Photo: Astro AWANI/Shahir Omar.

Bersih 4 even attracted superheros. Photo: Astro AWANI/Shahir Omar.

Rallies for clean politics and free elections won’t immediately fix Malaysia’s democracy. But they do give insight into how both sides of the barricade approach political crisis and protest.

As Malaysia’s much-anticipated pro-democracy Bersih (Clean) 4 rally wound down and the last protesters made their way home to bathe and sleep, pundits and prognosticators sprang into action.

Was Bersih a success, and how might we know? What should we make of the participants/slogans/strategies/structure? In short: what can we learn about the state of Malaysia from the brief but storied life of Bersih 4?

My observations fall into three categories: insights into and implications for Malaysian civil society, Malaysian politics, and organising for collective political action more broadly.

Malaysian civil society
While (opposition) political parties were supportive and gaggles of politicians participated actively in Bersih 4, the originators and coordinators of Bersih were from civil society–specifically, a coalition of NGOs, headed by a secretariat.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, the implausible new hero of the remarkably forgiving (or forgetful?) activist masses, may now join the chorus calling for “people power.” But it was not his idea.

A few aspects are worth highlighting. First, the Bersih organisation managed to pull this rally off in a much shorter time than the original, elections-focused Bersih protests. The mass street protest has long been part of the Malaysian protest repertoire, but fairly frequent iterations since around 2007 have left Malaysians well-practiced.

Plans for the protracted 29-30 August rally hatched and developed fairly quickly over the course of a series of meetings in July and August 2015, amidst the combined saga of the woefully mismanaged 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and a purported approximately US $700 million “donation” to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), via Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal account.

Second, while the most prominent Malaysian politicians are overwhelmingly male–Keadilan’s Wan Azizah Wan Ismail might seem an exception, were she not so carefully styled as placeholder for her imprisoned husband, Anwar Ibrahim–women fully hold their own in civil society.

The Bersih baton passed from Ambiga Sreenevasan–still among the coalition’s most eloquent and fearless spokespeople–to Maria Chin Abdullah, and women play leading roles in a host of other movements and organisations, as well. That contrast suggests the blame for women’s stark under-representation in formal politics rests with party selection mechanisms or other structures; clearly Malaysian women are not disproportionately uninterested in politics or unengaged in the public sphere.

Bersih 2.0 chairwoman, Maria Chin Abdullah. Photo: Saw Siow Feng/ The Malay Mail Online.

Bersih 2.0 chairwoman, Maria Chin Abdullah. Photo: Saw Siow Feng/ The Malay Mail Online.

Third, notwithstanding Bersih’s civil societal parentage, the extent to which politicians from one side of the aisle seized the Bersih bully-pulpit indicates how deeply partisanship pervades civil society. Beyond Bersih, the long-term health both of civil society as a sphere, and of any sort of Malaysian democracy, recommends some critical distance between civil societal organisations and political parties: the former should feel entitled not only to critique the latter, but also to focus on different or narrower issues than a vote-maximizing party.

Fourth, while communalism looms over Malaysian public life and discourse, the non-zero-sum nature of civil society (most notably, there are no seats to be won and lost), the ability to home in on a narrowly defined issue or set of issues, and the incentives to maximize participation in collective action allows race and religion to fade into the background of issue-oriented campaigns. However, that process is not inevitable or always the case.

When political parties join the resultant civil society-led activity, they, too, learn and model how to cross social cleavages–how to develop what I have elsewhere termed “coalitional capital.” In this case, as media and critics were quick to note, the clear majority of participants were non-Malays, especially Chinese.

However, the fact that Malays were also present (their absence was overstated) and that there was nothing intrinsic to the protest or its claims to exclude or discourage any specific category, suggests that the reasons for any ethnic imbalance may be found elsewhere; more on that angle below.

