Apart from the apparent show of socially-progressive bills before a potentially difficult election period, at least some of the reasoning behind this incredibly rushed approval process was to minimise debates and amendments wherever possible. The enactment of any one law is a serious matter. Pushing through 8 bills in one day is downright irresponsible, and demonstrates a true lack of initiative on our current administration's part to take our laws seriously.
As I write this, many of the unsavoury events running up to Bersih 2.0 has already likewise shadowed Bersih 3.0. Different public departments have passed the responsibility of approving, disproving, enabling and ultimately blacklisting the assembly of Bersih between them, from the Home Ministry to KL City Hall to our police force. Merdeka Square, where the Union Jack was first lowered, and our nation's flag first raised on August 31, 1957, lies barricaded in razor wire. Our mainstream media has carefully avoided the issue and independent sources are being stymied. Major roads into the heart of KL are being barricaded overnight, even as people gather in the streets in anticipation. Even overseas, with special mention of us Malaysians here in the United States, threatening emails have been reportedly sent to students studying abroad on public grants saying in no small terms their scholarships are like to be revoked if they are caught participating in these 'anti-government' activities.
I would like to preface the rest of this post by saying that I support Bersih's goals for cleaner and fairer elections. My heart goes out to each and every one of my fellow Malaysians who are rallying, from Auckland to San Francisco, and definitely the people who are marching in the streets of my home city, Kuala Lumpur. I have been and will be following every scrap of news I can get from home. Every time they cheer, I will be happy. Every time they fall -- because preliminary reports confirm that the tear gas and water cannons have begun, it feels like a part of myself is being ripped away. I love my city, and I love my country. I am proud that Malaysians from the full breadth of our rainbow are coming together and doing this for a better democratic process. These people are my people. Their culture is a huge part of who I am. It hurts to see photos of streets and landmarks I recognise, seeing the parts of KL being smothered in thick clouds of tear gas, being able to fill in the surroundings with memories from my childhood.
When I attended Bersih 2.0 in San Francisco last year, people were nice to us. We were some of the few mixed race couples there. As with any gathering of Malaysians, I am often anxious that my husband and I would not be accepted. My parents are a mixed-race couple, and while I was lucky to grow up in their circle of families and people like us, I have seen firsthand what happens outside of it. This is almost always less true of Malaysians abroad, who share a perspective that is uniquely Malaysian and uniquely other.
A lot has happened since last year. Since then, Malaysians have been emboldened to act on their beliefs by rallying for all sorts of reasons, some positive, some not. It's like a fervour of acting on our feet has gripped the nation, culminating in the massive Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) rally, against the opening of a proposed rare earth processing plant by Lynas Corp. in Kuantan. It is this last rally that has particularly soured me to the notion of assembling for a cause. The basic premise of the anti-Lynas rally was a real failure on the part of the government to inform and educate citizens of a rare earth processing plant being constructed within 30km of residential areas. Malaysia's last experience with rare earth processing was an environmental tragedy, shushed up, paid up and locked away out of court. Lynas's plant only came to light after it was reported in the New York Times, when it was nearly complete. Adding fuel to the fire were two factors. The first was that at the time of the NY Times report, Lynas had yet to come up with a viable long-term storage plan for its radioactive thorium waste, even though the report itself gave vague hints of a potentially green method of recycling the waste. The second was that the whistleblowing, as it were, came in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The mood was filled with fear of a potential radioactive fallout. People were understandably angry at the lack of consensus or information about Lynas's construction. They organised. They rallied, en masse, calling for the closure of the plant in their community. But the real tragedy about the Lynas plant wasn't that people stood up for themselves. The real tragedy of Lynas was that although its basic premise was one of lack of disclosure, and more broadly, any number of crucial environmental questions, from the tightening of our environmental standards to our own love affair with rampant consumerism -- creating the market that makes Lynas viable, these were virtually not at all the issues that mattered.
Instead, the Lynas plant in Kuantan became the focal point of decades of bitterness and mistrust against the government, and by proxy, the same political parties that have ruled it, for the past 55 years. Supporting Himpunan Hijau became a catch-phrase for supporting a change of government, while having any other opinion, even a cautionary voice against the growing and sometimes blatant misinformation on both sides, meant you were in some ways a government goon. It was painful to read responses to the few well-articulated articles that did emerge, asking what if? What if the real potential for kickstarting an industry presently vital to green technologies and doing it better on our shores could happen? What if expertise trickling from this new industry helped create the expertise (and interest) in researching ways to improve green technologies, so that rare earths are no longer needed to manufacture them? What if the plant had been built outside of Malaysia? Would we still have cared how the ingredients for our iPhones and solar panels affected the communities they came from?
