There is a third group out there – people who can relate to Bersih’s aims of a free and fair election but not through Middle East-style demonstrations. Jazz singer Datuk Sheila Majid tweeted: “I am disappointed with all political parties, NGOs and Bersih. There are better ways to approach”. She immediately received a nasty rebuke from a PKR activist who shot her down, saying he used to respect her. She probably lost a fan because of her tweet.
There has been simply too much politicking lately. The last time there was this much politics going on was when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim made a fool of almost everyone about his Sept 16 “takeover” of the government.
This time around, the politicking has been over the Bersih 2.0 issue – in the weeks leading up to the street protest and now in the aftermath.
The dust has yet to fully settle over the Bersih issue. The divide between those who are for it and those against it is still as wide as ever and opinion, especially in the Klang Valley where the action took place, has been extremely polarised.
Both sides have made up their minds on the matter and neither is interested in listening to the other’s view.
Add to this the reaction to the Commission of Inquiry’s findings on the Teoh Beng Hock death and the opinion pot came close to boiling over.
The temperature is slowly receding and now that the picture is a little clearer, it is evident that there is a third group out there – people like me who can relate to Bersih’s aims of free and fair elections, but who are uncomfortable with the idea of taking political and legislative grievances to the streets. This group wants to see a good electoral system put into place but not through Middle East-style demonstrations.
Just how extensive this group is remains unclear but Pakatan politicians who are in touch with the ground would know that this category of thinking is pretty widespread.
DAP knew this even before July 9th took place and their leaders, especially from Penang and Selangor, kept a low profile throughout the Bersih affair. Besides, the DAP leadership could not afford to compromise their own seats of power by encouraging street politics. In fact, George Town was markedly quieter on the evening of July 9 with many people staying indoors just to play it safe.
Even before the Bersih weekend, a Malay group whom many believed was linked to Umno held a protest in George Town and the Penang Bridge to give Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng a taste of his own medicine. It caused massive traffic jams and people were very angry with the group. At the same time, it gave DAP’s Lim an idea of what Bersih would be doing to folks in Kuala Lumpur.
“DAP people sometimes forget that they are now the government in Penang. They think they are still the opposition. I would like to ask Lim Guan Eng to imagine what it would be like if we were to hold demonstrations at Komtar and Penang Bridge every time we feel that his policies are unfair to us. It would be chaotic,” said Penang Umno chairman Datuk Zainal Abidin Osman.
The more sophisticated urban class recognise Bersih for what it is but for the bigger population out there, Bersih was synonymous with the Pakatan parties.
Bersih chairman Datuk Ambiga, despite her high-flying credentials as the former Bar Council chairman, had to labour under the shadow of the Pakatan parties from the word “go”. Many have pointed out that this was not the case in the first Bersih rally led by activist lawyer Haris Ibrahim.
Haris, a fiercely independent sort, managed to stamp his personality on the first Bersih march in 2007. Back then, Pakatan had yet to come to power in so many states and the personalities involved were not as obsessed about Putrajaya. In that sense, Haris was among equals and seemed to have more control over the scope of the protest.
This time around, the parties and politicians in Bersih are eyeing the big prize. They control four states, their voice has grown fiercer and their ambitions have ballooned. Ambiga, quite unfortunately, was almost swallowed up by these ambitious politicians. It was little wonder then that her detractors saw her as a pawn in the big chess game of power. Certainly, only a politically naive person or someone in self-denial, would believe that Ambiga was acting on her own.
Bersih has achieved much of what it set out to do. It has succeeded in getting the attention of Malaysians regarding the electoral system and their rights as voters. The younger set are drawn to the Bersih ideals and there is support from civil society.
The Election Commission had agreed to five of its original 13 demands and when Bersih went ahead with the protest, it was based on the remaining eight demands, four of which are actually not about law but rather about social and systemic changes.
The eight demands are: Clean the electoral roll; reform the postal ballot; use of indelible ink; minimum 21 days campaign period; free and fair access to media; strengthen public institutions; stop corruption; and stop dirty politics.
The EC is now set to use the biometric system. EC chairman Datuk Wan Ahmad Wan Omar is taking part in open forums with Ambiga in a bid to answer allegations made against his office, something which his predecessors would not have dared do.
It is doubtful if Ambiga can really reclaim the NGO voice in Bersih after the way Pakatan politicians dominated the event, especially in claiming credit and victory after the march.
Bersih has been a boon for Pakatan. Anwar declared that thanks to Bersih, Pakatan was on course to winning the next general election.
But the big political winner is PAS. It has re-emerged as the coalition’s top gun after playing second fiddle to Anwar and PKR all this time.
