Shrinking Civic Space in ASEAN

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Southeast Asia’s varied historical and geopolitical circumstances created diversified local political structures. Amidst globalization and social transformation, some Southeast Asian countries have adopted democratic systems. However, many more remain as authoritarian or communist regimes. Despite the differences in their political structures, the Southeast Asian countries share one common trait, that is, the existence of state repression, in which it brings threat to the civic space in the region. While the region has made some remarkable political transformation with its old political establishments being challenged by the emergence of opposition forces and civil society from time to time, there remain some doubts on the future prospect of ASEAN as the regional grouping in providing democracy spaces for dissent voices.

Since the 2007 ASEAN Charter, ASEAN has been pursuing political and democratic reforms under the umbrella of the three pillars within the ASEAN Community, but at a slow pace. Some principles of the Charter, have not been adequately implemented and to some extent, are almost neglected by some ASEAN member states. That’s particularly true when it comes to issues concerning human rights, democracy, fundamental freedoms, good governance, and the rule of law.

Now, as the regional organization celebrates its 50th anniversary and its promise to bring about a rules-based, people-oriented, and people-centered ASEAN, there is increasing concern over the shrinking civic spaces in the region. Several member states continue to pressure and enforce laws restricting freedom of expressions and the right to peaceful assembly as a way to monitor and control civil society activities.

Yellow Wave: how it gets started?

Malaysia is one of the founding members for ASEAN, and it has since played an active role in the regional grouping. In Malaysia, democracy is a contested term in a political system marked by authoritarianism and rigged elections. Malaysian politics are not only marked by political parties’ rivalries, but also characterized by escalating public discontent and social protests with contrasting demands. Since achieving its independence in 1957, Malaysia has been an electoral authoritarian regime with competitive elections (Ufen, 2012). Scholars have characterized the mixed model of democracy and authoritarian of the Malaysian political system in different terms. All of these terms however affirm a common stand that the state exercises dominance over the society. Some scholarly works classify Malaysia as a “quasi-democracy” (Ahmad, 1989) since it partially practices Westminster democracy. Means (1996) also characterizes the political system in Malaysia as “soft authoritarianism” or “semi-democracy” while Giersdorf and Croissant (2011) term it as “competitive authoritarianism.”

A wave of mass protests organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) since 2007 has attracted much attention to electoral politics both within Malaysia and internationally. Initially known as the Joint Action Committee for Electoral Reform (JACER) started out in 2005, Bersih is a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose aspiration is to push for a thorough reform of the electoral process in Malaysia. The ruling National Front (BN) won its highest ever domination in parliament during the 2004 elections and that triggered some forms of awareness among the opposition parties that, without an agenda to push forward for clean and fair elections, there will be no opportunity for them to flourish. Realizing the reality of the elections system in the country, NGOs began to consolidate joint efforts for clean and fair elections, which then took form as the Bersih movement. In the beginning, Bersih was an opposition political party-driven movement, which later on developed into a non-partisan movement and “free” from political influences in April 2010, around two years after the 2008 elections.

The formation of the Bersih movement is particularly interesting, as some have argued that it is an attempt to topple the ruling coalition BN, but from my personal conversations with the movement activists, they have insist that it is apolitical and solely aimed at electoral reform. Thus far, the Bersih movement has organized five mass street rallies in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016 whereas such situations are not a common trend in Malaysia. Each protest resulted in a different outcome. The five mass Bersih rallies are seen as a key challenge to authority and also a threat to the government legitimacy. Also called as the “Yellow Wave” (Mustaffa, 2008), mass actions and street demonstrations not only occurred in the city centre of Kuala Lumpur, but also in many other cities around the world. Organized by overseas Malaysians whom called themselves as the Global Bersih, these overseas Malaysians have taken the rallies to a global stage.

The Bersih movement is arguably an influential symbol of electoral reform and is iconic as a pro-democracy movement. Many factors contributed to the eruption of political discontent in Malaysia, which subsequently led to the important role of social movements like the Bersih movement. A number of factors contributed to the explosion of political dissatisfaction and discontent in Malaysia, ranging from various levels including blatant corruption, cronyism, unfair legislation, institutional mismanagement, and public frustration with the ruling administration, among others (Khoo, 2014). Public discontent with unpopular government actions escalates the frequency of street demonstrations. These individual frustrations were finally translated into collective action and transformed into resources that brought the people to the streets in the Bersih’s first rally on November 10, 2007. Bersih’s influence was formed not only through the identity and framing that originated mainly from the grievances by the public; its influence also emerged from the existence of a consolidated opposition coalition, and the opposition’s alliances with the growing number of electoral reform groups in the country.

Bersih Movement in front of the Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Can protests bring change to Malaysia?

