Govt should welcome the new Bersih protest


By Sebastian Loh

Here we go again. Yesterday, Bersih said – to no one’s surprise – that it would return to the streets.

The protest movement is now set to see more sequels than Shrek, Transporter, or American Pie. Of course, as with all movie franchises that stubbornly linger past their expiration date, Bersih’s script from beginning to end is entirely predictable.

Given enough time, Hollywood is at least savvy enough to dump stale franchises in the face of diminishing returns. It’s fair to ask if the Bersih franchise deserves the same treatment.

Bersih has held four large-scale protests since 2007 – two of which was during Najib Razak’s tenure as Prime Minister. They have failed to eject Najib and his government from office.

They have more recently failed to expand their movement outside of urban Malaysia (or to be exact, the urban Chinese). And they have failed at pushing their electoral reform agenda.

They have presided over the disintegration of the Opposition coalition, which precludes any serious alternative to Najib or Barisan Nasional. And some of their leaders have openly allied themselves with a self-styled former dictator who is far from an exemplar of clean and open government.

Given all this, Putrajaya should fully welcome the new Bersih rally. Authorities should not impede or restrict Bersih in any way – well, subject to reasonable concerns about safety and traffic.

The upcoming Bersih protest will only prove how tired, rudderless, and narrow this movement has become. Police action against Bersih would just elevate third-rate politicians and self-indulgent career activists into “pro-democracy” martyrs – validation they deeply crave but do not deserve.

Let them discredit and embarrass themselves. After all, what is Bersih 5’s programme going to be like?

They’re not going to talk about an alternative to Najib or alternative government policies because they have neither. They’re not going to talk about a positive path forward because they’re too enraged over one man.

They’re not going to talk about love of country or national pride because many of them are absolutely convinced we are a failed state or heading there – contrary to the glowing assessments of the IMF, World Bank, and other expert bodies.

Surely, there’s not much of a gulf between Bersih and Donald Trump’s angry Republican National Convention.

Because Bersih at its core has always lacked everything but gaudy emotion, the next protest will very much be like the last one – a farcical carnival of picture-stomping and ad hoc karaoke-singing.

The usual suspects will give their hashtagable rah-rah speeches – #LawanTetapLawan #Reformasi #IniKaliLah. Protesters will embrace the thrillingly novel experience of being homeless in KL with homemade sandwiches. And once the rally is over, organisers will claim that seven billion people attended it and that’s why Najib must step down.

But Najib will still be prime minister post-Bersih 5. That in itself will be a powerful reminder of Bersih’s continued impotence and the government’s strength.

Bersih’s negativity and frivolity also give BN an excellent opening to demonstrate that the ruling coalition is squarely focused on the business of government. BN should consider announcing a major policy initiative – perhaps aimed towards improving the welfare of the rural poor – in conjunction with Bersih 5.

The juxtaposition between serious, sober ministers and hateful, anarchic protesters is one that should be welcomed.

Furthermore, PAS isn’t likely to participate in Bersih 5, leaving the protest movement as monoracial as last year’s affair. With such a narrow base, any claim that Bersih speaks for all Malaysians will be a thoroughly laughable one.

Today, Bersih is less a national revolution than a bizarre urban camping festival. And that may not be the movie we want to watch for the fifth time. Or the sixth, seventh, or eighth.

Perhaps it’s time we rolled our eyes, picked up the remote, and switched the channel.

Sebastian Loh is an FMT reader.

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