The last few issues of Harakah have been packed with news and pictures of the march from the police crackdown to condemning the EC as the voice of Umno.
PAS deputy president Mohamed Sabu was going around like an injured hero after accusing the police of hurting his knee. A news portal carried a dramatic X-ray picture that showed a nail screwed into the back of his knee. But after the police released images that cleared themselves of ramming his motorbike, Mat Sabu has toned down and told reporters that he will only talk in court, the implication being that: you write, I see you in court.
In that sense, July 9 has been as much about free and fair elections as it is about Pakatan’s bid for power. That is the part that gets supporters of the ruling coalition hot under the collar and the middle ground feeling rather uneasy.
“There will always be people who are prepared to demonstrate for what they want. But now you have law-makers telling people: defy the police, no need to follow the law. They say they are going to be the next government and then they behave like this,” said restaurant operator Juhaidi Yean Abdullah.
Terengganu businessman Datuk Wan Albakri Mohd Noor was critical of PAS joining forces with Ambiga. Like many Malays, he associates Ambiga with the Lina Joy apostasy case and he felt that PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang, being a leading ulama, should have stayed above the fray.
Wan Albakri is one of those thinking Umno members who has been critical of his party in the past but Bersih seems to have stirred him back to the side of Umno.
“The fact that they are prepared to gain the upper hand through street politics, that is not my idea of democracy. The road to power is through the ballot box; you can’t present your case on the street. Don’t misread us just because we are quiet,” said Wan Albakri.
There are many views – and even finger pointing – within UMNO about how the situation could have been better contained. Opinions have ranged from wanting the police to be tougher to the need to engage with opposing views. But the street challenge has basically seen the party circle the wagons. They can see very clearly what they are up against and just how hungry the other side is for power.
Barisan Nasional, and especially Umno, has been under immense pressure. Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s walkabout in Jalan Mesjid India a day after the protest was about stamping his presence, to show that his administration is not cowed by what has happened. He left for a string of overseas assignments after that, but cut short a planned holiday to return home to more meet-the-people gatherings. The Prime Minister is determined to regain the initiative.
Umno’s intelligence feedback suggests that the impact has not been as great as had been initially thought. The feedback is that while the call for free and fair elections resonated far and wide, the way the issue was forced on the streets of Kuala Lumpur did not go down well with everybody.
There were people who thought that the police were too harsh and could not see the logic of arresting those who wore yellow. At the same time, they felt uneasy about the way the protesters defied the police. The police, they say, are not perfect but they are there to enforce the law.
“They say that every administration has its defining moment. Bersih was not that defining moment for Barisan. And if they do another Bersih, I am very sure the silent majority will not be so silent any more,” said Juhaidi.
The opposing sides are still simmering with anger and resentment. But the bright spot this week was the release of the so-called communists from Parti Sosialis Malaysia. It would be good if the men in blue could now stop nabbing people in yellow.
Although intended as a spoof, many Malaysians actually believed that the Digi Man was arrested by the police, although the e-mailed picture was obviously doctored.
Arresting people who wear yellow T-shirts with the word “Bersih” is not going to help the government win votes. Something is wrong with us if we believe revolutions can be launched by wearing yellow T-shirts with the word “Bersih”. One need not be a rocket scientist to know the political backlash of such an action, even though there may be good security measures.
Anwar could still post a tweet at 4.40pm that says “undergoing CT scan for injury. Wishing #Bersih all the best.” How he could take his mobile phone into a CT scan machine is a wonder. He had purportedly fallen during the protest.
Either Malaysians must be very bad in Maths or they are very good at exaggerating. The police said there were only 5,000 protesters whereas Datuk A. Samad Said said 50,000 while the pro-opposition Malaysia Chronicle news portal claimed 100,000 people.
The biggest losers were the rakyat who got stuck in horrendous traffic jams. Businesses can count their losses, vendors could not distribute their newspapers, commuters found at least eight LRT stations shut, the city’s cabbies had to stay at home and, worse, terrified city dwellers had to stock up on food unnecessarily.
Taxpayers must certainly be wondering why their money is being spent on bringing so many cops into the city – and serving a buffet meal to law-breakers at Pulapol – when they should be busy catching criminals.
It must be brought to mind that not everyone who supports Bersih 2.0 are pro-opposition. Many middle class urban voters are unhappy about many issues and it won’t hurt the government to listen to them. Don’t give up on them so they won’t give up on the government. Some concerns are legitimate ones that need fixing.
Likewise, Pakatan Rakyat should not misread Bersih 2.0 as an endorsement of the Opposition.
This post is based on the article “Views of the middle ground´by Joceline Tan, Sunday Star, July 31, 2011