Asian democracy crusades take root

gerhard-hoffstaeder-thumbDr Gerhard Hoffstaedter

First published in The Australian on 5 July, 2011.

The Arab Spring that has swept North Africa and the Arab peninsula in recent months has commanded much media attention. Unpopular regimes are faced with unprecedented opposition and have resorted to excessive repression to stay in power.

On the sidelines of this major geopolitical shift have been a range of "other" popular uprisings against, and challenges to, repressive and authoritarian regimes in Asia. The Saffron Revolution in Burma is slowly moving along and the short-lived Jasmine Revolution in China has been subdued by the state.

In our immediate region, it was the reformasi movement of the late 1990s that ushered in a new era in Indonesia with the end of the Suharto regime and a, by now, buoyant democracy. In Malaysia, similar reform movements attempted to end Mahathir's reign.

There are numerous civil society organisations, movements and reform-minded professionals working towards a more democratic, less corrupt and brighter future. At the same time, there are just as many civil society organisations, movements and professionals working to keep the status quo - one dominated by Malay/Islamic political interests.

Previous reform movements have been tied down in intra-Malay divisions within the ruling United Malays National Organisation, between UMNO and the Pan-Malayan Islamic party and between UMNO and its former protege, now nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim and his People's Justice Party-led opposition coalition.

Thus, few believe in a radical shift in politics should the federal parliament (finally) fall to the opposition coalition of Islamists, Chinese-based and Anwar's party. To achieve a real shift requires an apolitical force, one which is outside politics and without interest in capturing the state or its power. The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) may be such a force. The first Bersih rally took place in 2007 without a government permit and attracted up to 50,000 protesters who peacefully demanded electoral reform to level the playing field in Malaysian politics, where the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has unfettered access to the national media as well as campaign slush funds.

Bersih is said to have influenced the opposition's record gains in the 2008 polls, ending the Barisan Nasional coalition's two-thirds majority in federal parliament and delivering several state legislatures to the opposition coalition.

Bersih has planned a major demonstration this Saturday in Malaysia and several global locations where Malaysian expats reside. This may be the beginning of a belated reform push that started in 1998 with reformasi, but has been stifled by a strong state, and is now growing into a pan-ethnic and pan-religious movement around the issue of corruption and electoral reform.

Bersih 2.0 has eight demands that ought to make elections fairer and more transparent, among them the use of indelible ink as well as the strengthening of public institutions and wiping out corruption. Clearly, the latter are aspirational demands and the former commonsense ones that the electoral commission could feasibly act upon without controversy.

The electoral commission chairman, Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof, however, has accused Bersih 2.0 and its chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan, a former Bar Council president, of being supported by opposition parties and thus being political.

The government is trying to hinder this rally as it is seen as an opposition ploy to undermine the government parties. Reactionary movements such as Perkasa, an NGO that aims to keep Malay special rights in Malaysia, are seizing on this and portraying Bersih in a racial (political) light. They claim the rally will cause chaos in Kuala Lumpur.Perkasa, with several other right-wing organisations, has called for an alternative demonstration to counteract the electoral reform push. Their posturing is meant to discourage Bersih marchers.

Why would anyone want to stop any movement toward electoral democracy and a transparent electoral process?

The main reason is that "clean" politics would diminish UMNO's stranglehold on federal parliament and the considerable government's coffers. Already, the government has responded with mass arrests, declaring Bersih 2.0 illegal.

In addition, Bersih is in effect telling the world the current Malaysian government is corrupt and that elections in Malaysia are corrupt. No government likes to hear this from their own citizens, and it will be instructive to see how the government responds to Bersih's demands. It has wielded the usual tactics of delay and containment, recently arresting key political figures in the campaign.

Support has spread through the internet across the globe and rallies will not just be held in Kuala Lumpur, but around the world, including in Australia. This trans-national effect is tied to a growing movement of overseas Malaysians demanding the right to vote. Movements such as are lobbying for their say in Malaysian politics, even when they are living and working abroad.

Malaysia has experienced a serious brain drain for decades now, with many professionals seeking a brighter future aboard. Australia is second only to Singapore for Malaysian expats. Many retain their Malaysian citizenship and wish to return, if the political situation changes. Those who have left voted with their feet against a regime of discrimination and control. The Malaysian experience of fighting against corruption is not violent nor revolutionary. The level of comfort and prosperity, especially of the middle classes, has translated in (slow) change by way of the ballot box. Now that the ballot box has been publicly declared corrupt and labelled as an intrinsic part of the government machinery of keeping power, the discontent is growing. So is the willingness to sign up to change, even if it does not translate to public action, such as marching in the streets.

The Arab Spring mobilised support from online communities, often unwilling to voice dissent, but dissatisfied nonetheless. In time this growing community can effect change, even if the gerrymandering does not stop, the public will have a renewed sense of what is at stake - their right to have their vote counted.

Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a research fellow at La Trobe University's Institute for Human Security. His book, Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia, will be launched this week at the Australian Anthropological Society conference in Perth