What Have Bersih Rallies Achieved So Far?

Posted on August 5, 2015



“We’ve been sending the government messages for years, and it’s had little to no effect. I was there for Bersih 2.0 and 3.0, and whilst it felt good to stick it to the man for a day, none of the demands for electoral reform were met and they achieved no real change – instead things have gotten even worse.”

The above is a comment by a supporter of past Bersih rallies who is skeptical about Bersih 4. It is a sentiment shared by some when it comes to the effectiveness of street protests in Malaysia.

Of the 8 demands of Bersih 2.0, only two demands were partially met by the Election Commission. The reform of the postal ballot has seen a partial fulfillment with overseas Malaysians being given the access to vote for the first time at the last General Election. The other demand for indelible ink saw a flawed implementation when in many places the ink was not indelible as claimed but edible instead since some batches were made with food colouring.

The other key demands of past rallies for a clean electoral roll, a minimum 21 days campaign period, free and fair access to media, strengthening of public institutions, stopping corruption and dirty politics, are far from being fulfilled by the Government.

Has Bersih 2.0 failed and have all the mega rallies thus far achieved nothing?

If Bersih is judged by its own stated demands and after 8 years of its campaign since the first Bersih rally in 2007, yes, it has failed to bring about any substantial change and it should consider “closing shop” or rethinking its strategy.

But Bersih 2.0 and the rallies it has organised have two targeted audiences . One is the Government whom the demands are made to and the second is the Malaysian public who are making the demands.

Of the first, we have a Government that has no intention of losing power. It has done all it could to make sure the playing field is uneven. Would anyone in their right mind expect such a government to cave in to the demands just because thousands of citizens take to the street in peaceful protests?

As Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The American Civil Rights Movement’s struggle was not won overnight. If one were to take its starting point as President Abraham Lincoln’s Declaration of Emancipation in 1863 till President Lyndon Johnson’s signing into law, The Voting Rights Act in 1965, where the blacks could vote, it was a struggle of 103 years. It took many generations of persistent struggle and at the cost of many lives for that right to be acknowledged.

In comparison, our struggle for a clean, free and fair election is still in its infancy and no one has died as a direct result of this struggle yet.

But of the second targeted audience for which Bersih engages with, it is my assertion that Bersih has achieved outstanding success. Through its previous three rallies, it has brought forth the real issues and flaws with our election system and our public institutions.

How many of us knew about electoral roll, phantom voters, postal voting, voting process, voting rights, delineation, gerrymandering and malapportionment if these were not highlighted and demanded by Bersih through street protests, press statements, petitions and forums?

What has Bersih achieved? It is arguable that with each rally, more citizens are activated for action and the results of each subsequent General Elections, from GE12 to GE13, we have seen more and more people rejecting a Government that does not play fair, to put it mildly.

There is a hope deficit right now in Malaysia.

After the pre-GE13 euphoria of legitimate regime change, Malaysians have witnessed the blatant playing up of racial and religious politics to divide the people, three airline tragedies, the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim, the implementation of GST, the break-up of the hope-bearer of many – Pakatan Rakyat, the collapse of the Ringgit and now the whole 1MDB scandal involving the Prime Minister Najib Razak.

We are like a nation without a leader, without a compass, drifting aimlessly into failed nation status. Many have given up and think Malaysia is no longer worth fighting for and Bersih rallies are no longer worth supporting.

But for me, Bersih 4 offers us ordinary Malaysians a chance to once again rise up in hope. It offers us a chance to reconnect with Malaysians from all walks of life and to rediscover the real Malaysia, a nation of mostly decent, kind, hospitable and fun-loving people.

While the impact of Bersih 4 would not be the immediate regime change on that weekend, its eventual outcome would likely be, as more and more Malaysians are awakened by the need for institutional reforms as they vote at the next GE.

I was once a citizen who was unaware, uninvolved and uncommitted to this land called Malaysia. But thanks to the Bersih 2 rally on the 9th of July,2011, I was awakened and activated to serve my country. I have little doubt that Bersih 4 will have a similar impact on the lives of many first-timers and for the seasoned “demo kaki” like us, a renewal of hope.

*Published on my weekly column at The Malaysian Insider