May 6, 2016
Malaysian Activism–1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Backwards but for Technology and Guts
by Mikha Chan
As much as we like to say that Malaysia is where free speech goes to die, we can’t deny that we’ve seen some progress in expanding our democratic space.
Twenty years ago, things would have had to become really bad to motivate activists to start waving their flags and risk instant arrest. This came from a lack of real organisation and an equal lack of easily accessible mass communication technology.
These days, no one is safe any more. More often than not, those in power can expect their screw-ups to spark mass texts on WhatsApp calling on protesters to gather at Jalan Raja Laut at 1pm next Sunday. Social media has become an even bigger bludgeon to hit errant authorities with, and Malaysian millennials are making full use of it.
The work of punk artist Fahmi Reza is a good example of this. His graphic, Instagram-friendly brand of street activism has perhaps contributed to the Malaysian public’s awareness of issues more than has any other agency next to Bersih, with his famous clown caricature of Prime Minister Najib Razak receiving international media attention.
All of this has been helped by the vibrant do-it-yourself branding campaign he’s been running on his Facebook and Instagram accounts. It’s a movement in itself, one which has seen his personal hashtag #kitasemuapenghasut in full use by his followers and his trademark clown-Najib posters pasted all over the country.
It’s millennial activism at its best. You can deny it, you can call it hashtag activism, but the fact remains that awareness of political and related issues among Malaysian youth is at an all-time high.
We’re in the best place we’ve ever been for Malaysian activism and, who knows, it may get better. Of course, that depends on whether civil society maintains its pressure on the authorities. Our progress didn’t happen in a vacuum, after all. It happened through years of struggle.
“The Police are better now, but change didn’t come from themselves. It came from civil society. With groups like the Bar Council, Suhakam and Suaram all speaking up, the space opened up,” said Parti Socialis Malaysia (PSM) Central Committee member Michael Jeyakumar recently in a comment on this year’s May Day rally in Kuala Lumpur, which saw the participation of about 500 people.
“We walked two to three kilometres,” he added. “This would have been unthinkable in the 90s. They would have jumped on us the moment we started meeting.”
It was a small demonstration and it lasted only two hours. On those two scores, you could say that the rally was not a success. But considering the relative lack of police response, it’s a pretty good marker of how far activism has progressed in the past twenty years.