By: Suresh Nair
NEW brooms sweep clean, so we learn from schooldays. But over the weekend, across the Causeway, Bersih (Clean in Malay) continued its people-spirited movement for change.
In just five years, it has succeeded where many other similar groups have failed. It has brought together Malaysians from all walks of life and ethnic, religious, economic and social backgrounds in one common cause: To demand better governance from those who wish to lead Malaysians.
Bersih, as a six-letter word, is the common name for a coalition of Malaysian NGOs, which seeks to clean up the country’s electoral process and also demand the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak as his critics sought to maintain pressure on the premier over a funding scandal.
Perhaps the most poignant words were uttered by former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is seen as making a spectacular political comeback. “We want honest and clean government,” he repeatedly said. “I must appeal to all of you (to) set aside all our differences, so that we may face (BN) on a one-to-one basis.”
His speech was spontaneous and off the cuff. There were no tele-prompters. He spoke in English and Malay, sending the crowd wild with jubilation as few expected the former Umno Baru strongman to push for real democratic government that he even overshadowed former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had spoken before him.
“Muhyiddin is at his best and rising to the people’s occasion,” says senior journalist Rahman Talib. “From his words, you could feel he has undergone a political rebirth from his political pariahdom. His reincarnation has been both elating and confusing.”
The six-letter word “change” was top of Muhyiddin’s fiery outburst. Change in the next general election since “the government does not care about you, they only care about themselves…they have sold our pride. Malaysians must show that we are united, irrespective of where we come from”.
But is Bersih 5 really clean, ask the critics?
Those who fear Bersih have labelled it as a foreign-funded agent out to overthrow a democratically-elected government. And remand orders were flushed out to about a dozen prominent organisers and participants of Saturday’s demonstration that saw between 50,000-60,000 people paint the capital city yellow.
Even middle-aged mothers and grandmothers are charged under new laws that were meant to counter the threat of terrorism, spending their weekend as the guests of the Royal Malaysian Police.
Najib called the Bersih movement “deceitful” and accused opposition parties for using the man-in-the-street to pressure the government to step down before its term is over, according to a posting on his blog.
“The silent majority of people are fed up with the tactics of the opposition,” Najib says. “They just want the government to deliver for them, and that is what my team and I will continue to do.”
What overthrow, asks Perak-based homemaker Geraldine Ebert? She says what the “incumbent political leaders, the authorities, police and critics of Bersih, Red Shirts included, fail to understand is that Bersih is not trying to overthrow anyone”.
From Ipoh, where the Ebert family has been staying for three decades, she said: “I view it as a necessary inconvenience to those who had intended to spend their weekend in the city differently. There were many people-revolutions in many cities here and across the globe,” she adds. “Yes, I’m of the opinion that any overthrowing has to be done at the ballot box in an election and the message is clear: The people want change now.”
In quick opinion polls, Bersih 5 is generally viewed as a timely reminder to the ruling class that their power comes from the people and they would be wise to heed their concerns, instead of viewing and treating Bersih as an insurgent movement.
“Bersih must protect its legitimacy as a people’s movement,” says retired educationist S. Arumugam, 66, from Penang. “You can appreciate the mileage it gives politicians, but if they are serious about protecting Bersih and its organisers from accusations of being an opposition tool, then the best thing to do is to back off and support from behind.”
On the other side of the coin, allegations of corruption and abuse of power have ceased to be the exclusive ownership of the Barisan Nasional. There’re groups who worry that the “same money-can-buy-everything in Malaysia” may come around when the alternative front does take power in Putrajaya one day.
“Will that be the end of Bersih, too? Or should it continue as a noisy check and balance?,” asks businessman Syed Latiff, 49, from Johor Baru. “I believe for Bersih to be really successful in getting the ears of our leaders, it would be best to allow the people to lead it.”
For the moment, with Mahathir and Muhyiddin in the forefront, the presence, participation and now the leadership of politicians in Bersih have seen it evolve into something other than a simple demand for good governance and fair elections.
But for it to be a genuine people-oriented power base, the people have to lead and speak their minds as this may well be the only way the incumbent government will cease to rain abuse and mistreatment on this movement.
And, more seriously and sensibly, actually listen to what the people have to say.
Retiree Francis Leong, 56, from Malacca, said: “The weekend’s peaceful demonstrations have helped Bersih to get more attention, (and) in many places have caused the police to behave more professionally (when handling with protestors) than in the past, where strong-armed tactics made it very ugly.”
Brooms, old or new, must always sweep clean. Bersih must continue to be the call from the heads, hearts and hands for a challenging change which Malaysians have been crying for a very long time.