by Bakri Musa
First of Two Parts: Seeing The Bright Side
(Next Week: Part Two: Lessons To Be Learned)
In the aftermath of the largest public demonstrations against the
Barisan government, the officials’ obsession now turns to the exercise
of apportioning blame and the associated inflicting of vengeance. Both
are raw human reactions, but hardly enlightening, sophisticated, or even
fruitful. Besides, there is plenty of blame to go around. I prefer to
look at the bright side and on the lessons that can be learned.
BERSIH 3.0 clearly demonstrates that Malaysians no longer
fear the state. In that regard we are a quantum leap ahead of the
Egyptians under Mubarak, the Iraqis under Saddam, or the Chinese under
Mao (or even today). When citizens are no longer afraid of the state,
many wonderful things would follow. BERSIH is also the first successful
multiracial mass movement in Malaysia. In a nation obsessed with and
where every facet is defined by race, that is an achievement worthy of
note. Another significant milestone, again not widely acknowledged, is
that the movement is led by a woman who is neither Malay nor a Muslim.
Ambiga Sreenevasan broke not one but three Malaysian glass ceilings!
On a sour note, BERSIH 3.0 revealed that Barisan leaders
(and a few from the opposition) have yet to learn and accept the
fundamental premise that dissent is an integral part of the democratic
process, and expressing it through peaceful assembly a basic human
right. At a more mundane level though no less important, the
authorities’ performance in BERSIH 3.0 also exposed their woeful
incompetence and negligence in basic crowd control.
In any mass rally you expect a minority to get carried
away or be willfully indulging in criminal acts. It is the duty of the
authorities to prevent and apprehend them, but not to use that as
justification to treat as criminals the vast majority who are otherwise
peaceful, or for the police to behave like criminals in responding.
To keep things in perspective, and with no intent to
insult those injured, whose properties were damaged, and those otherwise
inconvenienced, the mayhem last Saturday was no worse than that
following an American college championship game. More to the point,
considering the vastly much larger crowd and the much more pivotal
issues at stake, no lives were lost.
Discerning The Winners and Losers
As with a college championship game, there were definite winners –
and champions – from last Saturday’s contest. As for the losers, there
were plenty of them too. If you were to appear late on the scene or just
a distant observer like me, it would not be terribly difficult to
figure out who were the new champions and who were the sore losers just
by watching their reactions.
It was a tribute to BERSIH’s leaders that they did not
gloat – the hallmark of genuine champions. They remained cool and
confidently went on to target their next trophy, the removal of the
Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Elections Commission for the pair’s
blatant political partisanship by being, among others, UMNO members.
Although BERSIH was a coalition of NGOs, it nonetheless
welcomed participation from all, including members of political parties.
Thus there were generous representations from the opposition as they
too shared BERSIH’s objective of clean and fair elections. Again it was a
tribute to BERSIH’s enlightened and sophisticated leadership that it
welcomed their participation and did not try to control or otherwise
censor their speeches and actions. BERSIH leaders respected individual
freedom, again reflecting their maturity and sophistication.
As for the political players on either side of the issue,
we too could also easily discern the winners and losers among them.
KEADILAN’s leader Anwar Ibrahim described the event as a “celebration of
unity, an awakening for liberation. [It] … shall go down in the
nation’s history as Merdeka Rakyat when 300,000 spoke in one voice to
demand a free and fair election. …. [Those who] came down in full force
were encouraged by a sense of justice to demand liberation from
usurpers. Their message cannot be mistaken – a free country cannot be
He continued, “BERSIH 3.0 represents the hopes and dreams
of all Malaysians that the political legitimacy of any government in
the future can only be attained through a genuine democratic process.”
That is the confident voice of a winner.
