When a group of non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties decided to rally in support of clean and fair elections they had also decided to exercise a basic right. Such marches are common in European and North American countries, Australia and New Zealand, all first world nations – a club that Malaysia has aspirations of joining by 2020.
In Malaysia, however, the hue and cry along with the silly political brinkmanship that followed Bersih’s decision to stage the rally this Saturday, known as Bersih 2.0, was as revealing as it was hysterical.
Supporters of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the all-important United Malay National organization (UMNO) responded with childish indignation while their friends and thugs at Perkasa behaved as if their self-proclaimed racial superiority was under threat.
BN, UMNO and Perkasa wanted to march as well, prompting warnings of blood in the streets and providing police with their excuse to halt proceedings before they even started. In the east Malaysian state of Sabah, they arrested people for wearing yellow shirts, synonymous with Bersih and with echoes of Thailand perhaps. It was the kind of police interference one would expect from Syria or Singapore.
Another hundred or so people connected with Bersih have also been arrested, prompting intervention from the country’s monarch who obtained a promise from organizers to move the rally off the streets and into to a stadium so any potential trouble could be averted.
It was an unwanted compromise because what happened next was predictable. Bersih, which means ‘clean’ in Malay, also agreed to postpone the rally until a suitable venue could be found. Then Prime Minister Najib Razak stepped in and suggested Merdeka Stadium could be used.
Still the Bersih steering committee was suspicious. This was confirmed when management of the stadium said Merdeka, built for Malaysia’s declaration of independence in 1957, was closed for renovations and couldn’t be used.
A similar incident occurred in Sabah, where organizers aborted their plans to hold a gathering in support of the nationwide Bersih campaign at the Foo Chow Hall in Kota Kinabalu. This followed cancellation of their bookings of the venue by the management of the hall.
Their paid-up rent was refunded.
In Kuala Lumpur, Bersih has had a last minute change of heart and now insists the rally will go ahead on Saturday, prompting warnings from police that more arrests should be expected. Indeed, the authorities have even gone so far as to ban 91 political leaders, including the opposition's chief Anwar Ibrahim, and organizers of Bersih from entering the centre Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
The depth of ill-feeling among ordinary Malaysians – regardless of ethnicity – towards the coalition, UMNO, government and opposition political parties will only become apparent once Najib calls his much touted early election.
But Saturday could be an important pointer, and with all the unnecessary interfering of a street march by ordinary citizens and opposition parties demanding a clean election, those in power shouldn’t be surprised if that level of public mistrust is now much greater than they previously feared.