Has Bersih Lost Her Focus?

Posted on August 17, 2015



When the Coalition for Free & Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) called for their fourth rally, Bersih 4, with a call for PM Najib Razak to step down and the new government to implement institutional reforms, some people wondered if Bersih had gone beyond its scope of electoral reforms.

The 10-points institutional reforms didn’t help to dispel this concern either. Apart from electoral reform, it also included the separation of the post of the Prime Minister from that of the Finance Minister, Parliamentary reform, making the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission answerable to Parliament, separating Attorney General from the role of Public Prosecutor, passing Freedom of Information laws, public declaration of Ministers’ and senior government servants’ assets, repealing draconian laws and the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).

Has Bersih really lost its focus and joined the bandwagon of opposition politics?

It is true that the coalition’s objective is to push for a thorough reform of the electoral process in Malaysia because “only when elections are clean and fair, can citizens be real masters of their own destiny and expect holders of public office to act accountability and effectively.” (from the Bersih’s website).

But clean and fair elections do not just depend on the Election Commission (EC) who is tasked with conducting voters registration, elections and the delineation of electoral boundaries. Nor does it just depend on election laws. Clean and fair elections depend on all the machineries it takes to conduct an election, from free media, an impartial police force, transparent and accountable political funding, a fair judiciary, an apolitical Attorney-General, effective anti-corruption commission and good laws that come out of a good law-making process.

Using a football match as an analogy, a good fair game between two competing teams does not depend solely on having a good and fair Referee. In our analogy, the Referee is the EC. You need to ensure that the linesmen are competent and fair and that they have not been bribed. You need to ensure that the ticket sellers are not partial to the supporters of only one team and that the stadium is not filled overwhelmingly with the supporters of Team A and not Team B. You have to make sure the goalposts at both ends are equal in width. That the rules applies to both teams, not more players or more substitutes available for Team A, that the players are drug-free, etc. You get the picture?

If Bersih were to stick only to electoral reform demands, it is not only tunnel-visioned but it would render Bersih totally ineffective and irrelevant as an electoral watchdog.  

To be fair, Bersih’s organisational 8 demands went beyond electoral reforms to include free access to media, the strengthening of public institutions, stopping corruption and stopping dirty politics.

But you ask, why call for Najib to resign?

Let me ask you a question in return. Do you think Najib would carry out any of these institutional reforms when he is doing all he could to use or disable some of these very institutions to stay in power? He is a product of weak institutions that failed in their roles as check and balance to the gross abuse of power and misappropriation of public funds. The problem is systemic and will not prevent future prime-ministerial corruption even if the opposition takes over.

The last thing we want is to replace one corrupt politician with another or even one corrupt coalition with another that is tempted to be corrupt because the system is not reformed.

We should not be under any illusion that it would take many, many years and even many elections to truly reform and strengthen our public institutions which has been abused for decades. It may be easy to amend or repeal laws that are a hindrance to reforms but the system comprises of people who are used to corruption, to abuse of power and to taking orders blindly. Loyalty is overrated in such circumstances.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will the rehabilitation of Malaysia. Our eyes as citizens should never be fixated on politicians or political parties but on what we collectively want to see of our country, a country free of the scourge of corruption, inequality and injustices.

Bersih’s struggle for free and fair elections is a struggle to return power to the people so that the people can get rid of non-performing, corrupt politicians and governments through the ballot box. It is about identifying all the weaknesses of public institutions that plays a part in robbing us of our rights to choose the government we want and proposing reforms to strengthen our parliamentary democracy.

Has Bersih lost her focus in calling for a sitting Prime Minister who has (finally) admitted that RM2.6 billion was deposited into his personal account, to resign?  Has Bersih lost her focus to demand institutional reforms to end Prime-Ministerial corruption once and for all?  You be the judge.

*Published on my weekly column at The Malaysian Insider