The crowds at Bersih 5 may not have hit previous heights, but their greater ethnic diversity is a positive sign, Hew Wai Weng writes.

Threats of violence by the anti-Bersih red-shirted group, as well as the political fatigue of many Malaysians after the racialization of Bersih 4 because of its low Malay turnout, had led many observers to expect an unenthusiastic level of public participation in Bersih 5.

On the eve of Bersih 5, many key leaders of Bersih and opposition parties were arrested. The police also blocked most of the road access to the gathering points of the Bersih rally. Despite these obstacles, more than 50,000 people marched the streets in downtown Kuala Lumpur on 19 November 2016 to demand fair and clean elections.

Even though the overall turnout was lower than the 100,000-strong crowd at Bersih 4, a notably increased Malay participation in Bersih 5 was an encouraging and positive sign, especially in the context of various attempts by the Najib-led UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) to racialize various dissident movements in Malaysia.

Here are my thoughts on the mobilization and participation of ethnic Malay in Bersih 5, based on my observations and conversations with various participants at the rally. By concentrating on Malay participation, I do not intend to discredit the involvement of other ethnic groups, including Chinese, Indians and Orang Asli who have all contributed to the success of Bersih 5. Besides ethnic composition, gender and class dimensions of the participants also deserve further attention.

At 10 am I joined the crowd at Masjid Negara, the National Mosque of Malaysia. At its peak, there were about 6,000 people and half of them were Malays. Many of the Malays gathered there were mobilised by political parties such as Keadilan (People’s Justice Party) and Amanah (National Trust Party, a new party formed by the progressives who left PAS, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), as well as Islamic-based NGOs such as IKRAM (Malaysian IKRAM Association) and ABIM (the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia).

As the crowd marched from Masjid Negara to Masjid Jamek, a mosque near to the Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square), many people joined along the way. In the beginning, the participants were quite ethnically mixed. But that changed once they marched through Pudu area. Thousands of spectators and protesters, many of them young Chinese, stood at both sides of the street, clapping hands and cheering when the protesters paraded through.

The rally turned into a carnival-like event. At the same time, the ethnic composition changed – although Malay participants were increasing, its composition dropped to about 30 per cent. I estimate there were about 20,000 people near Dataran Merdeka.

As the protesters walked from Masjid Jamek to KLCC (Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, where Petronas Twin Tower is located), I witnessed increasing numbers of young Malays among the crowd, and the crowd appeared more ethnically-mixed, with an estimated 40 per cent Malay among the participants.

By my estimate, at least 20,000 Malays attended Bersih 5. Although the number is lower than the amount at Bersih 2 and 3 (approximately 30,000-40,000) when the Islamist party PAS were supportive of Bersih and had mobilised its supporters, it is still an encouraging figure. It showed that without PAS endorsement, it is still possible for civil society and political parties to mobilise Malay Muslims to join rallies.

How were these Malays being mobilised? Keadilan and Amanah have committed to mobilising their members and supporters. Both parties have also helped in the pre-Bersih convoys in many rural and semi-urban areas. These efforts might have convinced more Malays to join Bersih 5. Aside from political party mobilisation, Muslims NGOs especially IKRAM and ABIM, have fully supported the rally. There is also an increasing number of young Malays present at Bersih 5. Some of them might have been mobilised or inspired by the August-held Tangkap MO1 (Arrest Malaysian Official 1) rally, organised by the university students. Others might be left-leaning Malay activists. Some also joined the rally on their own.

Although the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad openly urged Malaysians to join Bersih 5, the crowd mobilised by its newly-formed political party, Bersatu (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) was ultimately not as large as some observers expected. Mahathir himself, however, had rushed back from a visit to Sudan in order to be present at the rally. His presence, together with the strong Malay turnouts at Bersih 5, might help to convince the anti-Najib UMNO supporters to leave UMNO or at least to vote against UMNO in the coming elections.

I took a Grab car service before the Bersih 5 rally. The middle-aged Malay driver told me, “Because of Najib, many of us have to suffer. I could not join Bersih, because I have to work more to make ends meet. I will morally support the causes of Bersih.” Does his view represent the silent majority? Would increasing discontents towards Hadi-led PAS and Najib-led UMNO translate into votes against both UMNO and PAS in the elections, and contribute to a change of government in Malaysia?

A few factors will be crucial in determining whether or not we will see an increased support among Malays towards the change of government: first, the support of Malay youth, for which social media might be an important battleground; second, the support of rural Malays, yet it is a challenging task to counter UMNO’s rural patronage and money politics; third, a strong and efficient Malay leadership among the opposition parties in all the states, as a way to debunk UMNO’s allegation that DAP (Democratic Action Party) or the Chinese will dominate if UMNO loses power.

Last but not least, Malay support for a change in government will also depend on the ability of opposition parties, especially Bersatu and Amanah, to swing the support of anti-Najib UMNO members and anti-Hadi PAS followers towards them.

Hew Wai Weng is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His research interests focus upon the intersections between ethnicity, religiosity, class and politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. He has been writing on Chinese Muslim identities, Hui migration patterns, and urban middle class Muslim aspirations in Malaysia and Indonesia.