It is a pity that almost 54 years after Merdeka there is still a great deal of uneasiness among the authorities about a fundamental right which is so essential to the functioning of a democracy. They forget that the “right to assemble peaceably and without arms” is a freedom enshrined in Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution. It is a freedom whose observance will not, in most circumstances, threaten the well-being of society.
Nonetheless, like all rights and freedoms, the actual expression and articulation of the Freedom of Assembly has to take into account its context. It is this context that is critical in the case of the planned ‘July 9 Rally.’ There are various dimensions to this context which Bersih, the proponent of the rally, and Perkasa and UMNO Youth, its opponents, will have to take heed of.
1) Bersih claims that the primary purpose of the rally is to highlight weaknesses and defects in the conduct of our elections. Since it has had discussions with the Elections Commission on this it should continue to talk to that body. The Chairman of the Commission is prepared to dialogue. He should now publicly invite Bersih to resume the discussions, its July 9 rally notwithstanding. Bersih, in turn, should respond positively to the Commission. In a mature democracy any and every opportunity to dialogue in order to resolve issues should be taken up.
2) Some of the issues that Bersih has focussed upon such as the automatic registration of voters(which I endorse) are beyond the purview of the Elections Commission. They would require legislative approval. If Bersih cannot persuade the BarisanNasional(BN)government to introduce new electoral laws, has it succeeded in getting Pakatan Rakyat(PR) MPs to table a private member’s bill on any of the electoral reforms it is now demanding? On how many occasions have such bills been tabled since March 2008? Were attempts to table such bills thwarted by the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat? Since Bersih includes opposition parties represented in Parliament, it should inform the public in detail on how it sought electoral reform through Parliament in the last three years.
3) In making its demands, Bersihhas not distinguished the actual conduct of elections from the larger electoral-cum-political process. The actual conduct of elections in Malaysia since 1959, from the maintenance of electoral rolls to safeguardingthe integrity of the ballot paper,has been largely fair and just---- given that no electoral system in the world is totally devoid of flaws. This was one of the conclusions that the Election Watch group headed by the late Tun Mohamed SuffianHashim that looked at the 1990 General Election
(I was a member of that group) came to. We also pointed out that the lack of fairness in the electoral-political process was manifested in the incumbent’s misuse of state facilities for campaign purposes and in the biased role of the mainstream media. Since these very legitimate concerns have not been addressed, Bersih has every reason to raise them.
4) If Bersih is sincere about rectifying them, the political parties who are in the forefront of this coalition, should set the example in the states which are under PR rule by ensuring that state facilities are not misused in any election or by-election. And yet, in by-elections in Selangor, Penang and Kedah, it is alleged that the state government had deployed some of the resources of the state, directly and indirectly, for their campaigns. Similarly, if Bersih wants equitable access to BNinclined print and electronic media, it should also encourage opposition oriented online newspapers to be fair and balanced in their coverage and analysis of political issues. After all, cyber media in Malaysia today is an important source of information--- and disinformation.
5) While some of Bersih’s demands are reasonable, its failure to locate these demands within a larger framework has tarnished its credibility. For all the shortcomings in its electoral system, Malaysia is one of the few countries in the Global South that has held regular elections participated by parties with totally divergent ideologies ever since Independence in 1957.It is equally significant that these elections have been completely free of violence--- which is a rarity in the Global South. In the first General Election itself, two states came under an opposition party. Today, four out of the 13 states in the Federation are in opposition hands. There has never been a single moment in Malaysian electoral politics when the opposition has commanded less than 35 per cent of the popular vote.
1) If the issues raised by Bersih should be viewed in their proper context, so should the public give due consideration to the question of security which is expressly stated in Article 10 (2), a, b, and c of the Constitution. There is no denying that with three organisations asserting their determination to hold rallies and marches without police permit, the political temperature has increased by a few degrees. Leaders of two of the organisations have received death threats.
