Photo: Pocket News on flickr

Photo: Pocket News on flickr

To maximise the pro-democracy movement’s potential, Malaysians must make the politics of struggle the politics of everyday life.

Even though the event was hijacked by autocrats like former PM Mahathir, the success of Malaysia’s recent clean politics rallies, Bersih 4, lies in civic empowerment.

Malaysians who cheered the double appearance of Dr M most likely felt he was united with them in calling for current Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation. His presence as an establishment figure gave added legitimacy to Bersih’s non-partisan nature.

More cynical Malaysians remember that it was Mahathir’s undoing of the institutions that brought Malaysia to its current low point. They understand too well the compelling power that authoritarian leaders like him still command from the uncritical and ‘Obey Lah’ herd.

They hope that Mahathir’s appearance at Bersih can change UMNO supporters’ hostility towards the pro-democracy movement, or at least signal a humble swallowing of pride about all he had previously stated about street protests leading to anarchy and chaos.

After all, here he was, first appearing only as a six-minute flash mob (how hip!) and then on Sunday, an hour-long press conference at a peaceful mass demonstration.

However, Mahathir displayed disingenuousness when he said he was there to support the rakyat (people) and not Bersih. For what is Bersih’s interest if not the rakyat? In fact for him to show up and use Bersih as a media platform but simultaneously disassociate himself from its demands showed utter disrespect for Bersih and concurrently, the rakyat whom he purportedly supports but regards only as followers rather than equals.

However, Bersih (as an event and as what Hannah Arendt labels a “space of appearance”) presents a very different picture of politics and citizenship, one far removed from the patronage politics of UMNO past and present.

In The Human Condition, Arendt defined politics as the way power comes to be constituted when people come together as talking and acting beings.[1] Ordinary people have the potential of producing power just as all humans are born to do something or act. Politics is formed through democratic collective action in the public sphere.

This public sphere or space of appearance is exactly what the organisers of Bersih 4 provided for Malaysians to come together to express and assert the will of the people: to have clean elections, a corruption-free government, the right to dissent, and more ambiguously, to save the economy. None of this could even begin to happen unless the current PM, mired by the mother of all scandals, 1MDB, were to step down.

So how does Bersih activate our citizenship?

By the brazen wearing of the yellow Bersih 4 t-shirts (banned the night before), then occupying central KL over 34 hours, sleeping on the streets, and treating the protest as a carnival zone (the air filled with the cacophony of vuvuzelas, balloons, speeches, songs and funny placards like “Najib Worse Than My Ex”).

Dr M attempts to hijack Berish 4. Photo: The Malaysian Insider

Dr M attempts to hijack Berish 4. Photo: The Malaysian Insider

As many others have emphasised, street protest is the last resort for the mainly conservative average Malaysian whose sole exercise of democratic citizenship occurs once every six years at the ballot box. Well, that and paying taxes.

But lately it has become an unconventional way to exercise one’s claims to citizenship, what Isin and Nielsen call “acts of citizenship, which create a sense of the possible and of a citizenship that is ‘yet to come’”.[2]

Protesting against the impossible present (of gross corruption, the dire economic situation, weakened state institutions) suggests a strong desire to see a better Malaysia in the future, a desire motivated by a deep belief in moderation, justice and fair play.

As Isin and Nielsen argue, such acts of citizenship “implicitly ask questions about a future responsibility towards others.” An example is when protestors claim that they are protesting for the sake of future generations.

It is important to note that such acts of citizenship constitute the Malaysian as an ethical, civic-minded subject; one who cleans up the streets before going home, who donates free food and water in solidarity with protesters, who becomes the Toilet Man, who observes silence out of respect for Muslims during prayers and who, at previous Bersih rallies when sprayed with tear gas, extended acts of solidarity and kindness towards strangers.[3] On the streets during Bersih, the same civic national goals unite Malaysians across ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality and age.

But away from the “space of appearance,” how do acts of citizenship or civic power continue to be performed and asserted?

Asserting, continuing and recreating anew these acts of citizenship or fostering of the public realm is crucial since power, or its very potentiality (as conceived by Arendt), is only manifested through the gathering of people speaking and acting in concert. Power is when word and deed coincide, when online grouses against the government are realised offline through physical attendance at the street rally; after all, as Bonner says “to be a citizen requires that one appear through one’s words and deeds”.[4]

If Bersih protesters want to see the end of corruption and racism as perpetuated by the present government, how will they achieve this even if Najib stepped down? What responsibilities lie with the individual citizen after the mass demonstration? Is attending the rally the only defining point of one’s identity as a patriotic citizen? To cite 30-something Malaysian, Ahmad Yazid:

The change that they want can’t come from the two days being on the street. The change that they want need to also come from themselves.

We need to work on our own prejudices and corrupt mentality that we have. We need to stop bribing the police when we run over the red light. We need to stop thinking that only our religion is right and others’ are wrong.

We need to start serving the best ingredients to anyone regardless of race in our restaurants. We need to stop speaking to a person who is from our own race more than others in a group or social settings. We need to stop thinking that those who don’t share our beliefs are damned and going to hell. We just need to stop… and think if any of our action reflects on what we don’t like in our society now.

In the end, Bersih 4 requires some meditation on what we take for granted as citizens in our daily lives. It requires us to consider the subject that we as children too easily dismissed as a waste of study time, Tatarakyat or Civics.

What are our civic obligations in relation to the larger multicultural society we live in? What is in our Constitution? What are our rights? And how do we envision living and sharing the nation with each other? What is it like to be in someone else’s shoes? How can we treat each other respectfully as equals and humans first?

This covers basic courtesy and social awareness of not endangering and inconveniencing others through double parking, queue jumping, not flushing in public toilets, littering, and bribing petty officials.

Without these fundamental values and consciousness, and without connecting words and deeds, that power will only ever be latent in its potentiality and not manifested in the politics of our everyday lives.[5]

Gaik Cheng Khoo is Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.


[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Intro. Margaret Canovan, (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1958).

[2] Engin F Isin and Greg M. Nielsen (eds), Acts of Citizenship, (London: Zed Books, 2008).

[3] Nathaniel Tan (ed), 9 July 2011 What Really Happened, (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Kinibooks, 2011).

[4] Kieran Bonner, “Arendt’s Citizenship and Citizen Participation in Disappearing Dublin,” in Engin F Isin and Greg M Nielsen (eds), Acts of Citizenship, (London: Zed Books, 2008), 137-159.

[5] “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities” (Arendt, 200).