Three things we learned from: Bersih 5 – Report

Tun M addressing the Bersih gatherers in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. With him are Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, left, and Mukhriz Mahathir.

KUALA LUMPUR – Despite fears of a police crackdown after the arrests of Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin Abdullah and opposition leaders on Friday night, the Bersih 5 rally took place with little incident.

The one-day demonstration by the polls reform group, which kicked off at 10am and ended at about 6pm, drew thousands of government dissenters into the streets of the capital city and started on a rousing note.

Thousands of protesters gathered at Bangsar as well as Masjid Negara, where the plan was to converge at Dataran Merdeka. But the authorities managed to seal off all access routes from Jalan Travers in Bangsar as well as all the entry points to Dataran Merdeka, ostensibly done to avoid a possible altercation between Bersih supporters and the pro-government Red Shirts group.

And it worked, as the two groups did not meet. But Bersih 2.0 made last-minute changes after their original plan to gather at Dataran Merdeka failed — and most of the protesters ended up outside the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) which eventually became the main rally venue.

Despite the good turnout by thousands of people in yellow, the rally — a mammoth demonstration of civil disobedience — will continue to fuel debates on its effectiveness in changing Malaysia’s electoral system or in pushing for a stronger democracy. Here are the three takeaways from the Bersih 5 rally:

The massive Bersih crowd in Kuala Lumpur.
The massive Bersih crowd in Kuala Lumpur.

1. A short-lived party?
Comparisons will likely be made to the last Bersih rally, and the most obvious one will be the turnout. During Bersih 4, tens of thousands of protesters marched into the capital, while this year’s official figures puts Bersih 5 protesters at over 15,500.

There are reasons for the disparity in the figures. For one thing, last year’s rally was a 34-hour one; which seemed to be much more carefully thought out compared to this year’s protest. The execution which went into Bersih 4 was meticulous to the very last detail: the areas in which participants would be converging, security, free food and beverages, and not to mention live entertainment for those who stayed on the streets of the city for two days.

In comparison, while the start of the Bersih 5 rally was encouraging as thousands gathered at Bangsar, Masjid Negara and other areas of the city, it quickly fizzled out when authorities erected barricades and refused to let the protesters pass through to get to Dataran Merdeka.

It was apparent that the Bersih 5 organisers had not thoroughly hashed out an alternative plan to this, as
the rally-goers then slowly started dispersing with some going back home.

Bersih managed to save the rally when it hastily announced a new venue (KLCC) for the participants. Bersih 4 went in with five goals: clean elections; clean government; right to dissent; strengthening parliamentary democracy and saving the economy; as well as a desire for a new national leadership.

Bersih 5 had similar goals, but somehow it lacked the tenacity and seriousness in getting the message across like last year. It ended up becoming quite literally a picnic in the park for many of the participants with selfies, group pictures and a lot of fun and laughter. While this was all good, Bersih 5’s goals seemed a little lost in translation.

There was a noticeably larger Malay turnout this time despite PAS staying away.
There was a noticeably larger Malay turnout this time despite PAS staying away.

2. Larger Malay turnout
But despite the shortcomings of this year’s rally, what was noticeable was a considerably larger Malay turnout this year compared to the previous demonstration. Pro-Bersih Malay protesters came out yesterday in droves, many of them from diverse backgrounds.

Some of the demonstrators came up to the city from rural areas as far as Kedah, and quite a number of them did not have a set political inclination nor were they members of any opposition political party.

Issues which drove them to attend Bersih 5 were issues which resonated with them — the rising cost of living, the weakening ringgit, the dissatisfaction with the ruling government for failing to uplift the Malay community, as well as an uncertain future without any reform.

There were, of course, also some Malay participants who were driven to attend Bersih 5 because of key personalities like former Umno strongmen Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

New (old) kids on the block — Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) — undoubtedly played a role in this as well. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) would do well to take heed of the Malay presence in Bersih 5, and not dismiss the event simply because of a smaller turnout this year.

Muhyiddin and Mahathir walk with the other Bersih participants.
Muhyiddin and Mahathir walk with the other Bersih participants.

3. Dr M, Muhyiddin stole the show
What was surprising and unexpected was perhaps the fact that PPBM’s Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin became the unlikely stars of Bersih 5.

When Bersih 2.0 announced that the new venue for the rally would be KLCC, the accompanying announcement that Dr Mahathir would be heading there and giving a speech prompted some protesters to stay on and head there as well.

The cheers and applause reserved for the former prime minister was ironically poetic for someone who was once accused of curtailing civil liberties. To hear him speak of democracy and opposition towards using laws to stifle dissent will be proof to some (especially the older generation) that in politics, anything is possible.

But the biggest surprise was definitely Muhyiddin, who addressed the thousands of Bersih supporters and delivered a speech which had the audience captivated and eating out of the palm of his hand. He delivered a strong message of unity and urged opposition parties to put aside their differences, hitting out at the government administration he was once a part of.

Muhyiddin spoke in a clear and decisive tone about the need for reform and good governance, and the crowd loved it. With Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s absence, the federal opposition is in need of a central figure. Is Muhyiddin the person for the job?

Only time can tell.

  • This article first appeared in the MalayMail online.