Finally, the run-up toward Bersih saw interested citizens using social media not just for the mechanics of mobilisation–circulating maps and instructions and paranoid guidelines for avoiding the worst imaginable state response–but also to discuss with real nuance and interaction what a campaign such as this could and could not achieve, what role political parties should play, and where street protests fit among the repertoire of “democratic” praxis.

Social media was the platform, too, for wild rumor-mongering and attacks … and for some rather hilarious grandstanding by opponents. For example, the bizarre karate-chopping, self-flagellating “red shirts” who promised to counter-protest. I’m sure many Bersih-goers were disappointed when the troupe backed down after their YouTube preview had gone viral.

Malaysian politics
Of course, the million dollar (or 2.6 billion ringgit) question is whether Bersih will accomplish its objectives. The short answer is, no, of course not. Pilihanraya and kerajaan bersih (clean elections and government)? Selamatkan ekonomi (save the economy)? These are not quick-fix targets–though the peaceful enactment of Bersih suggests some evidence, at least, of hak membantah (the right to demonstrate).

Bersih’s stated objectives are too broad and amorphous for any one campaign to achieve, nor is Bersih likely to meet the boisterous unofficial calls for Najib to resign or be ousted/arrested.

Yet that reality does not negate the political value and impact of Bersih.

However much styled as anti-Najib, with ubiquitous barbs regarding his and his wife’s alleged financial shenanigans (those against first lady Rosmah Mansor, frequently distressingly sexist), campaign discourse–both official and on-the-ground–was also actively pro-democracy and good governance.

The specific electoral-reform demands of the earlier Bersih protests featured little this time, but discussion before and during the rally engaged actively with what more is necessary than just encouraging or obliging one leader out of office.

The government’s clumsy response, from blocking websites, to trying to ban t-shirts, to blaming foreign meddlers, to hinting at use of stronger-arm crowd control tactics than previously, to (such irony!) questioning the genesis of the 2 million ringgit organisers claim to have raised, only amped up awareness of what is not “democratic” in the current order.

Indeed, that authoritarian pugilism offers a partial explanation for the lesser Malay than Chinese turnout.

Malay-language mainstream media, key sources of information primarily for Malays, and especially for the (dwindling) share of the population, substantially Malay, on the wrong side of the “digital divide,” were apoplectically antagonistic, predicting mayhem and promising to pull no punches in retaliation.

Moreover, when government ministers or police officials leaped to declare the protest and its paraphernalia not just unruly, but illegal, corrections from the High Court or Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) lacked the same resonance.

That Parti Islam seMalaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), having left the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) coalition, withheld support, as well as the fact that Najib presides over a party that grants as patronage often-vital material and infrastructural support for its rural Malay base, added to those effects. Conclusions about motives or loyalties cannot be simply drawn from the ranks of who did and did not turn out that weekend.

Meanwhile, the experience of Bersih will likely help lend credence to the reconsolidating opposition coalition.

The Democratic Action Party and the emergent Gerakan Harapan Baru (New Hope Movement) seemingly got along swimmingly, and both play well with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party)–as well as with key mobilising forces in civil society. Their participation will help to cement an orientation around Bersih 4’s issues–governance, anti-corruption, institutional reform–for Pakatan 2.0, however many gnarly issues of leadership, resources, and so on the coalition still confronts.

Lastly, and most importantly, participation in Bersih 4 reaffirms at an individual level the wider toolbox democracy affords; elections are not the only chance for voice. One real benefit of the protracted schedule for the 34-hour rally was that it allowed the timid to see first, then come join on Day 2, once they realised it really was okay to do so.

Moreover, posters and slogans that disaggregated state from government–proud of Malaysia, embarrassed by Najib–suggests the fusion of party and state in the popular imagination is weakening, likely fostered also by now years of experience of “opposition party” government in several states.

Should Bersih be coincident with no change in Najib’s tenure or investigations into 1MDB and the infamous Arab “donation,” some proportion of Bersih-goers may well be disillusioned; voice without impact is hardly empowering.

