When I hear about the announcement of the Bersih 4 rally on social media I was pretty psyched about the event. It’s been a while since I last joined a street demonstration, walking around in the burning heat of the afternoon with my new found friends, running away from tear gas thrown at the crowd by the police. I just miss the atmosphere and experience.
It’s about time too. Ever since the news broke out about Najib’s ‘donation’ scandal and 1MDB and mismanagement of the economy, it’s high time the people show their displeasure and disapproval at the current administration. And since he pretty much turned a deaf ear at all these haters on social media, there’s no stronger message than turning up in numbers protesting on the streets of KL.
They government did not disappoint me when they started using scare tactics to discourage people from participating in this harmless rally. The police declared the rally as unlawful although there’s no such thing under the Peaceful Assembly Act. They warned civil servants and students not to participate in the rally or face disciplinary actions. And last but not least the ridiculous order by newly appointed Home Minister — Zahid Comedy, I mean Hamidi making any publication related to Bersih 4 as illegal, including yellow colored Bersih 4 t-shirts (I kid you not). All those heavy-handed actions is all but expected from a corrupt, repressive and undemocratic government like this one. If the current regime is none of the above then there would be no need of any Bersih rallies in the first place.
Those threats however were not enough to deter thousands of fed-up Malaysians from turning up on both days of the rallies. Yes instead of a single day of protesting, Bersih 4 is a two days, 34 hours event culminating on the eve of Independence Day. They are actually spending overnight on the streets of KL. I started my journey from the Bukit Jalil LRT station heading towards the city center. It’s no surprise that many opted to take public transport like me with many of the roads leading to KL needlessly congested by unnecessary road blocks by police meaning to trouble people planning to go to the rally, at the same time affecting the lives of the public in general. There were already plenty of people wearing yellow at the train station. Some tried to be creative by altering their yellow Bersih 4 t-shirts since they were banned yesterday. Most however didn’t even bother. There were virtually no police presence there and all the way to KL to intimidate the rally-goers.
Despite the packed train, the crowd’s mood was generally festive and cheerful. They clapped when the train arrives and cheered when other yellow-clad crowd joined the ride. By the time we got to Bandar Tasik Selatan, there were no more room for commuters to board the train. That’s how many people there were that day. We made it safely to the city center. My final stop were the Masjid Jamek station. Unlike last time, they didn’t do anything funny this time like ordering the train not to stop at stations close to the city center. The crowd were already swelling when I arrived with yellow shirts everywhere. After a quick lunch at Burger King, I quickly made my way to Central Market to meet up with my regular rally-going comrades. I met Kak Yan and her friends after a while and we hung around the place for a while before being separated by the burgeoning crowd.
Although my original plan was to go around with some familiar faces, I also want to take my own sweet time and savor my freedom to walk anywhere I want and take tons of pictures of the crowd and the rally. Which is precisely what I did when I finally got separated from Kak Yan. From Central Market I watched the musical performance of the BangsArt people and listen to speeches by political figures and activists. Then I made my way to Dataran Merdeka which is where the action is. By 1:00 PM the crowd had grown into hundred of thousands. And the day was so hot, my camera has overheated and had to turn it off to cool down before I can use it further (that’s never happened before). Lucky for me I came prepared with my water supply, head scarf and glasses for the occasion.
Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square ironically) was cordoned off as promised by the authorities. While the police had put up a barricade around the square, the Bersih organizers had put up another one next to that one with a banner asking people not to breach the barrier. They seriously don’t want to give the police any excuse to throw tear gas or spray water cannon at the rally-goers like last time. By 2:30 PM the crowd had swelled to about a hundred thousand strong by my rough estimate, from Pudu to Masjid Jamek, Dataran Merdeka up to Sogo.
I hung around a little bit more until 3:00 PM before making my way home using the LRT. Many participants decided to stay overnight and sleep on the streets as planned by the organizer but I don’t plan to do such thing. My wife is worried enough of me being there so I’m going to be a good boy and return home early. Besides, the idea of sleeping on the street in the open public is not really that enticing to me.
I must say I had half-expected more action that day. Action as in the police or FRU unleashing water cannons or at least a tear gas canister or two. Fortunately though, up until the moment before I left there were no such thing. The rally was completely peaceful, orderly and totally civilized in nature. Bersih 4 actually concluded without any violence and the police had allowed it to go on for the entire 34 hours duration. Aside from one or two troublemakers trying to sabotage the rally by letting off firecrackers which were swiftly apprehended. The protesters too kept to their promise to disperse peacefully right after the countdown to Merdeka Day.
Yes there were the issue on disproportionate racial representation at the rally with the Malaysian chinese making up the majority on the first day. That could be attribute to several reasons, chief amongst them the absence of Pas’ participation this time around. The Islamist party somehow decided that this rally is not worth their time to take part or whatever (I’m so not voting for you guys again). Apart from that, the fact that Anwar was also missing this time serving his jail sentence in Sungai Buloh also contributed to the decline of malays participation. Whether you’re his fan or not, you cannot argue that he’s got charisma and a major crowd puller. Civil servants and public university students (who are made up of malay majority) who had been warned in advance against participating can also explain their absence. The threat of losing one job in this hard economic times just cannot be ignored by them. Then there’s also the fact that it’s a 3 day extended weekend holiday so many people took this opportunity to go back to their hometowns, go for a short vacation or attend a wedding or something.
That said, the crowd were more mixed on the second day, perhaps encouraged by the (low?) turnout of the day before. Why does it matter which race showed up more anyway? The massive crowd turnout is more than enough to send a strong message to Najib’s government that the people won’t just stay idle with his ilk screw the country as he pleases. Bersih 4 was never meant to change the voting pattern. It was meant to raise the political awareness among voters and non-voters alike. I’m under no illusion that the thick-skinned Najib will resign the next day. But if the rally has attracted the attention of fence-sitters and youngsters who previously had no interest in politics then it has served its purpose. Shall I call it a resounding success? You bet! Bersih 4 was indeed a watershed moment in Malaysian politics. Hopefully it will somewhat affect the outcome of the next GE like the previous rally did.
*disclaimer - a few phrases from this post were copied verbatim from @syahredzan's Bersih 4 article. I was too lazy to paraphrase :P