Malaysia’s largest civil action group Bersih 2.0, also known as the Coalition for Clean Elections, will hold its fifth national rally on November 19 calling for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal.
But while past demonstrations have largely been well-received by activists and ordinary Malaysians critical of the Najib administration, Bersih is facing questions over its continued relevance and efficacy.
Hisommuddin Bakar, from the Illham Centre think tank, said many Malaysians were now politically fatigued by the lack of action over the scandal, which came to light last year when The Wall Street Journal revealed that money siphoned from 1MDB had ended up in Najib’s personal bank accounts.
He added the public’s disinterest could dampen attendance at the upcoming Kuala Lumpur rally, and he expected only the most hardcore civil society activists and supporters of the country’s opposition parties would show up.
Bersih rallies have grown in strength since the first in 2007. The third, in 2012, attracted some 300,000 participants.
In 2015, when details of Najib’s connection to the 1MDB scandal surfaced, Bersih again brought Malaysians out into the streets for a 30-hour overnight rally.
But a disunited opposition and the Malay Muslim party PAS’ falling out with its coalition allies resulted in fewer ethnic Malay and more urbanised, ethnic Chinese and Indian participants showing up to last year’s rally.
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PAS’ absence proved just how integral the political parties were to the rallies’ success, even though the movement is avowedly non-partisan, said Hisommuddin.
Ibrahim Suffian, an analyst from research firm The Merdeka Centre, warned that a repeat of last year’s low numbers of ethnic Malay and rural supporters could damage Bersih and the political parties associated with it.
He suggested that such a turnout could be counterproductive to the rally’s message and feed into the racial divide narrative that Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has been exploiting in order to stay in power.
“A lopsided rally with little Malay participation could play into this racial narrative,” Ibrahim said.
“It could be used to paint Bersih and its opposition party supporters as a non-Malay movement that is going against a government that represents the Malay majority.”
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Ibrahim said a racially imbalanced display could also indirectly erode crucial Malay support for the opposition and unintentionally boost support for Najib himself.
Decades of gerrymandering have ensured that the BN, a coalition of ethno-centric parties, can continue to rule the country by pandering to rural voters. For rural constituents, the BN’s dominant party Umno is seen as a guardian of the everyday Malays’ interests and survival.
And despite Bersih being an independent movement, the turnout at its rallies has proved to be a bellwether for how Malaysians vote.
“It could be used to paint Bersih and its opposition party supporters as a non-Malay movement that is going against a government that represents the Malay majority.” – Ibrahim Suffian
A year after Bersih’s biggest rally in 2012, opposition parties captured 52 per cent of the popular vote in the federal elections – the first time in the nation’s history that the ruling BN coalition had lost the popular vote.
“The rallies have partly given a general indication of which sections of society anti-government sentiment is coming from,” Ibrahim said.
“A simplistic, lop-sided protest against Najib can be misconstrued as a protest against Umno and the Malay majority, which it represents.”
In an effort to rekindle ethnic Malay and rural interest in the November rally, Bersih announced it would embark on a month-long nationwide road show through 246 towns and rural districts starting October 1.
Bersih steering committee chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah shrugged off suggestions that the public felt political fatigue over the 1MDB scandal.
“The convoy will bring hope to Malaysians and help them understand why we need to continue fighting. I think we want quick answers, but change does not come quickly. There are blocks, but if we stand together, we can break those blocks,” Maria said at a recent press conference.
The Illham Centre’s Hisommuddin however, cast doubt over the effectiveness of the convoy, saying rural folk were usually drawn to political issues and the national personalities who talk about them.
Past Bersih rallies have received endorsement from former Malay Opposition icons, such as Anwar Ibrahim and Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat whose magnetism inspired many Malays to join, Hisommuddin said.
“These guys are not around this time and I am sceptical that Bersih can fill the vacuum,” he added.