Mass demonstrations are a strategic forcing of an issue to a head. This is definitely so in the case of Malaysia's Bersih 5 rally planned for Nov 19. As its name reveals, this is the fifth street protest in a series.
Organised by a huge assemblage of civil society bodies, the first Bersih (Malay for "clean") street march, held on Nov 10, 2007, directly and simply called for clean and fair elections. That day, at least 30,000 yellow-shirted demonstrators turned up, with some having to endure chemical-laced water cannons for their troubles.
That demonstration turned a page in Malaysian politics and in the evolution of the country's civil society activism. It precipitated a political avalanche that almost swept the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition out of power in federal elections held the following year. The impetus continued, but again in the 2013 elections, the BN managed to cling on to power.
Bersih 5 goes beyond calling for clean elections and is instead a public show of outrage over how badly democracy has deteriorated in Malaysia. But unlike 2007, the diversity of forces arrayed behind it this time reflects the difficulties critics of the BN have faced in trying to dislodge a government they consider to have lost its moral mandate to rule.
Prime Minister Najib Razak's government, as a consequence of its weak position, has in the last few years applied a string of legal, paralegal, institutional and political means to silence powerful opponents. These have been surprisingly effective.
When he took power in 2009 in a party coup, Datuk Seri Najib's initial profile as leader was to reconcile traditional Malay-first aficionados with those gathered around former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was preaching good governance as the cure-all for the country's many political ailments. Not only did Mr Najib fail to live up to this promise, his time in power has seen a worrying approval - and instigation - of dangerous expressions of racism and religious extremism.
In the general election of May 2013, Mr Najib had - albeit half- heartedly - focused his attention on winning back the Chinese electorate. After his narrow victory in those polls - no thanks to that electorate - he had asked angrily: "Apa lagi Cina mahu?" (What more do the Chinese want?) His disappointment was great. The fault, as events since that night have shown, lay in his apparent failure to grasp why more than half the nation voted against the BN.
I would argue that there were two key reasons: the rise of Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and the rejuvenation of civil society activism in Malaysia, and that these were more urban phenomena than race-based ones.
The critical need for the ruling BN to continue painting Bersih as a Chinese-based movement trying to topple a Malay-rights government was most clearly seen in the fourth demonstration, held by the group on Aug 29 last year. That took place soon after the PR had fallen apart due to Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) submitting a parliamentary Bill to legitimise hudud punishments in Kelantan state, with apparent BN backing.
Indeed, religious controversies in Malaysia have been plentiful, involving fantastic ones like the ban on non-Muslims using certain Muslim "holy words" to grave ones like the rights of children of converts to Islam, whose other parent is a non-Muslim. These are strongly entangled with inter-ethnic contentions, no doubt, with one feeding on the other.
The confusion in the wake of PR's demise saw a lessened presence of Malay faces at the demonstration, which provided an opportunity for Malay-rights extremists to counter demonstrate and to reiterate that Bersih - and the Bersih movement in general - was a Chinese conspiracy. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad turning up in support of that Bersih rally did nothing to weaken that allegation.
A Malay-dignity movement quickly sprang up to buttress the conspiracy claim against the Bersih movement, and its red-shirted followers marched the following month to Chinese enclaves in Kuala Lumpur. Strangely, the hesitant authorities acted to rein them in only after Beijing's ambassador to Malaysia, Mr Huang Huikang, acting against diplomatic propriety, spoke out against the threat while visiting the city's Chinatown.
The dissolution of PR quickly led to progressive leaders in PAS breaking away to form Parti Amanah Negara and remaining loyal to the governance ideals of the old coalition. This party helped form the replacement coalition, Pakatan Harapan (Fellowship of Hope).
Umno, the mainstay of BN, had suffered its own split following Anwar's sacking in 1998, and it was in fact that splinter party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, that allowed for PR to form in 2008.
The political equation got more complex when Tun Dr Mahathir, together with his son Mukhriz and recently sacked deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, formed a new Malay-based party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM, Malaysian United Indigenous Party). Unlike the other new Malay-led parties, which chose to use terms like "justice", "trust" and "hope" in their names, and reiterate words such as "competence", "accountability" and "transparency", PPBM appears revisionist in appealing to "indigeneity" in its name.
Tactically, this makes perfect sense. PPBM is an emotional appeal to Umno members who have not yet acted on their disenchantment with Mr Najib, and hopes to provide the tipping point that will bring the government down.
The strong representation of former Umno members in its supreme council is a clear indication of the party's wherewithal. In a move calculated to appease doubting Anwaristas, Dr Mahathir recently arranged a short meeting with Anwar in public and in front of cameras during which the two men shook hands amid smiles. The wives of the two men have also met again, for the first time in 18 years.
But the battle between parties and coalitions is just one side of the coin. The deeper dynamic in Malaysian society today is socio- economic and ethical in nature, and expresses itself in social media squabbles, in increased emigration, and in angrier civil societal activism. Given how Mr Najib has managed to survive the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal and, in the process, to further undermine the integrity of key national institutions, the options for civil society and regime critics to act effectively are few.
As long as the country's "state of transition" drags on and on, no proper discussion about nation- building going one way or the other can take place, and things are bound to get worse if they are not forced to get better. It is in that context that the Bersih 5 rally is best seen. If the aces are all in Mr Najib's hand, then a joker is needed.
The author is the deputy director of Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. Among his recent books is Merdeka For The Mind. Essays On Malaysian Struggles In The 21st Century (2015).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'Why Malaysia's opposition will take to the streets again'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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