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The King's Edict

In a rare move 3 days ago, the King of Malaysia issued an edict calling on both the Bersih coalition and the federal government to negotiate their differences amicably. Forward to this edict, the Bersih coalition requested, and were granted, an audience with the King to find a compromise that would be deemed gracious for all sides. The audience involved only representatives of the Bersih coalition and the royal party, without the presence of the Prime Minister, members of the ruling administration or the political opposition, to leave as little doubt as possible about the non-partisan nature of this intervention.

The solution they arrived at was that the Bersih rally would proceed on July 9th, but in a stadium. Before I go into the implications of this, there are a couple of points I feel that are worth explaining.

It appears to be implied, based on the King's official text, that the choice of having the rally in a stadium is so any negative social effects of a mass demonstration could be contained. Malaysia is still an essentially conservative country. Demonstrations are not new to us, as our founders protested for a variety of different democratic reasons under the British, and these protests helped solidify the call for independence. But demonstrations also carry connotations of social disorder and chaos to the Malaysian psyche, buoyed by our strong connection to cultures (whether Malay, Chinese, Indian or any of the native ethnicities) in which the greater good of the community does often come first. Part of the fear of demonstrations was reinforced by the May 13 race riots of 1969. The riots occurred in Kuala Lumpur, where I lived for most of my life, and is particularly significant to residents there, although its effects have been deeply felt nationwide ever since. I wasn't born yet when the riots happened, but my father, who lived with his family as a young man in KL at the time, has always indicated it was a scary period in our history. People were afraid of leaving their houses. There were all sorts of nasty rumous about violence against people for being Malay, Chinese or Indian.

The social environment of the time also carries some similarities with the situation in Malaysia today. Most normal Malaysians were then, as they are now, on fairly neighbourly terms with each other. However, there were palpable underlying differences in the economic statuses between different ethnicities. Strong affirmative action programs have created a larger Malay middle class in the past four decades, but Malay participation in all sectors of the economy, especially at the upper echelons, is still deemed unsatisfactory. If Malays believed they could not achieve the wealth or educational level of their peers from other ethnicities in 1969, then the affirmative action policies put into place afterwards has created the same effect for non-Malays today. By the time I was in primary school in the mid-80s, we knew non-Malay family and friends who felt compelled to migrate, because they believed they could no longer get ahead in their careers or education with the quotas imposed specifically for Bumiputeras (Malays and native ethnicities) at all institutions. When I was a teenager, in the late 90s, I knew non-Malay classmates who actually saw no future for themselves in the country. Many of them believed their only chance at a higher education was to enter a pricey private college, because public colleges were subject to Bumiputera quotas, and a good entry-level job was ideally abroad.

Then, as now, different segments of society stoked the flames of racism and religion as a daily, visible, even mainstreamed part of our country's political life. These different segments would accuse each other of selling one race or the other out in the popular media. Then, as now, Malay supremacy as a concept was contested, publically separating our multi-racial community between those who are pureblooded Malaysians, and those who are merely born on Malaysian soil, and thus muddied. Then, as now, Malaysians argued for a "Malaysian Malaysia", a nation that embraces and acknowledges plural Malaysian society, that does not put any one race and/or religion above the other.

Potentially above and beyond all this stands the King, who represents the very heart of Malaysia's historical and traditional administration, that is, the Malay Sultanates that have historically ruled nine of our thirteen states. The position of the King of Malaysia is a democratic institution, a point that at least as I remember it, kids in school are often quite proud of. The Sultan of each state may have been born into the role, but ours is one of the few countries where the King is elected. Each King is elected into office by the Conference of Rulers, a council comprised of the nine rulers of the historical Malay states and four governors of the remaining states. The chosen King rules for a single five-year term and may not be elected for a consecutive term. As with other constitutional monarchies, the King's role is largely ceremonial, with his most important discretionary powers pertaining to the appointment of the Prime Minister and dissolving Parliament.

Whatever their personal views of the monarchy, I believe most Malaysians would defer to the King, and would not, under normal circumstances, undermine or openly criticise his rule. To do so would be to ostracise a large swathe of popular support, as well as appear dangerously dismissive of Malaysia's historical roots. The ultimate goal of the first Bersih rally, and the upcoming Bersih 2.0 rally, was to present the people's demands for clean and fair elections to the King. Bersih achieved this in 2007. In 2011, the pre-emptive audience with the King is a positive development, as it enabled Bersih to present the people's demands early.

Having achieved their goal, however, it remains to be seen if Bersih can continue its momentum for change. The decision, with deference to His Majesty, to hold the rally in a stadium, puts the coalition in line with the federal government's goal of restricting both Bersih's influence and physical support. A stadium, unlike the streets of Kuala Lumpur, keeps the rally as much away from the public eye as possible. It also puts a hard restriction on the number of people allowed to join the rally.

Bersih has selected Stadium Merdeka, in Kuala Lumpur, as its venue for July 9th. The choice of Stadium Merdeka has great historic significance, as this was the spot where Malaysia's independence was first declared in 1957. As of yesterday, the Cabinet has rejected this request, as have the stadium's operators. The Information, Culture and Communications Minister has even gone so far as to state Bersih could hold the rally at any other stadium outside of the Federal Territory, such as in Selangor or Kelantan, both states currently run by the Pakatan Rakyat (the political opposition).

The implications of the Information Minister's statement cannot be understated, as it underlines the federal government's continued efforts to paint Bersih as a facade of the political opposition, ie. the political parties that will run against the ruling coalition in elections potentially held next year. This makes any negative fallout occurring during the rally, for whatever reason, squarely the fault of the political opposition, and in the larger view, that of the citizens deemed foolish enough to follow their lead. Not only does this help inflame citizens for Bersih who may support an opposition party, it denigrates all the other members of Malaysian civil society from every political, social and cultural affiliation who are in it to demand freer and fairer elections. Bersih 2.0 is a rally to request specific crucial reforms that ensures every Malaysian citizen has a fair go at their right to vote. Nowhere in that intention is a call to topple the current government or demand any change of face in the ruling administration.

Although the Prime Minister has said that he would help expedite obtaining permissions to use a stadium for the rally, which Bersih has aptly stated includes Stadium Merdeka, responsibility for giving that permission has now been passed onto the police. And while the police have indicated the rally permit process would also be expedited for Bersih, it remains to be seen if a permit will be given by July 9th.

Even more importantly, arrests and charges against Bersih participants have not ceased. The police have stated that citizens found with pro-Bersih paraphernalia will be arrested on the grounds of participating in an illegal organisation. The Bersih coalition, even in spite of receiving the King's permission to rally at a stadium, are still considered an outlawed group. Roadblocks have been set up throughout Kuala Lumpur in anticipation of the rally, restricting traffic into the city. And while all these things have been done with the publicised purpose of the people's safety, the difficult but understandable stance Bersih has had to take, deference to the King, and by proxy, the elected federal government, puts Malaysia's checks and balances in a precarious situation. The Malaysian people should have the largest say over their future. The privacy, dignity and right for each individual Malaysian to determine their elected government's direction is the right of the greater good.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 6th, 2011 11:59 pm (UTC)
Jul. 7th, 2011 02:34 pm (UTC)
your passion for Malaysia is a bit infectious.
Jul. 7th, 2011 07:06 pm (UTC)
I'm glad it is. I would rather not you caught my cold instead. :)
Jul. 7th, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
are you still sick? or are you sick again?!
Jul. 7th, 2011 08:04 pm (UTC)
I'm better, and got some real rest over the weekend. But I am still sniffly -- I cannot venture too far away from a tissue.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )