November 22, 2016
BERSIH is losing its shine
by Scott Ng
BERSIH November 2007
BERSIH demonstrators no longer get a lot to show for their patriotism. An album of Facebook photos and a sunburn make for the only souvenirs one can take from the protest. This is a far cry from the first BERSIH demonstrations (2007), when FRU trucks sprayed jets of water and tear gas grenades were chucked into the milling crowd.
Robbed of resistance, the protest merely lingers on the streets, with thousands doing the best they can to listen to barely audible speeches and thousands more just sitting and waiting.
In such a stalemate between the authorities and the protesting elements of society, there is no catalyst to elevate the cause into a reason for a large enough section of society to come out in protest.
One of the interesting stories to come out of BERSIH 5 says that while the majority of Malaysians are in favour of BERSIH and its goals, many are electing to stay home. Another story concerns a former protestor railing against the seeming futility of sitting on hot gravel as politicians puff up their feathers before an audience.
BERSIH 5.o hijacked by Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Opposition Politicians and checked by the Red Shirits
This comes back to the accusation that BERSIH is far too cozy with the opposition, and it’s not a totally unfair judgement. Political parties have been co-opting protest movements since time immemorial and this practice has continued despite increasing distrust of politicians in the Information Age. There is a chicken and egg argument here. Who feeds the rally its core demographic if not those with similar or aligning interests? There is, after all, no point throwing a party if no one attends or knows about it.
It should be noted that despite the clashes with the Red Shirts, the BERSIH 5 convoy was very important in getting the message out. This is an example of BERSIH’s actual potential. The clashes with the Red Shirts were also essential in creating public sympathy for BERSIH given the unruly behaviour shown on the countless viral social media videos detailing the exploits of Jamal Yunos and his merry men.
BERSIH 5 can still be considered a success. It is no small achievement to be able to drag tens of thousands into the streets, and with an increased Malay participation this time round, the organisers can say that the protest cannot be convincingly labelled “Chinese”.
But after five iterations and two elections, patience is wearing thin as there seems to be little to no change. Furthermore, in between these five protests, the opposition has been exposed just as flawed as the rest of us.
BERSIH as a movement must now ask itself: What next? Do we march every year till BERSIH 10? It’s not all that far off. It’s just another Najib term away and the voices questioning BERSIH from within its own ranks will only grow in that time if nothing changes. Certainly, Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz’s suggestion that BERSIH enter the political arena may be feasible, but support for the movement will take a blow among those simply sick of politics, and there will be those who will say an entry into politics is merely a mad dash for power.
As great a tool as a protest is, it is clear the BERSIH banner is starting to fray a little at the edges. The movement needs to change in some essential ways. A street protest is only one tool in the playbook of community organising, and the BERSIH movement can perhaps do far more good in varying the ways of spreading its message rather than just baking under the sun as politicians drone on.