Bersih 428: A personal perspective — Goh Chee Leong

April 29, 2012 APRIL 29 — 

I am proud to say that I was at Bersih 3.0 in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, along with my wife and other family members. In the face of the media blitz from the Barisan Nasional press and blogs, I feel that as a first hand observer I need to make the following comments and observations: Whose interest did the violence serve? Let’s be clear. Think about the public relations side of things and you can conclude that it was in the “political interest” of BN to engineer the violence that occurred at the end of the rally. They knew that the organisers would not be able to control the angry crowds once it was sent helter-skelter by the tear gas and water-cannons — one of the reasons why it did not allow us to use the Dataran Merdeka, which would have been easier to control. Look at the events in Penang where we were allowed to assemble in a single large open space. No problem at all because crowd control is much easier there. BN was afraid if we could demonstrate that a movement like Bersih can be peaceful, this will destroy their “fear message” to scare the middle classes to vote BN. 

There was no good reason why Merdeka Square was cordoned off. Was there a previous booking or engagement there at that time? No. Were they afraid we were going to damage their precious grass? No, instead they give us some nonsense about only allowing “national” and “patriotic events” at this venue like band competitions, tourist events and mass aerobics! If they had let us use the square, it would have been a peaceful event just like in Penang and elsewhere. We sit down for two hours; we leave. Everyone is happy. My opinion is that the main reason why BN would not allow us to use Dataran Merdeka: they were afraid of the photos of 300,000 yellow shirts flooding the independence square would once and for all dispel this idiotic myth that the majority of citizens think that elections are fair in this country. Photos like that can stir and persuade even more people to join the movement. It’s a social contagion that can spread like wildfire. This close to the election, BN cannot afford a shift of momentum like that. So I speculate that political advisors must have said to BN, “no way can you allow them to be in Merdeka Square. What we want are photos of protesters fighting the police, so we provoke them by closing off Merdeka Square, and if anyone tries to breach even one section of the barricades, that gives us the excuse to start firing teargas and water cannons into all of the main crowds, we start chasing the crowd, hopefully there will be some casualties, some people will get hurt, we let the riot squad loose, beat up some protesters. We know this will all provoke the younger, less mature protester to fight back, and at that stage we know the organisers will not be able to control the crowds, which will be all over the place. Then we can plaster photos of the violence all over the papers and websites and brand Bersih and the opposition as unruly thugs.” What exactly were the barricades protecting? Some commentators have blamed the small section of the protestors who breached the barricades. Okay, this was perhaps a poor move “politically”, probably initiated by some over enthusiastic youth. But let’s for a moment stop and consider what exactly they were “breaching”. Were they breaching a line that was protecting a person or a national treasure? Were the protestors breaching the line in order to attack and disrupt some event in Dataran Merdeka? Was their intention to ransack a bank or loot shops? No! The only thing behind those barricades was an empty field. A field where Malaya was declared finally independent and free. A field that belongs to all Malaysians. So if the police had merely allowed the protesters to breach the barricades, what would the city or the country have lost? The police say they were protecting public interest. What public interest existed at 2pm April 28, 2012? Who were the members of the public the police are referring to? There were over 150,000 members of the public who wanted to be at the field which happened to be empty at that time. It was a gathering that was truly Malaysian Now, I am not claiming that everyone supports Bersih. There are those who are pro-BN and we must respect their opinion as they should respect ours. 

I have some friends who object to Bersih, and I am fine agreeing to disagree with them. (In a healthy democracy you need diversity in opinions to avoid “groupthink”). However, of all the rallies I have attended in the last 14 years, this was the largest I have ever seen in Malaysia. It reminded me of most of the opposition rallies and talks I have attended. BN can harp on and on about 1 Malaysia, but for true unity, friendliness, shared spirits, nothing beats the atmosphere at an opposition event. Not to say that Bersih was an opposition event, but it reminded me of the same cordial atmosphere. I met so many ex students, current students, colleagues, church friends, old school friends in the four hours we were there. I was particularly proud of our students and graduates for participating. It gives me hope for Malaysia’s future. 

Thirteen years ago, many people would have been scared to participate in an event like this. Now, people are more courageous. I saw whole churches with their pastors who had organised group outings for this. To me this is great. There was a carnival atmosphere throughout the day that was just lovely. It just goes to show (before FRU let loose) that peaceful protest does not harm the country. Public protests do not harm the country I know some Malaysians who are starting to buy in to the government propaganda that Malaysia is not ready for street protest. Their points are simple: 

First, some like Rais Yatim say that street protest are not part of Malaysian culture. Obviously he has forgotten the pre-Merdeka rallies and marches that Malaysians including Umno organised to send a message to the British. Also, it seems strange that BN never criticises street protest when it serves their purpose, for e.g. the almost weekly protest Umno seems to organise against Lim Guan Eng in Penang. At least Pakatan Rakyat is consistent, i.e. in Pakatan ruled states, the state government has never stopped BN supporters from organising protests. 

Secondly, some say it harms business. This is probably a half truth. There were many shops in Petaling Street opened yesterday and they were doing roaring business. At least five coffee shops ran out of stock by noon. Many business and malls were closed, but you have to ask yourself, “why?” Were they scared of the protesters or were they affected by the lack of visitors due to roadblocks and closures in public transport, and the anticipation of tear gas and water cannons? When I was in Brisbane seven years ago, there was a massive protest along the main shopping district, but because the police played a facilitative role, tourist and shoppers were still there unhindered. 

Thirdly, some people say protest affects the countries reputation. I was reading some idiotic tripe from Muhkriz Mahathir about how Bersih had tarnished the investment profile of Malaysia to Japan and elsewhere. He obviously has not witnessed the regular protests in Japan and Korea, which are far larger, more vocal and have not seemed to slow economic progress certainly in Korea. Also, for the YB’s information, it is not protest that drives investors away, but widespread corruption and lack of transparent governance that scares investors away. 

In the US, the world’s largest economy, they can have a million people march in Washington DC, and not a single water cannon or pistol is fired. In Malaysia, we can’t even have 150,000 people sit in an empty square for twohours without all hell breaking loose. When we were in London last year, we witnessed at least three rallies in Trafalgar Square and the police were so good in helping the protesters and tourist alike share the space. So, my friends, rallies and marches, and sit-ins like Bersih can be part of a peaceful and prosperous country’s life. 

 * Dr Goh Chee Leong reads The Malaysian Insider 

 * This is personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Malaysian Insider