Why It Matters

Bersih's hopes and the real test

Maria Chin Abdullah (second from left), chairperson of Bersih, poses with other activists following a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 14, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Race does matter in Malaysia. Bersih knows that only too well.

Having lost the backing of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) with its obedient and well-drilled party machinery, the electoral reforms group is hoping to correct the ethnic imbalance that allowed the ruling establishment to accuse it last year of trying to usurp Malay political power.

An overnight rally Bersih organised in August last year drew record crowds of over 100,000 but few Malay participants. The ruling Umno made use of this to portray the rally - aimed at forcing Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign over a financial scandal - as anti-Malay.

Bersih hopes a seven-week nationwide roadshow beginning on Oct 1 could go some way to remedy this. Six different convoys will traverse the rural heartlands to woo Malays, the country's most important vote bank. But whether rural Malays will be convinced enough to take part in an anti-Najib protest rally in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 19 will depend on more than just a few speeches by yellow- T-shirted Bersih activists.

Questions remain, such as whether there is a viable alternative. All this amid growing speculation that a general election could be just months away.

Even though it is already 13 years since he stepped down as prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, spearheading a relentless campaign to oust Datuk Seri Najib, is still held in high regard by rural Malays. Should the 91-year-old have the stamina and will to join the roadshow, he might be able to convince some of them to join the KL rally.

It should be remembered that for poor rural Malays, a day trip to KL is a costly affair. So while some may heed the call to make their presence felt on Nov 19, it will be no more than a symbolic gesture.

The real test of Bersih's success will be when Malay villagers make the shorter trip to the ballot box at the next election - and whether or not they vote Najib.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2016, with the headline 'Bersih's hopes and the real test'. Print Edition | Subscribe