In the wake of the stock market crisis in China and a dip in commodity prices, Malaysia saw a mass gathering in the streets of Kuala Lumpur lasting for two days over the last week-end in August. This is the fourth instalment of the Bersih (Clean) protests that started in 2007 as a democratic movement to reform the parliamentary electoral system, which favours the ruling government coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). In 2007, there were only about 30,000 participants at the gathering but the number has grown on each protest, and this year an estimated 200,000 people turned up wearing yellow t-shirts (the official colour of Bersih).
The growing number of participants clearly shows the growing dissatisfaction among the different layers of society seeking a solution to their daily problems. Over the past decade, the quality of life of an average Malaysian has declined drastically, together with the rise in the cost of housing, inflation and privatization of services. More and more ordinary people are drawn into the struggle as the government moves into austerity with the reversal of fuel and sugar subsidies, introduction of goods and service tax and reducing public spending as the global market demand for commodities continues to fall.
With an overall debt of over 54% of GDP and the trade surplus at a record low, the ruling party is unable to stabilize the economy and cracks have begun to appear as the confidence in Prime Minister Najib has begun to fade. To make things even worse, the stock market crisis in China has recently triggered a free fall in the Malaysian currency, the Ringgit, which went to a level previously only seen during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The recent high profile exposure of Prime Minister Najib’s corruption scandal in the local and international media has added to the chaotic climate within the government. With clear factions starting to appear inside the ruling elite, different parties are trying to capitalize on the scandal to topple Najib and seize political power. The makeshift opposition coalition that has developed since the Islamic party, PAS, split away from its previous partners in the Pakatan Rakyat also tries to mask their own internal crisis by force-feeding the slogan ‘Incarcerate Najib’ into the Bersih movement. This slogan obviously echoes their idea of a solution to the political crisis:- prosecuting Najib for his crimes, releasing their political leader, Anwar Ibrahim, from prison and forming an interim government until an election within a year’s time.
However, these solutions are far from a solution to any of the bigger problems that face society, such as burgeoning household debt, the rising cost of living, reduced job opportunities, stagnating wages while inflation increases and many more. The opposition coalition tries to distance itself from the corrupt practice of the ruling BN but recently could not contain some scandals in their own ranks. The corrupt nature of neo-liberal capitalism has been somewhat exposed during these times of crisis and both the ruling and the opposition coalition have lost a large amount of trust among ordinary people. However, the majority of the Bersih protesters, due to the lack of a clear alternative, bought into the opposition propaganda and limited their demands to only punishing the Prime Minister for all their suffering.
One of the striking differences compared to previous Bersih rallies was the overwhelming turnout of the ethnic Chinese population, which according to some sources was up to 70% of total participants. The lack of enthusiasm from the majority Malay population could be due to many factors. The refusal to participate by PAS (previously in the opposition coalition) and the ruling government threats towards the Malay population could be the main discouraging factors.
Just a few days before the Bersih rally, PM Najib gave a racially loaded speech of how the Bersih movement was an uprising against the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which presents itself as the de facto political voice for Malays in the country. However, the limited demands from both the organizers and the main political parties failed to combat the UMNO racial propaganda and to attract both Malays and the rural population. In fact, the low turn-out from ethnic Malays could further play into the hands of the ruling elite that has already labelled the gathering as racially motivated in favour of the ethnic Chinese populations.
The Bersih NGO has consistently argued that a better performing parliamentary system would ensure prosperity for ordinary Malaysians and thus put forward demands such as free and fair elections and strengthening parliamentary democracy. Although this seemed logical for ordinary Malaysians a while back, with the failure of the supposed ‘model democracies’ in ‘first world’ countries to prevent an ongoing economic crisis worldwide, Bersih’s demands are running out of legitimacy.
Each day, as the capitalist crisis deepens, they are failing to prove that the livelihoods of ordinary people could improve solely through parliamentary reform. With soaring unemployment and bankruptcy in Europe, growing social turmoil in the Middle East, political crisis, environmental crisis and growing uncertainty globally, any political system that incorporates a capitalist economy seems to have no answers.
The Bersih leadership, which also consists of many opposition coalition supporters, is actually limiting the demands of the people in order to force the continuity of capitalism in Malaysia, despite the clearly visible degeneration of the system. The desperation to not address any economic issues could be seen in their vague ‘save our economy’ demand. The working class, the poor and the ordinary people who are undergoing economic hardship were simply not attracted to the exclusively democratic demands of the official Bersih organizers. Correct economic demands which could strike a chord with the masses would have attracted even more participants and would be capable of defeating the racial propaganda from UMNO. Economic demands will be a uniting factor among people from different ethnic groups and backgrounds. However, that would mean an opposition to the current capitalist system inside which both the ruling and the opposition coalitions operate.
Building an alternative
Although the ‘Bersih 4.0’ protest last week-end is one of the biggest mass rallies seen in recent history in Malaysia, and perceived as a victory on the part of the organizers, in reality it did not go very far in achieving any real change for the working class and the poor. The overwhelming participation by youth and students was not given a clear perspective by the organizers or even the left parties such as PSM (Malaysia Socialist Party). The PSM even went further by preventing their members from carrying their party flags for the rally and they were seen wearing the yellow themed ‘Bersih’ t-shirts. This uncritical support for the Bersih leadership by the PSM and their lack of a clear message further contributed to the general confusion of the youth.
Of course, many other “left leaning” organizations also supported the Bersih leadership and did not come up with their own set of demands which could reach further than the middle layer of society. Although some National Trade Union Congress leaders did participate, they also did not try to broaden the demands and involve the working class in an organised fashion. Most of their participation was in their personal individual capacity and not as representatives of any workers’ union. Most of the NGOs, opposition political parties, social activists and groups have expressed their appreciation of the success of this gathering without appreciating the possibility that such mass movements could trigger a real change if proper demands and perspectives were given.