Monday, July 18, 2011

Fire lit by Bersih not so easily doused

Bersih activists holding a rally in support of electoral reforms in downtown Kuala Lumpur earlier this month. Police fired tear gas and detained hundreds of activists as demonstrators staged Malaysia's biggest street protest in years. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

THE Bersih rally could not have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Najib Razak. The Malaysian leader flew off as scheduled on a high-profile international trip a day after tear gas choked Kuala Lumpur earlier this month.

By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief

He first landed in Turkmenistan, a suitably quiet first leg of the journey. Things got considerably rougher after that, when he flew to London for a meeting last Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron. His last stop will be the Vatican, where he will meet the Pope today.

In London, Datuk Seri Najib was greeted by Malaysians waving yellow placards condemning the crackdown on the Bersih rally. But compared with the roasting he received in the British press, that was nothing.

Guardian newspaper columnist Simon Tisdall derided the use of water cannon and tear gas to break up the protest: 'Malaysia's leaders should wake up and smell the coffee. Led intelligently and openly, Malaysia could be a paradigm for South-east Asia. Led repressively, it could fall apart.'

Bloomberg columnist William Pesek asked: 'What can we make of a leader who promised reform and moderation and now sounds like a Roman emperor?'

There has been no indication that Mr Najib has been affected by such barbs. His meetings in London have gone off well, and he came across as a polished, articulate leader in televised news reports about the business deals he was hoping to strike on his trip.

That aside, the Malaysian PM's carefully crafted reformist image has taken a beating. In the span of a weekend, he has gone from a popular prime minister with an approval rating of over 70 per cent to a figure derided by many Malaysians. A page on Facebook calling for his resignation has been 'liked' by 193,000 people to date.

Mr Najib has taken to social media to connect with those he often calls the Rakyat (Bahasa Melayu for 'citizens', but this bland translation does not convey the affection the word carries). But the announcement of his trip overseas drew abusive comments from Malaysians - a rarity before Bersih.

Since coming to power, Mr Najib has promised widespread reforms, from kick-starting the sluggish economy to improving democracy. But the crackdown on the Bersih rally shows that the democracy plank lacks substance.

In essence, the rally sparked widespread fears within the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and Umno: Like its predecessor in 2007, Bersih 2.0 could reignite pro-opposition fervour among the populace.

There were concerns that Malaysia's opposition, which is losing its appeal because of internal strife and the travails of its leader Anwar Ibrahim, could climb on the back of the civil society initiative to regain momentum. Indeed, the sight of Datuk Seri Anwar and other opposition leaders at the rally lent currency to these fears.

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, whose group staged a countermarch - but drawing only 500 supporters - said as much. He had no quarrel with Bersih's aims, he said, just its methods and the possibility that it could be a Trojan horse for an assault by the opposition.

The question remains, then, why Mr Najib did not take the escape route offered by the King, who met Bersih's organisers and persuaded them to call off the street march. Bersih's subsequent decision to hold its rally in a stadium - an idea that was first broached by Mr Najib himself - dismayed its supporters. A stadium rally with government sanction would have given the movement little street cred.

But the authorities refused to allow a rally in any stadium within the city. This, it appears, was the turning point.

As Bersih chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan confessed: If the government had allowed the Bersih rally to proceed in the stadium and 'played it down', it would not have attracted a turnout in the tens of thousands.

So why didn't Mr Najib take this route? Analysts believe pressure from conservative elements within Umno and the police are responsible. Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was said to have pushed hard for a firm crackdown.

Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads the think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said the pressure on Mr Najib was intense. He said conservatives thought that allowing a rally, even one in a stadium, to proceed would be tantamount to bowing to the demands of a movement supported by the opposition.

Madam Ambiga had been labelled as anti-Islam and anti-Malay by the Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia newspaper and the Malay supremacist group Perkasa. She had previously led the Bar Council, which had supported, among other things, a dialogue on the sensitive topic of Muslim conversions.

By and large, Mr Najib has sought to avoid upsetting powerful elements within his party. He has already watered down unpopular measures, such as rolling back pro-Malay policies, in the face of their strident complaints.

But with the Bersih crackdown still continuing - police are warning people against wearing Bersih T-shirts, for example - Mr Najib has a mountain to climb.

One way for him to regain ground would be to accelerate the roll-out of major infrastructure projects like the Mass Rapid Transit and boost spending. He has already launched various measures to help the middle class, such as government schemes to provide cheap housing and food.

But the fire lit by Bersih may not be so easily doused. Mr Najib will probably find that regaining the trust he had enjoyed will take some doing.