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Malaysia’s Bersih Movement

by Joshua Kurlantzick
July 14, 2011

Supporters of the "Bersih" (Clean) electoral reform coalition shout slogans during clashes with police in downtown Kuala Lumpur July 9, 2011.

Supporters of the "Bersih" (Clean) electoral reform coalition shout slogans during clashes with police in downtown Kuala Lumpur July 9, 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Last weekend, Malaysia’s Bersih (clean elections) movement drew tens of thousands of protestors to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, demanding reform of the electoral system, which is weighted in numerous ways to protect the ruling coalition. Though the protest was largely peaceful, the government met the demonstration with massive force, arresting thousands of protestors. The police used clubs, water cannons, and tear gas to crush the protests. (New Mandala has fine coverage of the Bersih protests.)

As in Thailand, where the red shirt movement started largely as a pro-Thaksin protest and developed into a larger force, the Bersih movement, which began as just a call for electoral reform, also may be developing into something larger. The government’s brutal tactics have alienated many average Malaysians, who see their country, if not exactly a democracy, as a moderate and tolerant state. Such anger could help swell the ranks of the political opposition in advance of the next election, finally ousting the ruling coalition.

Yet as the Straits Times notes [subscription required] in a fine analysis, the Bersih demonstrations also are deepening a divide in the country. As more protestors turn to the opposition, the government relies more and more on ethnic Malays, who have benefited from the ruling coalition’s decades of affirmative action policies. And the more the government relies on the Malay heartland, the more it turns off Chinese, Indian, and other voters, pushing them toward the opposition–and only reinforcing the ethnic divide in Malaysia.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Angel TanWC

    I was there. I saw with my own eyes what the ruling regime did to its own people. We were shot at with acid-laced water and tear gas even as we were retreating. Read alternative news sources (non-government) and you will find out that any dissent here makes this 54-year old ruling regime nervous. And nothing makes the regime more nervous than a call for electoral reform. It is a known fact that outright cheating at the polls has gone on for decades in this seemingly democratic nation. Murder, lies and corruption. It’s easy to see it now.

  • Posted by Bersih is Dirty Politics

    1. Clean the electoral rollThe electoral roll is marred with irregularities such as deceased persons and multiple persons registered under a single address or non-existent addresses. The electoral roll must be revised and updated to wipe out these ‘phantom voters’. The rakyat have a right to an electoral roll that is an accurate reflection of the voting population.
    In the longer term, BERSIH 2.0 also calls for the EC to implement an automated voter registration system upon eligibility to reduce irregularities.

    RESPONSE:
    Based on the CIA World Fact book, death in Malaysia is 4.93 per 1,000 population (based on July 2011). Through extrapolation, for 28 million population, the estimated number of deaths in a year is 138,040 persons. Assuming the information is not updated in JPN over a period of 5 years, on a worst case scenario, the total “un-updated record of deceased persons” is 690,020 people.

    According to the EC, we have 11.4 million registered voters. Assuming EC did not update their database due deceased people, this represent 6% inaccuracy of the true / actual registered voters.

    Malaysians should ask: can a 6% “inaccuracy / irregularity” (on a worst case scenario) be a strong point to bash the EC or the Government for being unfair? I think this is absurd and politically motivated.

    The fact that the opposition won more states in the next GE showed that fair election / democracy is in place.

    Therefore, my question for those who are politically inclined: does the 6% translate into a sure win for the the political parties (including opposition) in the next GE?

    For automatic voter registration as proposed by Bersih v2.0, many people have expressed disagreement on this subject.

    There is a writer who posted something in Malaysian Insider that I would like to share…

    “Not that I have anything against people registering to vote.

    I am a registered voter myself. However, to force something on someone — be it religion, racism and even voter registration — is something I just can’t agree with.

    It’s against a person’s free will. I see it as similar to parents determining their kids’ religions at birth; performing circumcision on a kid who doesn’t know any better; or even how parents of a male child with no penis would show off their kid in a photo opportunity for the Malaysian media, as we saw in 2009.

    There are many fears in having an automatic-registration system, primarily on the basis of privacy.”

