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Democracy as a narrative: The Malaysian protest experience

By Kamal Mamat

Many writers have offered the view that the recent demonstration in Kuala Lumpur reflected oppositions’ (including NGOs) dissatisfaction with the current Malaysian government.

In commentaries written of the protests, including Ooi Kee Beng’s latest in the Straits Times, dissatisfaction as the raison d’être has been used to account for the protest. While this is not untrue, the greater narrative that one can discern here is of democracy. I shall elaborate.

The protest is a show, a constructive show, of an affirmative action that applies the conventions of true democracy. Opposition member Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, well known as a champion of democratic reforms, knows precisely that this mechanism can work when it is well-organised, has a clear objective and a solid representation from a united opposition front. The very precise objective means that the protest did not drag on pointlessly, which would inadvertently produce other side-effects.

In addition, what sets it apart is the relative peaceful nature of the protest, barring the few incidents where water cannons and tear gas were used to disperse protestors. In that respect, we have to give credit to the organisers for firstly, achieving their aims through the use of a well-known democratic mechanism and secondly, for not inconveniencing the general public for a prolonged period of time.

The majority of the protestors deserve to be applauded also for acknowledging that the demonstration is a peaceful call for action and used it for their causes to be heard. It is not a platform to incite violence.

The demonstration ended with the activists cleaning up the palace compound, an action that was largely not analysed by political commentators. It is of course in line with the name ‘Bersih’ (clean in English) adopted by the coalition. This can be seen as a symbolic allusion to the electoral process, or rather the need to housekeep it. Consciously or unconsciously, the protestors have used a metaphor that has been, by and large, effective in expressing their dissatisfaction.

While this cannot be seen as a reference to Asian predilection to anything restraint and sublime, it can be seen as advancement of an Asian-inflected form of democracy. Malaysia, through its opposing forces, has shown its maturity in using protests, and a sublime one at that, to advance democracy as a political narrative. For that, it has to be given due credit.

In Singapore, however, the word protest and demonstration are taboos which have to be avoided at all costs. We are wont to think that any form of assembly would lead to violence and other undesirable consequences. We are quick to reference Davos, Hong Kong and other cities where protests and demonstrations are equated with general disorder and other disruptions.

Of course the Malaysian experience has proved that it is not necessarily so. Theirs is an example of protests that serve as a check-and-balance tool. A tool that, when used correctly, can galvanise both the government and the protesting parties into a dialectic action which would benefit the society at large.

Picture from Malaysiakini.

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