Is Bersih 2.0 a people’s front or a PH front?

Kua Kia Soong, Free Malaysia Today

It is gratifying to see that three years after GE14 in 2018, Bersih 2.0 (Bersih) has roused and is urging Malaysians not to hesitate to take to the streets again, to “fight the system” and to “display their dissatisfaction”.

Is it coincidental that Pakatan Harapan (PH) is once again in the opposition? The message to struggle on is certainly what we want to hear since we are still living under an unjust, undemocratic and oppressive state, but first, the leadership must clear up some inconvenient truths, namely:

  • Why was Bersih so compliant with the PH government between 2018 and 2020?
  • How was it that so many Bersih leaders were co-opted into the PH government which morphed into BN 2.0?
  • Were there no issues that they were dissatisfied with during the PH rule?
  • Is it not time to put forward concrete demands if we are concerned about real reforms in Malaysian society instead of just for “free and fair elections”?

This is the time for reform-minded Malaysians to reflect on what the Bersih rallies were all about and what kind of reforms we are demanding and to what extent they were the same or different from former BN policies.

Bersih in hibernation between 2018 and 2020

First, we saw the sell-out of the movement when the dictator of 1981-2003 was made the leader of the so-called “Save Malaysia” campaign, sharing the stage with Bersih leaders and he then became the PH prime minister. Did the NGO activists of yesteryear suddenly forget what the Mahafiraun did to Malaysia and Malaysians during those years?

He did not show a shred of remorse for his authoritarian rule from 1981 to 2003. Putting him as the head of the supposedly “reform movement” was bare-faced opportunism. Some have said it was like putting the fox in the hen house. Did Bersih protest this?

Then, when PH became the political master, we saw the co-option of erstwhile Bersih leaders into the administration. One allegedly revealed that he had lobbied among PH leaders to be given a high post in the PH administration. Another was likewise rewarded with the chair of a commission, and he even changed camps and stayed on after the Perikatan administration took over. How could the reform movement advance when their leaders were openly opportunistic and were happily co-opted into the exploitative state?

Did Bersih protest over PH stalling on democratic demands in the PH manifesto?

Opportunism in its crudest form can be seen when politicians and activists target an individual (namely Najib Razak) rather than the political regime and political economic system that oppresses, divides and exploits the people. This was clearly the main object of PH, and Bersih happily went along with it. As is now revealed to all, Mahathir’s “Save Malaysia” campaign in GE14 was mainly aimed at expelling Najib while maintaining the same alleged racist and exploitative rule.

As events unfolded after 2018, PH became more and more like BN 2.0 especially with the assimilation of Umno MPs into Mahathir’s Bersatu. Even Anwar Ibrahim was considering accepting the former BN minister Salleh Keruak into his party. The most revealing and distressing initiative of all was the so-called Malay Dignity Congress with its racist resolutions and which Mahathir patronised, and the continuation of the New Economic Policy in the new ‘Shared Prosperity Vision’.

And as this short rule by PH ambled along, it failed to meet manifesto promises and voter expectations in numerous ways. We witnessed flip flops over the PH promise to abolish toxic institutions and laws, such as Sosma and other detention-without-trial laws in the country. Nor did their promises focus on the most urgent and comprehensive reforms that civil society has long argued are of high priority. On top of all that, we saw a disturbing trend of autocratic decisions and policies symptomatic of the old Mahathir 1.0 era.

While the PH manifesto prohibits the prime minister from also taking on the finance portfolio, Mahathir in the first 100 days succeeded in taking over the choicest companies, namely Khazanah, PNB and Petronas, under his Prime Minister’s Office. It was the return to the old Mahathirist autocracy.

Was the Cabinet consulted on the decision to start Proton 2, privatise Khazanah, Malaysia Incorporated and the revival of the failed F1 circuit? The appointment of the prime minister and the economic affairs minister, Azmin Ali, to the board of Khazanah Nasional Berhad also went against the PH manifesto promise of keeping politicians out of publicly funded investments since it leads to poor accountability.

Did Bersih protest these reneges on the PH manifesto?

The excuse the PH government gave for delaying local government elections by claiming lack of funds was not acceptable. It was equally absurd to tell Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary School graduates that their UEC certificate could only be recognised in five years’ time. This is a serious breach of promise in the PH GE14 manifesto since more than 80% of Chinese voters voted for PH because of this promised reform. Did Bersih protest this?

What concrete reforms are Bersih demanding now?

Come to think of it, were Bersih’s demands for reforms concrete enough for us to take to the streets? Of course not. But take to the streets Malaysians did because of the outrage felt against the authoritarian and corrupt rule of Mahathir’s rule and then former prime minister Najib’s continuation of that rule.

Now in hindsight, but with more space for sober reflection, it is high time Bersih gets clear about the kind of society we want that is different from the Mahathir-led and Najib-led governments. Will an Anwar-led government be any different? Malaysian voters deserve a meaningful and specific proposal that can lead to substantive identifiable changes that go beyond slogans such as “Save Malaysia”, “Save the economy” and other fluffy concepts.

It is time for the Reformasi and the Bersih movements to regroup under a more concrete and clearer reform agenda that is committed to a progressive alternative to the BN and PH coalitions. These must include:

  • People-centred and sustainable development;
  • Equitable wealth redistribution;
  • Needs-based not race-based policies;
  • A progressive economic policy;
  • Defending human rights and rule of law;
  • Zero tolerance for corruption;
  • A far-sighted and fair education policy;
  • An improved public health care system;
  • A people-centred and caring social policy;
  • Prioritising Orang Asal rights and livelihood; and
  • Defence cuts and culture of peace.

NGO activists are watchdogs, not lapdogs, of the capitalist state

At the GE14 in 2018, we succeeded in toppling a corrupt and dysfunctional BN regime only to be quickly disillusioned by a PH government that treated their election manifesto as a useless booklet that could be ignored after the election.

Malaysia’s economic growth stagnated and the stock market fell, which resulted in the peoples’ revolt against PH at the Tanjung Piai by-election. This is a grim reminder to all of us that if we do not act quickly to point to a way forward for the nation, we will be stuck with this BN/PH circus for the future with grave consequences for the people of this country.

Through the years, Malaysian NGOs have been playing the important role of watchdogs to ensure the rule of law and human rights are safeguarded. Political parties and politicians can twist and turn, come and go within the same capitalist state but the workers’ movement, women’s movement, civil rights movement, and the green movement must go on forever.

Politicians like to spout the platitude that “politics is the art of the possible” but movements must bear pressure on them to make our demands possible.

With the failures of both the BN and PH regimes in providing good governance and the similarity of their race-based, profits before people policies, the challenge for Malaysian civil society is clear: Be the change we want to see, provide the progressive vision of a Malaysia we want, and organise the progressive Third Force the country needs. There is no room for opportunism among NGO activists.

Thus, if Bersih is ready to march again, great. But after the let-down and sell-out of 2018, Bersih leaders must first clarify if they are a people’s front or a PH Front. And they must spell out the concrete reforms we are demanding and how committed they are to real reforms for the people.

Kua Kia Soong is Suaram adviser.