    As for voters registered with a non-existent addresses, everyone knows that we move from one place to another as we grow. Let’s assume that Ali was born in Kuala Lipis. He has an IC which has the address of his family in Kuala Lipis. 20 years later he migrated to Kuala Lumpur, then 5 years later he was posted to Terengganu for offshore assignment with Murphy Oil. 6 years later he was posted to lead a project in Sarawak. Does it mean he has to update his IC address and inform EC every time he moves to another address?

    If let’s say 10 million of our population is affected by this, do you think it is practical to enforce it in reality my dear fellow Malaysians?

    In short, Bersih’s demand of the automatic voters registration basically forces people to be registered. And that cannot be seen as democracy!

    It definite contradicts Bersih’s principles of having a fair democracy.

    2. Reform postal ballotThe current postal ballot system must be reformed to ensure that all citizens of Malaysia are able to exercise their right to vote. Postal ballot should not only be open for all Malaysian citizens living abroad, but also for those within the country who cannot be physically present in their voting constituency on polling day. Police, military and civil servants too must vote normally like other voters if not on duty on polling day.
    The postal ballot system must be transparent. Party agents should be allowed to monitor the entire process of postal voting.

    RESPONSE:

    According to the Government website, Malaysia has approximately 1.2 million civil servants. The police & military are consistently on duty and geographically dispersed throughout the country. In fact, they are on duty too during elections, etc.

    If the police, military are forced to vote normally, then they are forced to leave their duty in various locations. Imagine leaving the jungle, strategic border locations just to vote. I think this is not practical at all.

    On this note, Bersih 2.0 also made a proposal to EC for party agents to monitor the entire process of postal voting. Well, this has not happened in any other countries. Please name me one country which allows parties on both divide to “intervene” in the EC processes or postal voting.

    Also, postal voting happens not only for police and military personnel who are on duty, but also Malaysians who vote overseas. If Bersih 2.0 wants party agents to be allowed to monitor the entire process of postal voting, does that mean that party agents need to be posted whenever and wherever there are Malaysians voting overseas? (I’m sure some of them don’t mind having the excuse to have a nice holiday overseas, “in the name of democracy”!)

    I think this proposal suggests deep paranoia and mistrust of key institutions in the country, including the Elections Commission (SPR), which I think is simply pathetic.

    In conclusion, there has not been any real issues in terms of postal voting, whether in Malaysia or in other countries. After all, from a bigger picture perspective, the impact of postal votes is small compared to the actual votes in the various constituencies.

    As a citizen who support fair elections in this country, I suggest that we should be focusing on the actual voting mechanism at the various constituencies rather than debating day and night on postal voting, which, in reality, produces a minimal impact to the election results.

    For those who are politically inclined to dwell on the numbers and think that this is still not fair because the postal votes can ensure a better win, imagine this: Assuming 100% of the 1.2 million servants are forced to do postal voting, that represent 10% of the 11.4 million registered voters in this country. Assuming ceteris paribus, if you divide 11.4 million registered voters by 222 constituencies, that is 51,351 votes for each constituency. Therefore the postal votes (i.e 10% of 11.4m) constitute 5,400 votes vs. 51,351 votes.

    With all the anger and insult which I hear from the political leaders and Bersih organizers, my conclusion is simple. The impact of postal voting to the overall result is minimal.

    The majority swing or “success” for each political party is based on the actual voters who attend, register and vote on the actual election day. Surely as Malaysians, we shouldn’t be so easily fuelled and vortexed into something so small until we lose our logical reasoning.

    I ask again the question to my dear fellow Malaysians. Looking at the maths, is this something worth fighting for? Is this what we call unfair election or democracy by the opposition?

    3. Use of indelible inkIndelible ink must be used in all elections. It is a simple, affordable and effective solution in preventing voter fraud. In 2007, the EC decided to implement the use of indelible ink. However, in the final days leading up to the 12th General Elections, the EC decided to withdraw the use of indelible ink citing legal reasons and rumours of sabotage.
    Bersih 2.0 demands for indelible ink to be used for all the upcoming elections. Failure to do so will lead to the inevitable conclusion that there is an intention to allow voter fraud.
    RESPONSE:
    Less than 20 countries out of 194 countries use inedible ink in their elections. Indelible ink is NOT used by developed countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Japan and many others. It is used mainly in less developed countries with large populations.
    Some of the countries include Afghanistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Gambia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Tchad, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
    It is also worth to note that indelible ink is not a fool-proof method and has its disadvantages such as:
    · Indelible ink itself can be used to commit electoral fraud by marking opponent party members before they have the chance to cast their votes; and
    · There have been cases in Afghanistan where “indelible” ink have washed off voters’ fingers using bleach; such ink was blamed for contributing to fraud in the first Afghan presidential election in 2005.
    In short, if Malaysia decides to use indelible ink, for a country that has a comprehensive database and biometric identification of its citizens, it can be viewed as step backwards for the nation and not a step forward. Remember, less than 20 countries out of 194 countries uses indelible ink in their general elections.