2) There is another contextual dimension to the security question which we cannot afford to ignore. In the first Bersih demonstration on November 10 2007, a number of people were injured. There were also similar casualties in the Hindraf demonstration on November 25 in the same year. In almost all the reformasi demonstrations from September 1998 to the middle of 2000, individuals and some police personnel were hurt.
3) I had thought initially that Bersih demonstrators should be allowed to congregate in a stadium, in accordance with their constitutional right but I didn’t realise that there was a security issue lurking in the shadows. Apparently, if the stadium option had materialised,certain elements in Bersih, it is alleged, would have turned the stadium to a Tahrir Square, with demonstrators camping there day and night for weeks on end. Of course, the Western media would be there to dramatise the event, especially since both the de facto and de jure leaders of Bersih --- Anwar Ibrahim and AmbigaSreenivasan--- have such close ties to the Western media. It would be a terrible travesty of justice since the Malaysian situation bears no comparison to Mubarak’s Egypt or to thoseautocratic Arab monarchies and republicswhich are now being challenged by their people. None of them is an inheritor to more than five decades of continuous civilian rule legitimised through competitive electoral politics.
1) How the proposed July 9 rally and counter rallies will impact upon taxi drivers, traders, shoppers and the general public is yet another factor that deserves our attention.There is a high probability that the rallies will cause a degree of dislocation especially since three different groups with their own agendas are involved. Traders and taxi drivers in the affected areas will inevitably suffer a loss of income. Here again, the past is a good teacher. In previous demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur, people in various walks of life have had to pay the price.
2) It is quite conceivable that July 9 will reinforce yet another unhealthy development which has become more and more obvious in the last two years. Partisan political polarisation is increasing in the country. The BN-PR schism is deepening within the populace. If we do not make a serious attempt to reverse the trend, we may move in the direction of Thai politics which has been severely hamstrung by the cleavage that separates those with the government and those with ThaksinShinawatra.
1) There are also ulterior motives behind the Bersih plan that any reasonable person would probe. I am very much aware of this partly because of my own experience with demonstrations and the self-serving politics of the prime mover behind July 9. When I was Deputy President of PartiKeadilanNasional( now Rakyat)(PKR) from 1999 to 2001, the party was solidly behind the reformasi demonstrations. After a while I realized that the demonstrations were taking us nowhere; they were not leading to any democratic awakening among the masses. On the contrary, the people were turning against the party because of the hardship they caused. A number of our activists were arrested, some under the ISA. Most of all, I could see that the demonstrations instigated by Anwar from behind prison walls served only one purpose: to keep him in the limelight, and to get him out of prison.Within the party leadership, I took an unambiguous position against demonstrations. With the exception of Keadilan President, Dr.Wan Azizah Ismail, no one else supported me. The Malaysian public came to know of my opposition to the demonstrations, and the then Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad even alluded to it in the media.
2) Anwar’s ulterior motive is even more brazen today. He desperately wants to become Prime Minister, and will resort to any means to achieve his ambition. He is hoping that July 9 will help him overcome some of the obstacles he now faces and give him the boost that he needs. A massive mobilisation of his supporters and fence-sitters on July 9, he thinks, will divert attention from his sodomy trial which begins later in the month and from his sex-video scandal. At the same time, he is expecting the demonstration to create the sort of momentum that will erode support for the BN and shore up his own position. If this impresses his allies and endorsersin some Western capitals they may even give him stronger backing to achieve “a regime change”.
3) Apart from Anwar’s own party, both his PR partners, the Islamic Party of Malaysia(PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), are also driven by the desire to gain powerthrough the quickest route. For them also the end justifies the means. July 9--- whatever the arguments against it--- is an important stepping-stone towards that goal.
Once Malaysians understand the context--- especially the ulterior motives--- theywill be wary about July 9. They will be able to distinguish the self-serving agenda of a deeply flawed politician from the genuine quest for electoral reform and political transformation. They should not allow such a politician to undermine their future.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is a political scientist who has written extensively on Malaysian politics.
27 June 2011.