular re-delineation of electoral constituencies (Bersih 2.0 2014). It is a widely neglected legal mechanism, which, due to its technicality and need for a high degree of personal commitment, is distant from the priorities of most grassroots actors. With an ongoing consolidating advocacy space, Bersih should address the issue of power-sharing as well, and foster the self-conception of a united civil society that serves as a watchdog . This perspective can involve more Malaysians at the grassroots level, apart from political party mobilization. The formalization and democratization of Bersih 2.0 and the introduction of regional representatives to the Steering Committee are first steps to extend the activist circles outside of Kuala Lumpur. This does not necessarily render grassroots participation from random to affiliate, but it is a chance to pluralize voices within the movement. During this process, Bersih can eventually find ways to campaign effectively beyond its own class.



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