Contrast that to the reactions of the Prime Minister, his
Deputy Muhyyiddin, and Home Minister Hishammuddin. Muhyyiddin was first
to the draw, threatening to make BERSIH pay for the damages, presumably
including those caused by those ubiquitous razor fences, tear gas
explosions, and blasting water cannons. For his part, Hishammuddin
contemptuously dismissed the smashing of journalists’ cameras as
“standard operating procedure,” only to be contradicted later by his
Chief of Police. As many later found out, the police smashed more than
Najib’s hospital visit to the injured journalist Radzi
Razak was a gracious personal touch. However, the heavily-covered media
event backfired as it revealed too much. Radzi’s facial expression
during Najib’s nearly quarter-of-an-hour monologue where he (Najib)
apparently apologized to the injured reporter showed that he (Radzi) was
anything but comforted by the Prime Minister’s presence or words. Later
Najib blasted the demonstrators for not respecting a court order
banning entry into Dataran Merdeka, conveniently forgetting his
administration’s contempt for citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. The
irony of the venue; Dataran Merdeka – Freedom Square!
In short, the political trio of Najib, Muhyyiddin and
Hishammuddin behaved like typical losers, consumed with blaming others
and seeking vengeance. They were not unlike the three blind mice running
around as if BERSIH had cut off their tails. The trio may not be blind
but they certainly behaved like three myopic mice, unable to see beyond
Futility of the “Blame Game”
Trying to apportion blame at this stage of the game, even when
attempted by well-meaning and neutral observers, is a futile exercise.
When done by political hacks, as most surely it would, the exercise
would serve only to aggravate old wounds.
When you have dry rubbish strewn all over, cans of
gasoline purposely left open, and match boxes recklessly tossed around,
the question of who lit the first matchstick becomes irrelevant. There
will always be someone who saw somebody else who struck a match earlier.
Then the analyses and debates would quickly degenerate into the
minutiae of determining the exact seconds or minutes, or interpreting
what certain gestures and phrases may or may not mean in the heat of the
occasion. Indeed such a puerile exercise is already well underway, and
worse, it is being taken seriously by the authorities!
A more useful endeavor would be to learn ways of,
metaphorically speaking, getting rid of the dry tinder, the thick brush
of mutual suspicions, the open cans of inflammatory slimes, and the
readily available matches. Such an exercise would require of Najib,
Muhyyiddin and Hishammuddin to be other than the three blind mice. Mice,
blind and otherwise, thrive in rubbish.
Najib et al. need to look far beyond their whiskers and
ponder whether the laying of razor fences at Dataran Merdeka and turning
the center of modern peaceful Kuala Lumpur into an Israeli-occupied
West Bank, Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, or Stalin’s Gulag is the
equivalent of removing open cans of gasoline or merely spewing more
fuel. This point was forcefully made by a poster on one razor fence,
“Welcome to Tel Aviv!”
There are hundreds if not thousands of such pictures as
well as personal accounts of BERSEH 3.0. One touched me immensely. “Up
‘til Friday afternoon I was still unsure about going,” she wrote. “…
Then I saw the photos of the police rolling out the barbed wire and I
saw red. Since when did our police, or whoever is their boss, roll out
barbed wire – barbed wire!! – against their own people?? Are we thugs?
The observer who wrote that is no raging
anti-establishment anarchist. On the contrary, Marina Mahathir is a
thoughtful commentator, very much mainstream. She saw only the pictures
of police laying down those razor fences, and she was incensed. Imagine
if she had been strolling down the street and been rudely confronted by
that hideous sight? What if she was a foreign tourist?
Ponder the mindset of those who proposed the idea in the
first place, or the personnel who laid down those razor fences. Did they
think that Malaysians are such unruly hooligans that could only be kept
away by those menacing barriers? Or were the authorities gleefully
imagining and salivating in anticipation of some innocent citizens being
ripped apart by those sharp blades? We judge others through our own
image. To our leaders we must be a nation of thieves, thugs, and
terrorists because they themselves are.
Najib and others readily referred to the damages done by
the demonstrators while conveniently overlooking those incurred by the
police, as with the unnecessary road closures long before the event. I
wonder how many ambulances and doctors were delayed on their way to the
hospital to attend to emergencies before the rally because of the
massive road closures. Violence was perpetrated upon the city long
before the first demonstrators arrived.
Do not expect much introspection from our leaders; sore
losers are incapable of that. They could not for example, fathom that
the laying of razor fences, widespread closing of streets, and heavy
police presence contributed to the violence. Such an insight escapes
Next: Second of Two Parts: Lessons To be Learned