Mass rallies over the weekend proved a moderate victory for both sides of Malaysian politics.
It is far too early for any definitive judgement to be passed on last weekend’s events.
First, a process of patient, thoughtful and honest analysis is necessary.
And even if a clear verdict were possible, it would have to come from people closer to the action than I was.
All I can suggest is a very preliminary and tentative opinion from afar. And what I have to offer is not a simple view or verdict.
As I tried to follow events from Sydney, it occurred to me that the net result of the weekend’s action may be quite paradoxical. Meaning mixed. And mixed in an odd way.
The overall result of the Bersih weekend may have been –– in different ways for each of them, of course –– a modest but significant victory for both sides.
On Bersih’s side, the public rally –– in effect, a mass popular vote, “on-foot”, of no-confidence in their government –– seems to have succeeded. Not necessarily because of the great size of the turnout –– which seems to have been appreciably smaller than the numbers who came out for the second and third Bersih rallies –– but because it occurred at all.
The announced program of activities for Bersih 4.0 was ambitious: a rolling, continuing public rally spread over two days, under plans that would require very substantial numbers yet which would necessarily disperse the attendance and impact, rather than concentrate the presence and focus effect of the public demonstration of dissent.
There may have been good practical reasons for adopting that approach. Perhaps the lack of focus would make the action harder to disrupt, it may have been thought. But it was a strategic risk. It increased the event’s vulnerability to strong action.
And the police authorities made the most of their opportunity. As the protest weekend drew near, the intimations of strong counter-action by the police became ever more assertive and fear-inducing.
Those dire warnings from the police and their political masters may well have had a substantial effect. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many felt intimidated, were dissuaded, and decided to stay at home.
Yet despite those discouraging effects, the Bersih events took place, with some significant public support.
More, they took place peacefully. The eruption of violence was avoided, because the demonstrators proved disciplined, good-natured, and determined to stay within sensible bounds, and not to offer any provocation or ground for police intervention.
And, for their part, the police too apparently decided to “play a cool hand” and not to act forcefully without any clear and substantial reason to intervene.
The net effect of the non-confrontational attitude on both sides was to achieve something notable. With tacit police cooperation and consent, Bersih 4.0 showed that it is possible to hold a peaceful public assembly, rally and oppositional political demonstration.
In a place where the official view has long been that no such thing is possible, this represents a significant achievement. And once the point is established, can it later be denied? Will it become a de facto expectation?
What made this benign yet unanticipated outcome possible was, in part, police indulgence and toleration. The police and their political masters allowed things to evolve in that way.
Not, one supposes, out of the naive goodness of their own pure hearts but acting upon an intelligent appreciation of their own best interests.
It would not have been in their interest for the government or police to read international news and witness protests about the violent official disruption of a peaceable public rally by a movement for idealistic political reform.
Now that this has happened –– that the possibility of peaceful public assembly has been established, and that the police have displayed an ability and readiness to live with such forms of democratic activism –– it will be more difficult in future for the authorities to clamp down upon such public assemblies or to seek, on supposed grounds of their inherently and dangerously disruptive nature, to prohibit them in advance.
This must be counted as some sort of a popular victory. Even perhaps, in the longer run, a significant one.
So, on that side, a modest victory may have been registered.
What about the other side?
It would be easy to suggest that, in “zero-sum” fashion, any gain or victory on the Bersih side must entail an equal and corresponding loss or defeat on the side of the authorities.
But things may not be that simple.
Every day since Prime Minister Najib asserted his new-found political ruthlessness has been a test of his newly restructured political regime.
Every day that it avoids serious contestation, and every day that it survives overt challenge (or is not made to face one), it further consolidates itself, “normalises” the conditions under which it operates, and increases its legitimacy.
The Bersih weekend had long been in preparation. But once the governing framework was suddenly restructured in late July, Bersih 4.0 became an explicit challenge to the “new Najibian political order”.
That new order is, in its character and key personnel, a much tougher beast than its predecessor.
Especially as represented and personified by the new Deputy Prime Minister, Zahid Hamidi, and by the ever more assertive Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, working under him in the DPM’s substantive capacity as Home Affairs Minister, the new order is one that is conspicuously committed to what may be termed a “policing authoritarianism” approach.
That is the preference of those two key state and regime functionaries –– who, it seems, have been allowed the leeway to follow that approach and their inclinations towards it by a prime minister who is largely preoccupied with the matter of his own political reputability and survival.
It was as an expression of that inclination toward “policing authoritarianism” that the dire, intimidating pre-Bersih 4.0 warnings emanated.
These were warnings that had to be taken seriously. Those who issued them were clearly ready for and capable of that kind of action.
And yet, as they may have come to appreciate, there might be a heavy international cost to Malaysia’s new political order if its boldest members were to choose to have recourse to strong-arm methods to defend it against the Bersih demonstrators and their generally unexceptionable political challenge.
So, perhaps seeing discretion as the better part of political wisdom and self-interest as well as valour in this instance, they handled the Bersih demonstrators with remarkable good nature and affability, with considerable finesse and sound judgement.
The fact that the Bersih demonstration was handed well by the authorities, and did not result in unwelcome international criticism and adverse publicity, was a considerable plus for the “new Najibian political order”. A notable success, even a victory.
A plus was achieved and a costly minus was dodged. A serious risk of, and opportunity for, sustaining a damaging blow to the new order’s international standing and domestic legitimacy was avoided.
Hence the paradox: a new political order that is, and remains, closely identified with the “policing authoritarianism” approach managed to sidestep peril and so to further consolidate itself in a moment of some political danger by refraining from and avoiding the costs of –– rather than by turning to –– policing authoritarianism.
That too, on its side, must be counted as something of a victory.
But a victory for whom and what?
It is a further step forward –– and certainly the avoidance of a serious backward slip –– in the process of the consolidation of the new political order in Malaysia.
It can be seen as a victory for man who is both the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister and for his very like-minded Inspector–General of Police. It is a victory, through canny restraint and self-denial, for the policing authoritarian approach and for those identified with it who place its clear stamp upon the new political order.
But, while the avoidance of conspicuous unrest and disorder on the streets of Kuala Lumpur may have proved a plus –– or the avoidance of a minus –– for the regime and its emblematic strongmen, for PM Najib it provides no great longer-term comfort. It provides no answer to his underlying difficulties and dilemma, only some short-term respite and relief.
The victory on the “establishment” side of the weekend’s events was not his but that of the regime’s law-and-order strongmen.
That may seem a strange conclusion to draw from the outcome of what proved to be a generally peaceful weekend on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
But, at least arguably, policing authoritarianism as an approach and as a regime-doctrine has been promoted, or was at least shrewdly preserved last weekend, by a prudent abstention from recourse to policing authoritarianism, under unfavourable conditions and international inspection.
Yet Najib remains a bystander to that success, the success of his two main strongmen, and his prime ministership is in no evident way strengthened by it.
A paradoxical outcome.
A win/win situation, it would seem, for both Bersih and the leading “policing authoritarians”.
But for Najib too?
Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.