During the first rally on November 10, 2007, organisers were subjected to various forms of police intimidation. They faced roadblocks and water canons. And the Home Affairs Ministry questioned the legality of the movement, as it was not registered with the Registrar of Societies (ROS). As the first Bersih rally was held prior to the nation’s general election in 2008, it was arguably one of the reasons the ruling coalition BN did not garner a two-thirds majority in government, for the first time since 1969. The second rally was held on July 9, 2011. At that time, the political environment had changed and the run-up was tense. The police issued a long list of restrictions: entry to certain places was barred and 91 people, including opposition leaders and activists, were banned from entering the nation’s capital Kuala Lumpur. Both police and the government were criticised by the local and international community for what demonstrators claimed was unwarranted heavy-handedness (Khoo, 2016). 

The government established the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform (PSC) in October 2011 as a result of the rally, to address fundamental electoral issues. The committee made 22 recommendations, which included the use of indelible ink on voters’ fingers to prevent them from voting twice. This was implemented in the 2013 general election. Due to the lack for further significant electoral reform, the Bersih movement decided to organise another mass protest. This third rally was held on April 20, 2012 and there were significant tensions with the police and among the protesters themselves. Several violent incidents, such as the overturning of a police car were reported (Khoo, 2016).

Between the second and third rallies, the government introduced the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PPA) as a way to regulate public protests. The act came into effect only five days before the third rally. The organisers held a fourth rally on 2015, in the aftermath of the general election in 2013, which was tainted by accusations of gerrymandering. The protest took place for two days from August 29 to 30 (Khoo, 2016). Later on, Bersih decided to have its fifth rally on November 19, 2016. What’s interesting with the 2016 rally is the significant appearance of the counter-movement by the Red Shirts.

At the beginning of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration, Bersih increased their electoral reform advocacy by utilizing social media, as they had limited access to the proper channels such as television and radio especially for mobilization of supporters. Mass rallies and mass communication via social media became the strategies of choice for mobilization due to the limited space as provided for the movement to flourish (Khoo, 2014). As depicted by an activist turned politician, Bersih movement does not emerge in a vacuum; instead it is built on elements of previously established initiatives and use these as momentum to carry the movement forward. Although the ruling coalition BN faced systematic challenges, it was able to repress protestors by restricting the civic spaces and for a moment, withholding political changes. Though constant demonstrations were covered extensively, its long-term impact remains uncertain.

Since its formal establishment, the Bersih movement has proven that it is more than just a collection of people pushing for electoral reforms. Its popularity made it into an important social force in Malaysia. It has contributed to a greatly increased level of political awareness especially among young voters. The movement has positively influenced the attitude of Malaysians towards elections regardless of their political inclination. In the past, Malaysians were known to be apathetic and complacent about elections and national and state politics. However this has changed and it is undeniable that Bersih helped trigger the people’s engagement in politics. Nonetheless, it has limited electoral and political outcome due to the constant repression posed by the government.

The Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah was held under the Special Offences (Security Measures) Act 2012 for 11 days due to the 2016 Bersih rally (Yiswaree and Ida, 2016). Most recently, police are now probing three Bersih officials for allegedly failing to submit a 10-day notice in relation to the candlelight vigil with Maria at Dataran Merdeka under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (Kow, 2017).

An example from other ASEAN Country, Singapore's "Free Speech Area", the famed Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park

Challenges of civic space

In some parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, the role of political parties and the level of state repression are two important elements in deciding opening or closing of civic spaces. Despite the growing public discontent and grievances about government policies and the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, Malaysia is a relatively stable, semi-authoritarian regime. This explains why the regime continues to hold on to power. As protests organised by Bersih movement have grown in size over the past decade, the fear among Malaysian citizens remains, as state repression still exist.

With the technological and social media advancement in the twenty-first century, public discontent and civic spaces are now in some cases, can be more easily mobilized compared to previous times. However, the constant regulation of civic spaces and the Internet through legislations aimed at curtailing freedom of expression and information as well as freedom of assembly and association are alarming.

Civil society’s concerns over ASEAN member states’ lack of recognition of civil society’s role in the region are constantly being ignored. Even though the ASEAN Community aspires to be people-centred and people-oriented by putting its people first, however the civil society spaces are still restricted. 2017 is a particularly critical year for ASEAN as it celebrates its 50th anniversary; it is timely for the Southeast Asia to prove itself as a region that emphasizes putting ASEAN’s people first. Such recognition of civil society, not as a threat, but as an important ally in ensuring the realisation of human rights for all Asean citizens is critical to the development of a sustainable ASEAN Community.


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Ufen, Andreas. (2012): Party systems, critical junctures and cleavages in Southeast Asia. The Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) Working Paper.

Yiswaree, Palansamy and Ida Lim. (2016): Maria released from Sosma detention. The Malay Mail Online. 28 November 2016. […]

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