    For those countries who don’t use inedible ink, do you regard them as corrupt?
    Bersih organizers have really managed to divert the attention of the public on this. Pure deception

    4. Minimum 21 days campaign periodThe EC should stipulate a campaign period of not less than 21 days. A longer campaign period would allow voters more time to gather information and deliberate on their choices. It will also allow candidates more time to disseminate information to rural areas. The first national elections in 1955 under the British Colonial Government had a campaign period of 42 days but the campaign period for 12th GE in 2008 was a mere 8 days.
    RESPONSE:
    There is no standard or best practice in any countries to determine the optimum campaign period. For example, Singapore has a 9-day campaign period, the United Kingdom has 17 days and Philippines has a 90-day campaign period. The misconception by the public at large is that the campaign period (whether it is 5 days, 21 days, 40 days, 60 days or even 100 days) guarantees a fair election.
    Campaign activities must be viewed as an on-going activity by the ruling and opposition parties and not a one-off activity due to General Election. Both parties must work hard daily or throughout the year to ensure support from grass roots and voters at their respective constituencies. The all year round consistent campaigning throughout each constituency guarantees better results than a one-off GE campaign approach. This is particularly true in the modern world’s 24-hour news cycle, where politicians constantly jostle for media and public attention.
    I feel that regardless the campaign period, both parties are not privy to the actual General Election dates (while it is true that in Malaysia, the incumbent Prime Minister has the upper hand due to his constitutional role in advising the Agong regarding the dissolution of Parliament, we know that even ruling party politicians play constant guessing games regarding the exact timing of polls). Hence, it is in the interest of both parties (ruling and opposition) to identify winnable candidates and strengthening their grassroots support through regular campaigning. I believe both sides are working equally hard at the grass root level to gain support.
    In short, Bersih organizers and supporters should not view the campaign period as a key determining factor to ensure fair elections. Again, they have deceived the public and caused unnecessary anger.

    5. Free and fair access to mediaIt is no secret that the Malaysian mainstream media fails to practice proportionate, fair and objective reporting for political parties of all divide. Bersih 2.0 calls on the EC to press for all media agencies, especially state-funded media agencies such as Radio and Television Malaysia (RTM) and Bernama to allocate proportionate and objective coverage for all political parties.
    RESPONSE:
    I feel this is a lob-sided request by Bersih 2.0. Free and fair access to media has been a hot topic of debate since Tun Mahathir’s time. At the same time, we are aware of the existence of alternative media which provide differing views which are sometimes being perceived as unfairly critical of one side or the other.
    Lets look at some facts.
    According to ITU (United Nation specialized agency for ICT), Malaysia has 17 million internet users in 2010. According to Nielsen research in 2010, newspaper in Malaysia has approximately 15 million readership (54% of population).
    Malaysiakini recorded 1 million visitor in January 2011. For one year, it is estimated the total visitor is around 12 million people. And remember, we have other online news portal such as Malaysia Insider, Malaysia Reserve, etc.
    On another data by Malaysian Digital Association (MDA) in April 2011, Malaysiakini recorded higher number of unique visitors at 2.7 million compared to the Star online at 2.4 million.
    Therefore, if you compare the mainstream news vis-à-vis the alternative / online media, the equal number of visitors/ readers for both shows equal playing field if you want to view it politically. Why Bersih is making a big fuss out of this ?
    Another strong point to note is that the Government does not ban or censor Malaysiakini, Malaysian Insider or any other internet portals must be viewed as a significant step compared to other countries. Despite much provocation from opposition-leaning portals, the Malaysian government has kept to its commitment of free and open Internet since the launching of the Multimedia Super Corridor, and I think the Government deserves a bit more credit for not emulating China in this regard.
    In recent times, we have seen the birth of “invisible & anonymous online cybertroopers” whose job is to consistently post negative comments on any article that appear in various Internet portals.
    Whilst we all know that these are either planned or posted by a small handful of individuals, we have not witnessed any censorship from the Government on the strings of unintelligent and provocative postings, including comments relating and blaming everything on the present Government.
    The silent majority knows that most of the comments posted online at Malaysia Kini and Malaysia Insider are fabricated / scripted by certain quarters. Postings / ramblings such as “Hidup Pakatan”, “Wait for the next GE”, “Lets vote PR”, “Government bodoh”, etc are “recycled” and appeared in different articles.
    If we want to scrutinize further, Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider journalists have the tendency to post a negative title to capture the attention of the readers/ visitors. This makes certain quarters feel that the online-media are pro opposition.
    So to sum it all, both political parties have equal playing field judging from the number of readers/visitors for both mainstream and alternative media. To allow fair reporting for all political parties, my view is that Bersih 2.0 must also call for the EC to ensure that online media such as Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider practice proportionate, fair and balanced reporting.

