The symbolism of the Malaysian peoples uprising on January 12 2013, or KL112 cannot be underestimated for its importance in myth-making. In facilitating this ‘peoples uprising’, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has not only created new myths that would solidify its presence in the memories or ‘imagery‘ of Malaysians in a positive manner, but more importantly, PR has also moved decisively in dismissing myths created by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its subordinates in the Barisan Nasional (BN) that have been the grand narrative/s in Malaysia for the past 55 years.

Myths – stories, memories and symbols – provide the basis for the narratives that create, forge or reaffirm identities. These are especially crucial in periods of critical transformation and/or when societies are undergoing a crisis of identity. Jose Luis Borges noted that the past and the future inhibit the present. In the context of the KL112, PR is representing the present by connecting to a more glorious Malaysian past and the promise of a more glorious future.

But why is PR now the purveyor of hope, a realm that was firmly in the hands of UMNO with visions of grandeur and Malaysians, Malays and Muslims being world beaters? The reasons are multifaceted and can be explained by incompetence, mismanagement and corruption by the ruling regime being often touted as the main reasons. It could also be that Malaysia and Malaysians are undergoing an identity crisis.

This crisis of identity came to the surface with the twin economic and political crisis: the East Asian Financial Crisis (EAFC) of 1997/98 and the political and social fall-out as a consequence of the sacking and the subsequent brutal and humiliating treatment of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. While the May 13 1969, pogrom scarred Malaysians in the way the different races – especially between the [older] Malays and Chinese – related to each other, many Malaysians especially Malay-Muslims, saw UMNO and the government in a different light after these twin crises. The popular Deputy Prime Minister who was to many Malay-Muslims, an icon of how Islam (and Muslims) can co-exist, even thrive in and with modernity felt terribly bitter in the manner he was treated. To the Malays, it was argued that a sacred feudalistic social contract had been breached. More importantly and tangibly, the EAFC brought down to earth UMNO and Malay-Muslim pride that were then running on a can-do attitude captured through slogans such as ‘Malaysia Boleh‘, ‘Melayu Baru’,’Melayu Korporat’ and rising bank balances (let alone the sole right to lead Malaysia). A cataclysmic crisis to an artificially created race that was always insecure and unsure of themselves.

Difference between opposition public demonstrations and BN’s and the creation of identities

Several simple but important observations can be made of the public demonstrations by PR in contrast to the ruling regime.

A united message – While the BN is in disarray with its 1Malaysia slogan that has lead to a series of debacles, ridicules and outright rejection at the highest levels of administration, PR through a series of broad based public demonstrations either in supportive or leading roles, have been instrumental in forging a new identity focusing on what is wrong in Malaysia. What this identity is precisely remains unclear and subject to different interpretations, but nevertheless it is bringing Malaysians genuinely together, united in opposing the regime.

People centred and issue focused – Another important difference is that the mass gatherings manufactured by the BN are always about support of or for its leader/s and its leadership. The public demonstrations organised by PR and civil society are about issues that matter to Malaysians. Personalities do matter, but primary importance is given to the issues. Malaysians are not spending their money, braving retribution from the government, risk limb and livelihood just to hear leaders of PR and/or civil society talk – they are there to make a point about issues that matter to them. And these issues are serious enough for Malaysians often characterised as docile and lackadaisical to come out of their comfort zones.

A sense of purpose – this is possibly the most important point in the creation of identities. While BN organises events which do not have any sense of purpose for its participants, the public demonstrations are driven by a sense of purpose. This is critical in validating the myth. Broad sections of Malaysians – whole families, young and the old, workers and students, blue and white collar, Peninsular and East Malaysians, conservatives and progressives, leaders and followers – all have a sense of purpose. And when they’re sprayed with chemically-treated water, tear-gassed or baton-charged, there is now a badge of courage, a shared myth, ridiculed by the mainstream media and elected leaders, a story is to be told. The story becomes a myth and a shared identity. It does not matter if they are a Keadilan, a PAS, a DAP, a PSM supporter or the various civil society and grass-roots movements, or the different races, or Malaysians making a stand on a myriad of issues. There is a story – a same story to be told.

No BN member has anything that comes close. The last time was in 1946, when UMNO marched against the Malayan Union.

A nation of equals – And remarkably, there is an air of egalitarianism. Among the speakers at the KL112 other than the political party leaders, were two women from minority races, representative from East Malaysia and grassroots leaders. The time given for each speaker were almost equally distributed. PR leadership did not have exclusive rights to the speeches but was shared with civil society and grassroots leaders. There was no emphasis on any particular party – PAS, DAP, PKR or PSM had almost equal time, with Anwar Ibrahim of PKR, designate Prime Minister, having the last word. BN’s events in turn are always focused on the leaders and on one particular individual (and often on his wife). Whether it’s a walk-about, or a teh-tarik session, or a mass rally – it is and always is – about the leader.

