The importance of Bersih

By Jacqueline Ann Surin, The Nut Graph

IT feels like only yesterday but it’s been three years this week since the historic Bersih rally of 10 Nov 2007 that demanded for free and fair elections. For certain, that 40,000 strong rally, together with the subsequent Hindraf demonstration in Kuala Lumpur, was partly responsible for the political tsunami of the 2008 general election.

“The Bersih rally allowed Malaysians of all backgrounds to come together, and feel empowered by a common goal in democracy,” Bersih steering committee member and resource person Wong Chin Huat explains in an e-mail. “It also encouraged many Malaysians to come forward to complain about electoral irregularities. Today, voter registration campaigns are everywhere,” he adds.

Bersih will be relaunched as Bersih 2.0 this Wednesday on the third anniversary of its historic rally. Is it still relevant? And should the public still care about what the movement is up to now since the 2008 elections brokered a new political landscape for Malaysians?

The difference

The difference between Bersih 2.0 and before is that the movement for clean and fair elections will now be led solely by civil society, as Bersih 2.0 chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan articulates in an interview with The Fairly Current Show.

Bersih’s forerunner was a forum of political parties known as the Joint Action Committee for Electoral Reform. Bersih, meanwhile, was a coalition of political parties and civil society organisations. Now, Bersih 2.0 will be independent of political parties. “We can see the maturing of Malaysian politics where electoral reform is increasingly embraced by civil society,” Wong, who is also a political scientist, observes.

That piece of good news aside, Bersih’s demands for electoral reform remain just as important and relevant today as it did before. And perhaps these electoral reforms are even more critical since there is more at stake with the nation so much closer to a political tipping point.

Ambiga is adamant that some of these electoral reforms can be easily implemented. For example, automatic voter registration, which even Umno Youth supports, and the use of indelible ink to address the issue of phantom voters.

Nazri Aziz

Nazri Aziz

“Automatic voter registration should be a matter of course since we have an identity card (IC) registration system already in place,” she argues in a phone interview. “Unless of course, there is something wrong with our IC system?” The Barisan Nasional (BN) government has refused to consider automatic voter registration.

Indeed, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has said that automatic voter registration is tantamount to forcing people to vote. Ambiga says that argument is flawed because automatic registration does not equate mandatory voting. “The idea is to allow everyone who is entitled to vote easy access to vote. It should be the government’s top priority to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote,” she says.

Ambiga also points out that the use of indelible ink for voters was already approved by the Election Commission (EC) for the 2008 elections but was then withdrawn because of the cabinet‘s instructions.