Bersih, the toothless tiger

Nowadays, Bersih is often labelled by many as a toothless tiger. It is important that I explain that Bersih is an NGO with no power conferred by the government or Parliament. We are indeed quite “toothless”. I would say, we are more of a barking dog, an election watchdog. Like a faithful guard dog on a leash (the law), we can only bark to alert our boss, the rakyat. Apart from monitoring elections, we also advocate electoral reform and recommend good practices for our democratic institutions. We do this on our own volition on behalf of the public, with public support and a steering committee who are all volunteers, including myself. We report to no one other than you, the rakyat.

When it comes to elections, we monitor the conduct of elections and call out offences as listed in the Election Offences Act 1954. It includes those that are not listed but are considered high ethical conduct for elections. We do this because we believe elections must be free, clean and fair so that voters can make informed choices without any pressure, and to ensure there is a level playing field for all contestants.

When an election offence is committed, we call it out and urge the first-hand witness of the offence to make a police report. Why do we say first-hand witness and not Bersih? The reason is, when the matter is brought to court, it must withstand the counter arguments of the defence lawyers and judge. For example, the questions that are likely to be asked are: Did you witness the offence yourself? Did you take the photos or video of the incident? Were you in fact present when the offence was committed? If not, how can you be certain? If Bersih makes police reports on every offence we read of in the media, it would be quite useless as we are not the eye-witness. This would result in us discrediting ourselves and it would be a waste of the court’s time and taxpayers’ money.

Now, you may ask, what is the purpose of monitoring and calling out offences then, when we are so “toothless”? The answer is public education. We hope our statements and reports lead to public action, either through their voting choice or police reports if they are first-hand witnesses. How do you think the public, including the many who accuse us, know about election offences and other forms of electoral misconduct like dirty electoral rolls, phantom voters, malapportionment and gerrymandering, if not for the “barking” of this toothless tiger or dog on a leash? I am sure you would agree that our constant “barking” over the past 12 years was not a futile exercise. In fact, I myself was awakened by these “barks” many years ago and decided to take action against those “thieves” who tried to steal our elections.

Then there are those trollers and mockers who ask, why no Bersih 6 rally when we see offences committed at by-elections? Are you serious? What kind of an organisation would Bersih be if we called for a protest every time we saw someone commit an election offence? Having organised five mega rallies, I can tell you that when it comes to deciding to call for one, it is not something we take lightly. The responsibility of ensuring the safety of participants, the gravity of the triggering issue, the correctness of our message and the clarity of our purpose or demands, must all be weighed carefully. We are never reckless or hasty when it comes to organising big rallies. Having said that, holding peaceful rallies are never, and can never be, “off the table”, even in Malaysia Baru.

Many who witness offences, instead of doing the needful by reporting it to the authorities, be it EC, PDRM or MACC, prefer to post on social media to garner views and viral the issue to score political points against their political opponents or to troll or let others troll Bersih and the EC for not doing anything. Apart from making it to the news for a few days, what does this achieve other than discrediting the sincere efforts of organisations like Bersih? Would it be better that Bersih “closes shop” as many have suggested and this barking dog retire? Can you trust the politicians to self-regulate and look after the best interests of the rakyat? Or has the new EC under Art Harun rendered Bersih obsolete? Are we so sure that the EC will remain forever neutral and independent, and that Art will live forever?

So, on behalf of all other election observer groups and Bersih, I ask for the public to understand the important role we play as the voice of the rakyat when we expose electoral wrongdoings. Please also understand that we are not empowered by law to take action against offenders (and should never be!). Even when we make police reports, we ourselves must be reliable witnesses and able to stand the scrutiny of the court. Again I say, we do not answer to anyone, be it the government of the day or the opposition. We have been accused of being partisan towards Pakatan Harapan (PH), both when it was in the opposition and now when it is in government, but one only needs to scrutinise our public statements since May 9, 2018, to see that 90% of them are critical of PH. If we are partisan, then yes, we are always more pro-opposition and the smaller parties as the underdogs, and we are definitely pro-rakyat, but we always try to be principled in our positions.

Bersih and the many volunteers who took up this task of monitoring elections and are constantly pushing for reforms didn’t do it for any other reason than because it is necessary, because we love this country and we believe that free, clean and fair elections is still the best way to elect leaders in a democracy.

Thomas Fann is chairman of Bersih 2.0.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.