Myths created, questioned and shattered

Operasi Lalang catalysed civil societies in Malaysia but it was Reformasi that provided Malaysians opposed to the ruling regime with a shared myth that was different from the existing grand narrative. While many Malaysians lost their innocence (or belief) in UMNO, BN and their government, many Malaysians were also given the opportunity to work together to form a new ‘identity’ against the existing narrative.

This grand narrative is two-fold: that Malaysians due to their racial and religious differences are incapable of managing themselves; and that only UMNO through BN can manage these differences.

Since the time of Alliance, even the much loved Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Father of Independence, had used this narrative. Many Malaysians believe in this myth, and to a large extent, the BN had delivered on this myth – not only managing competing racial and religious demands, but delivering growth, peace and stability.

Edward Said remarked in Culture and Imperialism that, ‘neither past nor present…has a complete meaning alone’ but that they ‘inform each other, each implies the other.’ By choosing the Merdeka Stadium, the site where Independence was declared, and by chanting the words of Malaysia’s ‘Father of Independence’, PR and especially Anwar Ibrahim has linked the present to a romanticised past that lingers happily in the memories of Malaysians. Anwar Ibrahim can now take on the mantle of Malaysian leadership from BN in delivering this myth (of growth, peace and stability).

In hailing Merdeka seven times, replicating the call made by Malaysia’s much loved ‘Father of Independence’, Tunku Abdul Rahman on Independence Day in the very same location, could not have been more symbolic. The grand narrative – that it was UMNO and Tunku Abdul Rahman (among the Malaysian Independence leaders) -who secured the independence of then Malaya from the British – the brutal colonisers – and delivered prosperity to Malaysians have now been appropriated by PR. KL112 went further and rewrote the narrative with PR and Anwar Ibrahim promising to free Malaysians from their new brutal colonisers, UMNO, after 55 years of misrule and delivering prosperity – once again.

Another component of the grand narrative, that only BN knows how to ‘share power‘ to the satisfaction of all communities was also questioned. In successfully organising this public demonstration including forcing the government to accept most of its terms and conditions, sharing stage with civil society and grassroots leaders, and more importantly, providing clear evidence that the opposition coalition were prepared to take over Putrajaya in a responsible manner to the satisfaction of all communities, PR has set the stage for the final push towards elections.

The final potent myth that has ensured the continued dominance of UMNO was that only UMNO can provide stability to Malaysians and to the international community. To many non-Muslims and Muslims – particularly from the older generation, and especially those who lived through the May 13, 1969 pogroms – UMNO was the best hope of protecting the interests of the minorities (non-Muslims and progressive Muslims) from the intolerant and excessive demands of the conservative elements of the Malay-Muslim majority. In recent years – especially since the 2004 general elections but in the most pronounced manner since the 2008 general elections – it has been UMNO that has become the vehicle for intolerant and excessive demands.

The KL112 sealed in the conscience (or imagery) of Malaysians, that Malay-Muslims in general, but especially through the Malay-Muslim dominated [Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)] or Malay-Muslim exclusive parties [Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS)] and civil society organisations [Solidariti Anak Muda (SMM) or Persatuan Anak Peneroka FELDA (ANAK)] are capable of being moderate and articulating the interests of all Malaysians – a departure from the behaviour of present day UMNO and its sponsored right wing groups (such as PERKASA). More importantly, it demonstrated that when Malaysians focused on issues (and not race and religion), they were more than capable of managing themselves.

The international community is also possibly sleeping better knowing that their long held view that in Malaysia, only UMNO with its secular and capitalistic (although ethno-nationalistic) values would provide a bulwark against anti-capitalists and anti-Western forces such as communism and Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism can now be rethought. The demands raised at the KL112 were focused on the democratic rights of citizens, workers, minorities, indigenous communities, the environment and good governance are values that in its essence supports capitalism and Western ideals such as the rule of law and democracy.

However, the question still remains on what this new identity is?

While the myths that these public demonstrations have created signify a break from the past, only time will tell whether the series of events beginning since Operasi Lalang, heightened by the Reformasi movement, and the events since the Badawi administration have fundamentally changed the characteristics of Malaysians in a meaningful way.

Greg Lopez is a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, and the editor of New Mandala’s Malaysia section, both at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.