    6. Strengthen public institutionsPublic institutions must act independently and impartially in upholding the rule of law and democracy. Public institutions such as the Judiciary, Attorney-General, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC), Police and the EC must be reformed to act independently, uphold laws and protect human rights. In particular, the EC must perform its constitutional duty to act independently and impartially so as to enjoy public confidence. The EC cannot continue to claim that they have no power to act, as the law provides for sufficient powers to institute a credible electoral system.

    RESPONSE:
    I fail to comprehend how Bersih 2.0 can make this call for “reform” of the institutions mentioned, when the Government has been doing precisely this for several years now, beginning with the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police, the establishment of the Judicial Appointments Commission, as well as the establishment of the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission.
    In other words, the transformation of various national institutions is an ongoing process. And so, rather than continuing to lambast and ridicule vital institutions of the state such as the MACC and the police, I suggest that the Opposition and their friends in Bersih 2.0 should start being more productive and suggest concrete measures to transform our institutions for the better.
    This is especially true for the Elections Commission. Other than continued calls from the Opposition for the EC to “report to Parliament” (what does that mean, anyway? Who is Parliament should they report to? How would reporting to a committee made up of squabbling politicians be any improvement from the current way that the EC is established?), we have not heard any specific and concrete measures to improve the EC.
    Stop hiding behind vague rhetorical statements, and try to be more specific and concrete about what changes you propose to make.

    7. Stop corruptionCorruption is a disease that has infected every aspect of Malaysian life. BERSIH 2.0 and the rakyat demand for an end to all forms of corruption. Current efforts to eradicate corruption are mere tokens to appease public grouses. We demand that serious action is taken against ALL allegations of corruption, including vote buying.

    RESPONSE:
    I agree and support Bersih 2.0’s call for war on Corruption. I am totally behind this as no one likes or condones corrupt practices in this country.
    It took me several days to study this in greater depth and looking at what the present Government is doing vis-à-vis other countries. I am very passionate to share my findings with my fellow Malaysians who are there in KL raving about corruption.
    My view can be simplified as follow.
    Fighting corruption is an on-going battle, and I believe each country have to come up with preventive measures to curb corruption. When I looked at developed countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States, it took them more than 10 years to fight corruption to a level where it is acceptable by global standards.
    One of my ex-colleague is in a top 3 global investment bank and she had the opportunity to sit in to listen to the Government Transformation Programme (GTP as popularly known in Malaysia) update during an analyst roadshow in Singapore and Hong Kong. From her discussion with many other analyst, Malaysia has placed a number of significant game changer initiatives to prevent corruption and this is clearly reflect in the GTP annual report (which I’m told can be downloaded for free).
    As this most hotly debated topic in Malaysia, I did some research on the web to get a better understand on what she meant by “significant game changer initiatives”.
    For the first time, a Whistle Blower Act has been gazetted and now every Malaysians can submit a case and his/her identity will be protected. This is something new for all of us in Malaysia.
    Next was the announcement of 18 corruption courts expedite corruption cases so that swift action can be taken. I think this is a brilliant idea! Not many countries have this.
    From the MACC website, I found out more than 800 people have been arrested for corruption in 2010 alone. And 200 + confirmed cases have been published on the MACC website with names, IC number and photographs. This is indeed a significant milestones for this country if you ask me. I think we are following closely the Hong Kong model. For the record, ICAC of Hong Kong do publish the statistics of the convicted cases on their website.
    I also managed to check how transparent the Government is in publishing the government award contracts, I have found this website called MyProcurement. Quite rough but it fits the purpose of listing more than 3,000 government award contracts. Not bad if you think about it.
    Overall, although more can be said about Malaysia’s effort in fighting corruption, I feel Malaysia in the recent time has made leaps and bounds to build preventive measures.
    At the end of the day, the corruption case may not reduce to zero overnight, but as a Malaysian, we have to give some credit on MACC’s effort.
    Coming back to Bersih 2.0. Yes, I do support this demand/request by them. In fact, Bersih should work with the Government to bring the corruption cases along with the evidence forward as they have 18 corruption courts to expedite the matter. Anyone can make vague and unsubstantiated claims about corruption. Why Bersih 2.0 did not bring forward actual corrupt cases and work with MACC or EC remains unclear.
    So Bersih should stop riding on this demand knowing the fact that Malaysia is doing everything they possibly can to fight corruption. In fact, stop being rhetoric about such pronouncement of intent. Rather, please work with MACC and bring solid corruption cases ! The public at large are sick of talk and debating about rhetoric stuff and all we need is to bring more corruption cases forward!

