How Malaysians dealt with draconian laws for the sake of change

On 18th August, Malaysian community organisation Engage organised a forum in Johor entitled ‘Can Singapore do a Malaysia?’ The forum centered around the historical shake-up in Malaysia’s recent 14th General Election which saw the 61-year ruling government ousted from office by the fresh new coalition of opposition parties called Pakatan Harapan. This peaceful change of government in Malaysia begs the question of whether or not Singapore, which is now ruled by the longest serving political party in the world, can pull off the same change.

The forum featured panelists who are both witnesses and actors to the history of both countries: YB Hassan Karim, MP of Pasir Gudang Johor, veteran activist and human rights lawyer; Hishamuddin Rais, veteran activist, film director and writer; Tan Wah Piow, lawyer and former Singapore student leader who was exiled in 1976; and PJ Thum, historian and research fellow at Oxford University.

A member of the audience asked how Malaysians dealt with draconian laws for the sake of change.

This question, though directed at the panel, was passed on to Engage founder Thomas Fann who spoke about his experience with Bersih 3 in 2008. At the time, there was a call from the Bersih HQ in Kuala Lumpur to get every Bersih supporter from all states to converge in KL for a mega rally. Thomas Fann was ready to go.

However, he tells a story of how someone asked ‘why not Johor?’ They thought about it strategically because after all, Johor has been a stronghold of Barisan Nasional and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), it is the birthplace of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Fann and friends decided that if they really wanted to shake up the regime, they needed to make an impact right at the core.

So in two weeks, they called together about 50 people on short notice who were willing to get this off the ground. They printed thousands of flyers which they handed out door to door and car to car and they held press conferences. The media wasn’t on their side, Fann says, but notes that the Chinese media did at least give them some fair coverage.

Unsurprisingly, even the authorities were not on their side. They were denied permission to hold a rally and the authorities even went so far as to organise a football match between the army and police on the same day. That night, there was a rock concert on that same field. But they were determined.

Fann explained that their determination stemmed from that feeling that Malaysia had already turned the corner. The 2008 election was a tipping point that told them the public was on their side. He also said they knew where they stood in terms of the law to peaceful assembling, confident that their right to assemble peacefully was enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution.

Practically, Fann also noted that they went in with the idea of not causing any issues. They had back up plan upon back up plans at the ready and they gathered about 500 meters away from the field so as not to stir up trouble.

Essentially, Fann points out that a few things came together for Malaysia and the main part of it was the people’s support. That’s what gave them the courage and confidence to push forward. Fann spoke about a tipping point for Malaysia – not the 14th General Election on 9 May. This was something that was more than 20 years in the making and there were many people who were willing to pay a steep price for it. They suffered imprisonment, bankruptcy and so much more just so that others could come forward and make change happen.

Fann emphasises that it’s not about a change in government but about creating a democratic space where people can find dignity and be treated with respect. He stresses and this shouldn’t be taken for granted and that NGOs, civil societies and the public have a duty to hold the new government responsible to their promises.