Malaysia’s Summer of Discontent?

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Malaysia’s Summer of Discontent?

Malaysians are showing growing signs of frustration with their leaders. But can this be turned into poll gains?

During elections, people tend to be more inspired to voice their opinions on politics, governance, and democracy. Campaigning hasn't officially started in Malaysia, but it's encouraging to see that ordinary citizens have been so aggressive in recent weeks in pushing for various government reforms.

Bersih (clean), an electoral reform movement, surprised the government when it successfully mobilized thousands of people in the streets on April 28. It was reported to be the biggest rally ever held in Malaysia. But before Bersih, there were several “people power” initiatives that deserve recognition, such as the Occupy Dataran Merdeka, the student march against the “inefficient and exploitative” national school loan program, and the popular indignation against the operation of a rare earth refinery in the town of Kuantan. 

Bersih has three demands: the resignation of the Election Commission, the cleaning up of the electoral roll, and the presence of international observers at the general elections. The government claimed that it had already addressed the concerns raised by Bersih, but its response didn't impress protestors, who were violently dispersed by the police. The fact that Bersih managed to gather a record number of protesters in the streets of Malaysia and in other cities around the world should be placing genuine pressure on the ruling coalition, which has been in power for the past 55 years, to rethink its tactic of nonchalantly dismissing all reform advocates as proxies of the opposition.

Despite the insistence of its leaders that Bersih is nothing more than an electoral reform movement, it has already evolved into a credible and powerful network of citizens who want to remove the nondemocratic aspects of Malaysia's system of government. In fact, the campers at Occupy Dataran and the student protesters early last month openly advocated the demands of Bersih even though their campaign and activities aren't directly related to Bersih.

What bound the campers at Occupy Dataran, who simply wished to reclaim the public space where the grassroots can gather and discuss the meaning of transparent governance, and the Bersih participants, was their shared commitment to expose the anti-people and anti-democratic policies of the government. The student protesters who are complaining about excessive fees in the student loan program are similar to young people in the Bersih march who are frustrated with the structural weaknesses of the electoral system. Many students who supported the march for free higher education also joined the Bersih event.

Another outstanding example of citizen protest in Malaysia is the campaign against the operations of Lynas Corporation, an Australian company that was permitted by the government to construct the world's largest rare earth refinery plant. Residents living near the plant have petitioned the government to stop the operations of Lynas because of safety and health concerns. So far, the government has failed to convince the residents to support the project. Protests have already erupted in Malaysia and even places like Australia to show solidarity with the communities that will be affected and displaced by the controversial investment.

Change is being demanded by a significant constituency that has already emerged in Malaysia. We've already seen the manifestos and the tactics of this rising movement in recent weeks, and this force has the potential to influence the results of the general elections this year. This force can become stronger if it can combine the broad appeal of Bersih, the passion of the campers at Occupy Dataran, the youthful idealism of student protesters, and the grassroots initiative of the anti-Lynas campaign.

The question now is whether this force can defeat the battle-tested ruling coalition, which has access to state resources and superior political and election machinery?