Firstly, thanks all of you who had kind wishes re: the smash theft of my Macbook Air – appreciate it!
Am publishing here (belated sorry!) an article written by an overseas visitor regarding the Bersih 2.0 rally, debunking many government myths about the rally jeopardising tourism etc. Happy reading!
Malaysia, Bersih 2.0 – A visitor’s view
When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday afternoon, July 2nd 2011 for a business trip on behalf of my London based university I had never heard of Bersih, the coalition of Non Government Organisations that seeks reform of Malaysia’s voting procedures. That was soon to change and very quickly.
My impression of Malaysia from a trip three years ago was that it was a prosperous and stable ‘Asian Tiger’ country, eager to make its way in the world, with a very interesting racial mix of people that seemed to be a real cultural, economic, political and spiritual strength. There had been the unfortunate brouhaha in the late 1990s around the arrest and imprisonment of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, on what appeared, from outside eyes, to be politically motivated charges concerning sexual probity. The international furore this incident caused died down upon his release, the international media circus moved on and I assumed that politics in Malaysia had done likewise. Smearing opposition politicians of whatever opinion with such charges tends to create a poor impression internationally that detracts from the attractiveness of the business environment. It generates an impression that the underlying political environment is unstable, that change cannot happen peacefully and that those at the top are clinging to power.
On Sunday morning I attended the 11.00 service at St Mary’s cathedral in Dataran Merdeka. The Dean, Jason Selvaraj, gave an impassioned sermon to a large multi-racial congregation that expressed deep concern about the current political and social environment in Malaysia. He deplored racism and its use for political goals and preached tolerance, compassion and equality for all.
Jason’s sermon stimulated my interest in what was currently happening in Malaysia so on my return to the hotel I immediately read the two English language newspapers available at the Sheraton, The Star and The New Straits Times. They were full of articles and news stories about a group called Bersih 2.0. The authors clearly regarded this Bersih as very dangerous, a threat to society as we know it, akin to terrorism etc. There was little information about what Bersih actually was, or what it stood for, though I did discern that it was trying to hold some sort of rally in KL on the following Saturday, July 9th and it seemed to be about fairness in regards to Malaysian elections. For the rest of my trip I followed the events as they unfolded in the newspapers and on television with increasing concern.
As the week proceeded the tone in the newspapers, in particular, became increasingly strident. Academics and various luminaries wrote judicious columns critical of the notion of street demonstrations as somehow ‘unmalaysian’. Newspaper editorial sections were equally vociferous about the threat to democracy and business. Taxi drivers were questioned about loss of trade and Sultans and leaders of various provinces added their voices to the din. I did not see one article that put any kind of opposing view apart from selected quotes in the news sections from various opposition politicians, and the Bersih leader, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, a former President of Malaysian Bar Council. The net effect of this one-sided onslaught in the newspapers was that people I talked to, in the hotel at least, said it made them curious about Bersih and what it was about. This biased coverage seemed to be having the opposite effect to what was intended was a definite own goal by the government supporting newspapers.
And what of the role of the police? Malaysian law requires a permit for demonstrations, much the same as in Britain. Bersih had applied for a permit but it was rejected on grounds of public safety, interference with traffic etc. Bersih said the rally would go ahead and the police stated that they were determined to stop it. A standoff, it seemed.
On Sunday, July 3rd the Malaysian king, Sultan Mizan Zainul Abidin, intervened, advising against street demonstrations and urging the government and Bersih to compromise on a stadium rally. Dato’ Ambiga successfully requested an audience with the king much to the chagrin of the Perkasa leader Datuk Ibrahim Ali who was clearly very put out by the recognition of Bersih that the audience with the king conferred. On Tuesday, after a frenzied media scrum (big headlines for Bersih yet again) , Ambiga and two other Bersih leaders announced that following their discussions with Sultan Mizan Zainul Abidin and in deference to his advice the street rally would be changed into a stadium rally at the downtown Merdeka stadium.
All seemed resolved as the government had appeared to acquiesce to the king’s wishes also. By Friday, when I had to leave KL, it was all up in the air again Merdeka stadium became ‘unavailable’, the government had appeared to retract on its promise, Bersih were back to a street march to the Merdeka stadium and the police were gearing up for a fight. The newspapers resumed their frenzy interviewing anyone who had a word to say against the march. One article in the NST did make me smile. A journalist was dispatched to find ‘terrified’ foreign tourists but couldn’t come up with any. ‘It’s normal’ said a Norwegian woman, it’s just part of society. I’m not worried, said another tourist from Australia, ‘I’ll still be doing my shopping’.
And so I left KL for Malacca with the city preparing for police lockdown in the biggest overreaction to a demonstration imaginable. As I sat on the train I wondered what would happen and would chaos really ensue. I wasn’t to find out the answer until I landed back in the UK on Sunday September 10th.
Malacca is a fascinating city for tourists to visit – I swapped my business hat for a tourist one. I enjoyed the sights, sounds and many attractions and became very absorbed by its history and culture. I had been warned by local people that getting to the airport on Saturday evening could be tricky as the police were reportedly ‘blockading’ KL. I wanted to ask locals what they thought of the situation but the political atmosphere seemed intimidating and I didn’t want to compromise anyone. It is a universal law, however, that if you want to know what’s happening in a place, ask a taxi driver. So I did just that, in the privacy of his cab.
He said that Bersih was very important because elections should be ‘fair’ and that all Malaysians were entitled to ‘a proper vote’. Malaysians were ‘very proud’ of their country but unfair elections were wrong and politicians should ‘listen’ and sort this out. I then asked him about Dato’ Ambiga and he said that she was a ‘very good woman’ who ‘told the truth to the Malaysian people’ and ‘they knew it’. He described her as ‘brave’ and said that she could ‘be trusted’ and this ‘is important for the country’. I asked him if Bersih had much support and he said that he thought so but some people might be ‘afraid’ to speak out.
I leaned on Sunday that Bersih had attempted to march to the Merdeka stadium. The police in full riot gear tried to stop them using tear gas and chemically laced water cannons. Dato’ Ambiga and many others were arrested and held, though subsequently released.
My overriding impression of Malaysia and its people is very positive. I like them, their culture, and their country very much and it is a great place to do business. I believe that all peoples should be entitled to free and fair elections, to change their leaders and governments peacefully, and to have freedom of expression and assembly. The Malaysian constitution gives this guarantee to its people so it seems to this visitor that it is time that the government, legal establishment, civil service all interested and relevant parties ensured that it is so.