Though Not a ‘Malaysian Spring,’ Bersih Shakes Up Local Politics


By Fabio Scarpello, World Politics Review

To dismiss Berish, however, would be a mistake. In fact, despite its contradictions, the movement may have a considerable impact on local politics. 

Weeks after the Malaysian government cracked down on pro-reform protesters gathered under the banner of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, or Bersih, uncertainty is still thick in Kuala Lumpur.

Bersih, which literally means “clean” in Malay, estimates that 50,000 people showed up at the July 9 rally to protest in favor of electoral reforms, clean politics and anti-corruption measures as stated in an 8-point manifesto. The police, who fired tear gas and water cannons at the demonstrators, claim that only a few thousand were present. In the end, some 1,700 people were arrested, while several were injured, and one died.

The rally was the second organized by Bersih. The first, held in November 2007, was also met with a heavy-handed response, although to a lesser degree. Bersih has now demanded that Malaysia’s election commission complies with its demands or face a new rally.

In the meantime, it is worth examining what Bersih signifies in a country where politics has always been an elite-only game monopolized, until recently, by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party.

Some observers agree with the NGOs, civil society groups and citizens that took part in the rally, who see Bersih as the beginning of a Malay Spring, a moderate version of the mostly people-driven uprisings reverberating in the Middle East. According to this view, Bersih is a pro-democracy, grassroots movement uniting the country’s notoriously divided ethnic groups.

Conversely, the Malaysian government and its supporters contend that Bersih is a movement manipulated by the political opposition to overthrow the government. As such, they argue, Bersih is a threat to public order that needs to be dealt with severely.

Bersih’s future impact is likely to be determined by a number of uncertain variables, making any political forecast fraught with a sizeable margin of error. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that neither of the above-noted positions is fully substantiated.

Bersih was established in July 2005 as a Joint Action Committee for Electoral Reform. It took on a more permanent shape in November 2006, with several NGOs and civil society groups playing a key role in determining its programs, tactics and dynamics.

However, it is undeniable that members of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition have also been involved and played an important role. While it is unfair to label Bersih a tool of the opposition, it is reasonable to acknowledge that its close ties with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters have weakened Bersih’s claim to be a genuine grassroots movement.

Understandably, Bersih and Pakatan Rakyat share the objective of reforming Malaysian politics to allow for a more level playing field. With its flawed electoral laws and biased national media helping to perpetuate the UMNO’s hegemony, Malaysia traditionally scores low in democratic assessments, with Freedom House scoring it as “partly free” in 2010. Yet, Bersih would enjoy more credibility had it maintained a clearer distance from Pakatan Rakyat.

Also, Bersih claims to represent all the different ethnic groups that constitute the Malaysian nation. However, although the movement is indeed supported by ethnic Malays, Indians and Chinese, they predominantly share a similar socio-economic profile — namely urban, educated and young.

Outside this socio-economic circle, the ethnic divisions associated with the UMNO-perpetuated pro-Malay system are still very prominent. Ethnic Malays at the top and bottom of the social ladder — the latter found especially in rural areas — enjoy the patronage benefits this system grants them and have no intention of foregoing them any time soon. Likewise, some ethnic Indians and Chinese, associated with ethnic parties included in the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition, also benefit from the status quo and therefore view it favorably.

Lastly, Malaysia’s socio-political landscape seems unlikely to offer the groundswell of discontent needed to fuel movements like those on display in the Arab world. It has been argued that the Arab Spring was driven by the confluence of a number of factors, including economic stagnation, high unemployment, widespread poverty, corruption and human rights abuses. Malaysia has its share of problems, but it is by no means in the same league as Egypt or Syria. Given the not-insignificant support for the current system, Bersih will struggle to ignite a nationwide, pro-democracy movement.

To dismiss Berish, however, would be a mistake. In fact, despite its contradictions, the movement may have a considerable impact on local politics.

The 2007 Bersih protest was widely credited with spurring on Malaysia’s opposition movement, which won its best-ever electoral results in 2008. In the short term, the ripple effects of the latest protest could again galvanize the Anwar-led coalition, which has partly lost steam since the 2008 vote. This may be insufficient to dethrone the UMNO, but could be enough to keep it on its toes.

However, if Bersih establishes itself as a durable structure, its main impact could be in the mid-to-long term. The segment of society supporting Berish is influential. Their age means that they are likely to be politically active for decades, and their educated, middle class background raises the possibility that they may one day occupy powerful roles in the country’s financial, cultural and educational sectors, to name a few. The injection of reform-minded executives into a stagnant system could result in progressive ideas slowly becoming more acceptable to the mainstream.

Bersih may also force Malaysia’s international partners to take a closer look at what is happening in and around Kuala Lumpur. The July 9 crackdown was condemned internationally and focused a critical spotlight back on Prime Minister Najib Razak, who had lately enjoyed positive press treatment.

Moreover, small-scale Bersih protests staged in 38 cities worldwide — including Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco in the U.S. – serve as a reminder that in a globalized world, the dividing line between national and international politics is often porous. Bersih supporters have since kept the pressure up via Facebook and blogs.

Hence, although spring as a season does not exist in near-equatorial Malaysia, democracy could still blossom if monsoonal downpours manage to nurture the terrain.

Fabio Scarpello is a journalist, analyst and consultant covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in Globalization and Governance and will pursue a doctoral degree on Security Sector Reform and Conflict Management at Murdoch University in Australia.