    8. Stop dirty politicsMalaysians are tired of dirty politics that has been the main feature of the Malaysian political arena. We demand for all political parties and politicians to put an end to gutter politics. As citizens and voters, we are not interested in gutter politics; we are interested in policies that affect the nation.

    RESPONSE

    If there is one demand from Bersih 2.0 that I like, then this will be it. We must stop dirty politics on both sides.

    Politics in Malaysia is still at infancy stage. Fact based argument is often twisted to inject doubt in the society. Racial sentiments are always played to spark racial divide. Personal allegation and remarks between political leaders are often chosen as the best method as opposed to fact based arguments or healthy intellectual debate.

    If you look in the last 10 years, the existence of a digital community has changed the landscape on how we think and altered our perception on they how we view a particular subject. More predominantly when everyone can express themselves through a combination of facts, fiction, lies and emotions on the web (i.e blogs, online media), then things start to change. This is coupled with the existence of “invisible cyber troopers” (from both sides) starting to post comments on negative things about this country.

    Slowly but surely most of us in Malaysia are now blaming the Government’s education system for our kids’ lack of achievement despite given scholarship, good residential schools, etc. We blame the Government for the high cost of living despite having the lowest interest rate for car loans, property loans, etc. We blame the Government for not giving the rakyat enough subsidy despite being one of the most highly subsidized countries in the world. We blame the Government for not having sufficient investors into the country despite our Bursa Malaysia reaching 6 times record high in 2011 alone, etc.

    I hope we do not come to a stage where we blame the Government for climate change too.

    On the statement by Bersih 2.0 on “ we are interested in policies that affect the nation”, I managed to do a quick research about the Government Transformation Programme and the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) that the Najib administration talked about. After hours of research and reading, I almost fainted to count the number of articles and report from financial analyst/economists around the world on the national transformation agenda. Whether it has impact or not, one thing for sure the stock market in Malaysia has record high at 1580 points in 2011. That excludes that the fact the our stock Market has reach at least 5 times record high in 6 months of 2011 !

    I mean, on one hand we demand “policies that affect the nation”, one one hand we forgot about the very achievements which are taking place infront of our eyes.

    Dear fellow Malaysians, reading and observing how we act as a country, for a homogenous society, we need to embrace and forgive our differences.

    We should be grateful. Malaysia is blessed with so many positive things surrounding us vis-à-vis our neighbouring country.

    Each of us have a role to play.

    Rallying and street demonstration doesn’t guarantee a better future.

    Let’s stop the bickering and dirty politics.

  • Posted by BlindedBugis

    malaysia is a police state-practices racial discrimination. The Malay elites have cheated the poor Malays-one look at the photographs will show that this is a class war between the Malaysians. If the Malay electorate were happy -why 70% of the demonstrators are Malays-the government has cheated the Malay population-look at the corruption in Malaysia !

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