The vast majority of the responses to these questions were inevitably, "Then you live next to the factory," or, "You support X government party".
To add some perspective on why the responses to any discussion about consumerism and the environment particularly hurt, I have a story to tell about Bersih 2.0. I was talking to my parents over the phone in Malaysia as Bersih 2.0 was happening on the streets of KL. My father, a diehard techie, was more excited about the large crowd lining up outside the Apple Center downtown for the latest i-gadget. Consider for a second that when Bersih 2.0 happened, the police had erected blockades into the city overnight, that as these people were waiting in a mall, tens of thousands of Malaysians were marching in the streets, facing riot police, being teargassed and water canonned.
The political opposition pulled no punches in egging on the public against the Lynas plant, feeding the hatred of the government as it feeds their potential voters in the coming elections. As with the last two Bersih rallies, the political opposition is pulling no stops in trying to co-opt the upcoming gathering of 84 civil societies as its own too. Last year, the de facto leader of the People's Alliance (PKR) went so far as to claim he could personally call off the Bersih rally altogether if a go-ahead was given for clean and fair elections. That was rather promptly refuted by Bersih coalition leadership (as seen in the short video clip linked here).
I joined the Bersih 2.0 gathering in San Francisco last year out of patriotism, and because I wanted to show that you can stand for civil rights in Malaysia without also representing a political affiliation. I believe, firstly, that assembly is a last resort, when all other avenues of being heard fail. In the past 9 months since Bersih 2.0, people have stood up for Lynas, as well as against the LGBT community and the alleged conversion of Muslims into Christians. The spectrum of freedom of speech, as we who live overseas quickly learn, is broad. But here, unlike in America or Europe, neither the LGBT community nor the people championing greater religious choice are able to retaliate with opposing gatherings -- certainly not without fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. Maybe a diverse coalition of people from all walks of life marching for greater democracy will change that perspective. I hope so, yet I wonder.
I do not like our current administration. But I don't like our alternative either. I think in many ways, both the government and the opposition are products of, and continuos contributors to, the poisoned political, social and cultural climate that has taken over my country. Whichever poison you pick: Islamism, a legacy of British Colonial-era racial profiling, the Malay political elite, a grandstanding rather than constructive stance to policy; this is true from both a historical perspective as well as in the present. I don't think our only alternative should be the one choice either. There are different perspectives we can still take -- voting based on individual candidates' capabilities rather than along party lines. Even if the party line is your choice, there are still options. There are independent candidates to think of, and less well-known political parties (slim as they are) who may contest under the government or opposition banners. For example, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (linked to wiki as their official website is currently down) fights for progressive, worker-oriented issues. Or, if our country's politics makes you blanch, which it does to me, put your support into the civil rights movements of Malaysia, who are the real instigators of change. Yes, like Bersih, its component NGOs and people you may not ever have heard about. To cite another example, Loyar Burok runs great political awareness and civil rights workshops for our youth, not just in Malaysia, but in the Malaysian diaspora abroad, so that they don't feel disconnected from their heritage.
Unfortunately, this close to a general election, with predictions ranging from weeks to months, I do believe Bersih 3.0 runs the incredibly high risk of being primarily a walking advertisement for the political opposition. Part of the reason that Bersih 3.0 was even called, when not even a year had passed since the last rally, was that there is this strong feeling in the air, the government will call an election soon to ride on the back of its baby steps in democratic reform. I don't want to think of the good work the NGOs behind Bersih put into Malaysia, for and beyond the rally, being piggybacked by people I think are honestly detrimental to diversity in my country, in as much as they are part of the rainbow.
Nothing has changed about how I feel regarding the people participating in Bersih. I respect them, I admire them, and I believe in what they're doing. I just don't know if joining them this time, via the San Francisco Bersih rally tomorrow morning, is what I want to do for Malaysia. Maybe I just don't have the love or democracy in me to stand beside the metaphorical PETA people and the Islamists who would throw me and people like me into a detention centre for apostates and GLBTs. Or maybe I'm reading the news, seeing the rhetoric and honestly wishing I could see hope.