In Bersih, an elusive Malaysian unity appears

By Sheridan Mahavera, The Malaysian Insider

A brief commotion at an LRT station showed off the Bersih 2.0 rally’s young, multi-racial face.

National laureate and Bersih icon Datuk A Samad Said was mobbed by Indian and Chinese Malaysian youths as he appeared to board the train home.

“Please take a picture with us Pak Samad, you are our hero,” said a young Indian Malaysia youth who came to KL to watch the rally. His place was then taken by two other Chinese youths who wanted their own pictures with the national poet.

Bersih or the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections may have declared that the rally attracted a multi-ethnic crowd of all ages but the movement still has a huge obstacle to overcome — the stigma that has been painted by the federal government and the Barisan Nasional (BN)-aligned media.

Of particular worry are the people in non-urban areas whom Pakatan Rakyat parties, such as PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, are courting ahead of the next general elections.

Bersih is a civil society-led movement but it has solid backing from PR parties who have historically complained that the BN games elections.   

Though Bersih has been hugely successful in deepening and expanding support among urbane professionals of all races, it is still viewed suspiciously by those in the rural areas.

Such sentiments would spread from the movement itself to the political parties that support it.

PAS grassroots activists, for instance, were pumped up and made it to the rally in thousands. But they privately worry about how the electoral reform movement has been demonised.

“Even my husband didn’t want to come because he watched the news and thought it would be dangerous,” said a Pahang PAS activist who requested anonymity. In the end, the matronly retiree attended the rally with her 18-year-old daughter.

“People who watch the nightly news will definitely think negatively of Bersih. They aren’t as exposed,” says the activist.   

According to a Johor PAS activist who wanted to be known as Faizul, the news reports of weapon caches found with Bersih T-shirts have been particularly damaging.  

“Village folk tend to believe what is being shown without really thinking whether it makes sense. Who would put weapons caches and advertise their identity at the same time? It’s illogical,” says Faizul from Batu Pahat.

There were a string of news reports in the days leading up to the rally about police finding caches of parangs, knives and Molotov cocktails in several areas of the city. The bundles were hidden with piles of Bersih T-shirts.  

Though the police have yet to determine whom the bundles belonged to, the discoveries implied that there were disruptive elements out to hijack the rally.

Merdeka Centre head Ibrahim Suffian believes Bersih and the ensuing government reponse have polarised Malaysians of all stripes.  

“For Pakatan Rakyat supporters, it has just increased their scepticism of the (BN-ruled) government. For those who are pro-government, it has hardened their belief that the PR is out to cause trouble.”