Malaysia's Winter of Discontent
Image Credit: Luke Hunt, Bomborra Images

Malaysia's Winter of Discontent


Malaysians of all walks of political life were conducting a cost/benefit analysis in the aftermath of last weekend’s rally, which turned ugly amid baton charges, tear gassing and the arrests of almost 1,700 people.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had initially attempted to play down the protest by Bersih, which means ‘clean’ in Malay, calling for free and fair elections. But he changed his tune after Amnesty described the crackdown as the worst case of suppression seen in this country in years. 

Speaking at a government function Sunday, Najib — widely expected to call an early election later this year or early next — lashed out at opposition-backed protesters, complaining they were trying to paint a picture of Malaysia as a repressive state.

‘They said they wanted to hold a peaceful rally. If the police had not monitored it, it would not have been peaceful,’ the prime minister said.

New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, also denounced the arrests, saying, ‘this is a maelstrom of the Malaysian authorities own making.’

Police were deployed under what they called ‘Operation Erase Bersih.’ They sealed off key roads, dispatched water cannons and then opened fire with tear gas as crowds formed and attempted to march towards the iconic Merdeka Stadium. Stampedes followed, and the crowds dispersed into smaller groups and taunted riot police armed with batons, guns and shields. Baton chargers followed.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was injured after police fired tear gas canisters into a tunnel. Another politician, Khalid Samad of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, was injured when police also fired a tear gas canister, at his neck.

The protesters, however, remained defiant.

Some wore yellow shirts. Most, fearing arrest, decided not to wear the colour synonymous with the movement. One man was dragged and kicked from outside the Chinese Maternity Hospital. Tear gas was then fired into the neighbouring grounds of Tung Shing Hospital where protesters had sought shelter.

Malaysia’s sometimes less than friendly neighbour Indonesia said it had warned its citizens to stay away from protest points, but that there was no need to evacuate its citizens and that it was confident that Malaysian authorities would handle the situation wisely.

It was almost a diplomatic faux pas.

Speaking on Sunday, Anwar said: ‘We will have to pursue – in parliament and outside of parliament – free and fair elections, even by rallying unless they change the electoral vote.’ He added that there was no confidence left in the government.

Crowd estimates vary widely, but tens of thousands certainly marched, the culmination of weeks of intense pressure on Najib's coalition to make election laws fairer and more transparent.

Opposition leaders have long accused Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization of relying on fraud to maintain its 54-year hold on power. The government, however, insists the current electoral policies are fair.

Marimuthu Manogaran, an opposition politician for the Democratic Action Party, said protesters wanted curbs that would make electoral fraud more difficult, including closer monitoring of postal votes, and increased access to media outlets during campaigning. He also said the ruling party shouldn’t be entitled to the use of government assets like helicopters and other services when contesting elections.

‘Despite the police presence and oppression, I see there’s a large presence of people on the ground in the streets of Kuala Lumpur and what is very interesting is I see a large number of them are comprised of youths. Young people coming out there to demand their rights for electoral reform and I think that is a good sign for Malaysia.

‘We are used to this tear gas and this chemically laced water from before, but I think a lot of young people have not been exposed to it before and they are getting it for the first time now,’ he said.

This was the second such rally organised by Bersih. The first, in 2007, resulted in an estimated 50,000 people taking to the streets of the capital before they were also dispersed by riot police armed with water cannons and tear gas. That rally was partly credited for record gains by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat in the 2008 elections when the opposition pact was swept to power in five states and won 82 parliamentary seats at the national level.

As a result, UMNO lost its cherished two-thirds majority and Prime Minster Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was forced out of office by a party coup, making way for Najib, who has promised the party faithful to win back UMNO’s pre-eminent status with the electorate.

Speculation of an early election, which Najib has declined to quash, has persisted ever since, with observers arguing Najib is particularly keen on his own electoral mandate. If he can win back the two-thirds majority this would also allow him to repeal archaic laws that favour native Malays in business.

In doing this, a conciliatory approach might be required. Amnesty also noted that Malaysia is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and suggested Kuala Lumpur should be setting an example for other countries to follow as opposed to baton charging a peaceful rally.

