By M. Bakri Musa
[Due to last Saturday’s Bersih 2.0 event, for this week only, the serialization of my book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, is switched to Wednesday, and my weekly essay to today (Sunday). My usual pattern will resume next week.]
A remarkable thing happened this past weekend. To many, the event on Saturday was nothing more than a massive public demonstration that capped a long brewing confrontation between those advocating “fair and free elections” and those who deemed that our elections are already so.
As with any fight, the drama was played out long before the event, and by the time the actual battle took place, the participants had long forgotten the original issue. Instead, now the preoccupation is who blinked first, who outsmarted whom, and most of all, who lost and who won. These then become the new overriding divisive issues, eclipsing the original one.
The losers would return to their corner with their new resolve: “Next time!” And the battle continues; they never learn! There were plenty of losers this weekend but few winners. The winners may be few but their achievements scaled new heights.
To me, this weekend was one of those moments (much too frequent, I hasten to add!) that test our nation. This time however, Malaysians acquitted themselves well. The same cannot be said of the Najib administration.
If this was an academic exercise, I would grade the performance of Malaysians as represented in Bersih an “A,” while the Najib Administration flunked badly. So dismal was its performance that the Najib administration should have no recourse to a remedial course or supplemental test; expulsion is the only option.
I would have thought that after the debacle of 1997 with the grossly inept handling of the reformasi demonstrations, and again a decade later with HINDRAF, the UMNO government would have learned a thing or two on how to deal intelligently with dissent and public demonstrations, two inherent features of a democracy. My expectation is not unreasonable, if not heightened, considering that we are today dealing with essentially the same characters in the administration. Most of the ministers who were in power during the reformasi and HINDRAF (now dubbed Bersih 1) are still there in Najib’s cabinet.
Obviously they, individually and collectively, have a flat learning curve. They are incapable of learning. There is a clinical term for that, but since this is a lay article I will resort to street lingo: idiots.
Their flat learning curve is even more incomprehensible considering that the consequences to them were so severe. The 1997 reformasi mess resulted in Barisan being thrashed in the 1999 elections, with Najib nearly being kicked out of his safe seat in Pekan that his father had held for many years.
The price escalated with Bersih 1.0. The general elections of 2008 saw Barisan being humiliated with an unprecedented loss of its two-thirds parliamentary majority, along with five states, including two of the most developed: Penang and Selangor.
I will let readers plot the trajectory as to the consequences of this weekend’s mess should the next general elections be held soon, as is widely predicted.
The iconic image of the reformasi debacle was of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar’s battered face; that of Bersih1.0 was of Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin frothing at the mouth, babbling incoherently in front of the international news media trying to justify his government’s brutal suppression of its people. It was a classic demonstration of that uniquely Malay mental malady, latah (verbal diarrhea). It was also a display of amok, another peculiarly Malay affliction, albeit in this case only of the oral variety.
The iconic image of Bersih 2.0 was refreshing; that of its leader Ambiga Sreenivasan, former Bar Council President, serenely leaving the Istana after an audience with the King. The symbolism could not be overstated, for the Najib Administration had earlier declared her organization illegal! Only those retarded would miss the message, and they are precisely the types we are dealing with here.
Winners and Losers
My award for courage and excellence in Berseh 2.0 goes to those brave Malay masses who defied their government, their imams, and the party that had long proclaimed and presumed to speak on their behalf. In taking a very active part in a movement led predominantly by non-Malays, those Malays showed that they are no longer trapped by tribalism; they had escaped the clutches of chauvinism. There is now no going back.
This significant milestone is not acknowledged, much less appreciated. However, leaders who ignore this do so at their peril. For aspiring Malay leaders, it is now no longer enough for you to display your nationalistic zeal or ethnic instincts. You have to articulate the issues that matter most to the Malay masses: fairness, honesty, and justice, in elections and on other issues. I would also add competence. Those incidentally are also the concerns of all Malaysians.
Yes, there was a time when you could garner Malay support by justifying that the victims of your corruption, injustices and unfairness were non-Malays. Those days are now long gone; get used to it! Malays now realize that while in the past those victims may be mostly non-Malays, today they are increasingly Malays too.
The comforting corollary to my observation is that those capable non-Malay leaders would be assured of Malay support, if they were to address the central issues facing the masses.
Yes, Bersih 2.0 had strong non-Malay support especially abroad. Unanswered is whether a similar movement with equally noble objectives but with predominantly Malay leadership would garner the same enthusiastic support from non-Malays. If reformasi was any indication, the answer would be a reassuring yes.
I am especially heartened by the responses of Malay NGO leaders like Marina Mahathir. When Najib, and others who took their cue from him, began demonizing Ambiga by maliciously injecting ugly racial and religious accusations, Marina unambiguously and passionately defended Ambiga. Marina was of course all smiles and gentleness, as is the traditional halus (fine) Malay way, but there was no disguising her contempt for such odious tactics and their purveyors.
The biggest loser was of course the Najib Administration, specifically Najib and his fellow UMNO ministers. Their inanity was typified by Home Minister Hishammuddin complimenting the police for keeping the peace and stability. Yes, with the streets blockaded, stores closed, and citizens bludgeoned – the ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ of a prison “lockdown.” That was KL all week leading to last Saturday.
The conspicuous silence of other Barisan leaders was noted; that reflected solidarity not out of courage but cowardice. In contrast, even UMNO Youth defied Najib in declaring that it too would stage a counter demonstration.
Despite its defiance, UMNO Youth was also the loser, together with that ultra-Malay organization led by has-been politicians and past-their-peak professors, Perkasa. Good thing that the government had banned their leaders from KL; at least they had a ready excuse for their dismal performance.
The list of losers is long; there is little merit in mentioning more except for just this one, and I do so with profound sadness. A few weeks before the event, all the mosques in Kuala Lumpur, including the National Mosque, were warning their Friday prayer congregants of the evilness of those who led Bersih 2.0 and the sin that would befall those who would participate in it.
At a time when our community is divided, as with this central issue of fair and free elections, I would expect our ulamas and religious leaders to be our healers, to bring us together, to be the balm to our collective wounds. Instead they became only too willing instruments of the state with their canned state-issued sermons demonizing those who saw merit in the objectives of Bersih 2.0.
Obviously to the thousands of Malays who took part in Bersih 2.0, including one particular old man in his jubbah who had to be helped to walk, those characters cloaked in their flowing robes standing at their mimbar every Friday noon are less pious ulamas to be revered but more propagandists for the state to be defied. They may be Imams, but to the thousands who took part in Berseh 2.0 last Saturday, they are carma imams, to borrow National Laureate Samad Said’s term. Carma is the Malay contraction of cari makan, seeking a living. Idiomatically it refers to those who prostituted their honored craft or profession.
Those GI Imams (Government-issued) have flunked their test; there is no remedial course for them either. That is one of the great casualties of last Saturday’s event. For those carma imams, there is no corner they can return to or hide in.