Yet the opportunity merely to vent–to be heard, whether or not heeded, and to feel a common purpose as part of a collective “we, concerned Malaysians”–itself has value, and lays the ground for future mobilisation.

Contemporary activism
Lastly, Bersih 4 offers insight into challenges for mobilisation broadly. First, that the street protest has such cachet as a modular strategy is a mixed blessing. To have impact (read: to make headlines), such protests need as large a crowd as possible, which requires a fairly broad, lowest-common-denominator approach. “Success” may then be harder to specify, let alone achieve.

Second, even though the vast majority this time did evince a real sense of purpose in attending, the “selfie culture” pervaded Bersih, for good and bad. That culture is likely unavoidable in this era of social media. Increasingly, a key impetus/goal for many protest participants is gaining the aura of having been there, via photographic proof to post online, ideally featuring the souvenir t-shirt/fetish.

On the other hand, luring phonecam lenses requires creativity–and the clever signage, costumes, and performances attention-seeking participants devise make for a far more entertaining rally (even if also mandating that organisers devote ever more attention to making protest well-structured and fun). That cultural production, too, targets both domestic and international audiences, not just via journalists, but by social media “sharing,” encouraging invocation of transnational tropes, from “Occupy” to umbrellas to Guy Fawkes masks (and alas, vuvuzelas).

By the same token, the desire to see one’s protest reflected back from international media itself shapes expectations among both protesters and media practitioners. The former draw upon a repertoire of protest strategies; the latter mine a trove of analogous cases, upping the ante for protesters to make plain their preferred points of reference–for instance, Hong Kong’s Occupy Central.

Selfies and Guy Fawkes masks  featured at Bersih 4. Photo: Getty Images.

Selfies and Guy Fawkes masks featured at Bersih 4. Photo: Getty Images.

International media become, in effect, parties to the contentious episode, as getting on their radar, and with a flattering framing, influences strategic and rhetorical choices and serves as a prominent barometer of success. Meanwhile, that the rally yielded only happy images–a sea of yellow shirts, tired protesters’ sleeping securely on city streets–rather than traumatic scenes of crackdown and mayhem may well have frustrated reporters looking for an “interesting” story.

Nevertheless, Bersih rallies cultivate international solidarity, especially among the large and growing Malaysian diaspora. The chance to participate keeps overseas Malaysians politicised, both students (threats of revoked scholarships notwithstanding) and others, even as the government works to entice those citizens, and their skills and assets, back home.

The chance to rehearse engagement could mean another surge in overseas Malaysians’ electoral participation next time around, undoubtedly to the opposition’s benefit. The possibility of scaling up participation via online organising, and the longer-term implications of who the collective “we” becomes, represents an under-examined angle of internet-aided mobilisation.

Regardless, mainstream media still matter.

Newspapers and television have tremendous agenda-setting and boundary-maintaining clout; controlling what images and messages these project tilts the playing field dramatically. Mainstream-media rhetoric is pervasive, even if social media mock or respond and citizens go online (circumventing blocks as needed) for alternative views.

For example, while being interviewed on Singapore television about Bersih 4, I was amused by the flurry of text messages I received from fully Internet-savvy friends who still watched TV news and saw me.

The availability of new tools does not negate the value of the old, both for and against collective action.


With somewhere between 25,000 and 500,000 participants in Malaysia alone (depending which media one believes) and an estimated 10,000 more overseas, Bersih clearly represents a success in terms of political mobilisation. Malaysians came out in force, many of them for the first time, basking in and building up a sense of community and entitlement to voice, whatever the progress toward the movement’s stated goals.

Observing Bersih offers a lens into how Malaysians on both sides of the barricades approach a political crisis, and into the mechanics of protest amid ever more mobile people and messages, however likely equivocal the movement’s immediate efficacy or institutional impact.

Meredith Weiss is Associate Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Albany.