Najib, however, is standing firm and warning activists not to take to the streets again. He also gave his clearest indication yet that an early election is on the cards, although even he sounded less than convinced that the political omens are on his side.

‘When we are strong, we will emerge victorious. When there is a clear signal, I will request for the King to dissolve Parliament. But before this, we must strengthen unity and work harder,’ he said.

As another protester said while pounding the pavement, ‘this is just the start of Malaysia’s winter of discontent.’

July 14, 2011 at 13:49

I think its fair to assume that had the elections been less ‘dirty’, the opposition would have won more seats. But this is again moving away from the main point the rally was organised for i.e. that electorial reforms is needed. it does not matter who is in charge of the country but they should be elected by the people and not by rigging.

Race politics are not and have never been the issue at hand (but always being brought to the forefront of any discussion) and in the meantime, the ammount of wealth been systematically siphoned out by the ruling party leaders is mind boggling. This issue has been conveniently been sidelined.

Sad to say, the chinese are in a way to blame as their profits depend on being ‘buddy-buddy’ with the ruling party and don’t want to lose the grip they have on the ruling party. This time around however, there were more chinese on the streets joining the rally. Discontentment has been high amongst the malays who now know they are being hoodwinked into believing that the ruling party is championing their so called rights but actually taking them for a ride while lining their own pockets.

Chong Kum Yeow
July 14, 2011 at 13:22

Fact. Seputeh Constituency. Voters : 50k, one representative. Opposition seat. Putrajaya: 5000 voters. One representative. UMNO seat.

Fact: Kuala Lumpur , Pakatan hold 10 out of 12 seats in Wilayah Persekutuan, but Wilayah still under BN. How?

Read up: Gerry Mandering, Pillars of Democracy

Chinese minority having a large control over the economy? even after 50 years of affirmative action? can you please show the numbers and prove such racist statement spewed by UMNO leader everyday to justify their racist policies that only help themselves and their cronies? Show proof that the chinese own everything.

Why not you research, out of all the wealth that the malays own, how much of it is owned by UMNO folk and their cronies alone.

We chinese folk work hard for what we get. including our rights. we don’t depend on racist policies for what we have.

July 14, 2011 at 10:42

Sry, last sentence is for our dear priviledged friend FH Che Yusoff

July 14, 2011 at 10:21

Same as Singapore? U shld see the rallies during the 2011 elections… All the oppposition rallies were filled to the brim ( some reports estimate up to 50,000 pple in the final opposition rally , an impressive figure for a country of only 2 mln authorised voters ). Even the PAP leaders complimented the opposition leaders on their calibre.
Singaporeans are unhappy that they are not heard, that there are too many foreign talents ( a group that we on the other hand are desperately trying to attract ). And its not because of cronyism, corruption or racism that plagues our country…
Lol the NEP is an abject failure…judging by your comment, I can already guess that u are a bumi “benefiting” from it…

FH Che Yusoff
July 13, 2011 at 23:46

I hope people notice the contradiction between what Bersih claims for and reality. Bersih claims that Malaysia’s elections are not free nor fair. However, this article itself noted that the opposition managed to reduce the seats of the governing coalition to less than 2/3 in the 2008 election for the first time in the country’s history. Another point of note is that the opposition managed to win 4 more states in the same election. How could this have been if the election was dirty?

Bersih is nothing more than an attempt by the opposition to create a ruckus, as they have noticed a rise in popularity of the government under the premiership of Prime Minister Najib after the introduction of the Economic Transformation Program and the Government Transformation Program won many accolades.

To John, I noticed that you failed to also mention that the Chinese minority here have a large control over the economy, due to the many years of racially-segregated economy under British colonial rule. The affirmative action policies aim to repair this imbalance.

John Chan
July 13, 2011 at 07:44

Malaysia is same as Singapore, authoritarian democracy, its democracy laced with racial policies that deprive equal political, job and education opportunities to all other minorities, that racial policies guaranteed Malay’s monopoly on political power, job and education advantages.

I wish the opposition will succeed and bring true democracy to Malaysia. Make Malaysia an equal and fair society to all Malaysians regardless their races.

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