It was quite a day.

Last Saturday Kuala Lumpur saw two foolish men destroy not only themselves, the government that they lead and their remaining reputation for political sagacity and moderation. They also ended what was left of the indispensable myth of a benign Malaysia.

Unhappily for Malaysia, its fate and future these last two weeks have been largely in the hands of two weak, brittle men who wish to be seen as strong and act tough – and who were always susceptible to the insinuations, challenges and “helpful” advice of the genuine “hard men” around them.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and the Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein are cousins. Their fathers, married to two well-placed sisters, were the nation’s second and third Prime Ministers. Najib is now the sixth, and Hishammuddin, it is assumed, would like to follow him some time.

Both were born to want, and from early in life sought, to emulate their redoubtable fathers, and were probably destined to fail. Their moment of truth came this week.

From the moment that Bersih (“Clean”), the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, in its “second edition” began to campaign, the two cousins have responded with a losing amalgam of bravado, fear and intimidation. As Saturday’s day of protest drew near, they sought by all means to frustrate and then block that expression of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the compromised electoral system that has served as the mechanism of their rise to power and their party’s grip upon national leadership.

In a remarkable intervention, the Malaysian King as head of state the previous weekend had urged both sides to “climb down” and start talking. Bersih responded with alacrity to this gesture of royal recognition, so different from the government’s branding them as wreckers of the nation. Najib signalled that he too would do as the King suggested, but then, under pressure from his more adamant cabinet colleagues whom he could not control or win over, began to weasel out of his agreement.

As he did, the great “shutdown”, mainly of Kuala Lumpur and its environs but with it in lesser degree of the whole country, began. Roadblocks, police inspections, and targeted but legally dubious arrests grew in intensity in the days leading up to Saturday. The city was by now under siege by the government – one that wants to be seen internationally an exemplar of “moderation”.

Ironically, the government whose leaders chose to defy the King’s principled and widely welcomed intervention instead arrested the members of a small opposition party on charges of “making war against the king” – not by force of arms, but by wearing and distributing yellow Bersih T-shirts! Wearing the colour yellow was prohibited nation-wide as subversive; anyone wearing yellow could be arrested, by policemen identified by their yellow vests!

On the day, some 50,000 Malaysian citizens made their way peacefully to the blockaded city centre to join the protest march. Had the rally been permitted, the attendance would clearly have been several hundred thousand. Those who did head to the city were intimidated, tear-gassed, blasted with water cannon, and subjected to random brutalization. Over 1,400 people were arrested.

The city fell into an uneasy quiet on Saturday evening, the government sulking, the police denying wrongdoing, and the Bersih people seeking balm for their wounded bodies but rejoicing in the spirit that so many ordinary citizens had displayed.

But the trouble is not over yet.

No sooner had the protesters dispersed than the Islamic party PAS issued an ultimatum: unless the government released all those arrested within 24 hours, they would put a million people onto the streets, to surround the national police headquarters. The police heard. All those detained, they announced, would be released before the day was over.

Yet instead of now tapering off, heavy policing will continue, and resentment will grow. The two cousins face a grim and uncertain future. The outlook for the government they lead is now bleaker than ever.

There is just one bright spot for them. They had hoped to go to the polls in the next year, allowing Najib to secure for himself a personal mandate by winning back some of the political ground lost at the 2008 elections.

He was never likely to succeed. Now, after the mayhem of last weekend, there is no way his government can face an election soon. So they will manage, and hope to continue governing, without having one. Using last weekend as their reason, some way will be found, if they remain in power and have their way. The authoritarian, police-based regime will simply be entrenched. Electoral reform? Who needs elections anyway!

Through its foolish response to Bersih – by its complete and remorseless strangling of ordinary, everyday social life, its assault upon routine civil order – Najib’s government has begun burying itself. Worse, in their deep, unrelieved insensitivity, its two key leaders would not see that this outcome was the inexorable effect of what they were doing.

Instead, they managed genuinely to convince themselves that they and they alone could govern the country – and now might save it from the chaotic mess that they themselves had brought about. So anything and everything that arguably might need to be done to save their own leadership was – in their honest if deluded opinion – justified on the highest moral grounds of national and public interest.

It is hard to believe. We need not speak of the now widespread nostalgia for the Mahathir era. Today people here are looking back on the undistinguished era of Najib’s predecessor, and Dr. Mahathir’s successor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – a deadlocked and becalmed, though hardly calm, interlude – as a glorious age in Malaysian political life.

Yet, to understand what happened last weekend and its far-reaching implications for Malaysia, it is wrong to focus on individuals: on the two bungling cousins and, even moreso, on the internationally beloved opposition icon, Anwar Ibrahim.

The situation, now more than ever, is far greater – the problem is far deeper, more worrying and intractable – than the fate and prospects of that one individual, Anwar Ibrahim (appalling though his legal treatment has been). The drama and “passion” of Anwar Ibrahim is at best a symbol or symptom of, but more accurately and ever more evidently a diversion or distraction from, that the nation’s underlying crisis.

That is why, over recent weeks, the government (and its strident Malay-language press) have so assiduously and unrelentingly sought to portray and stigmatize, and in that way dismiss, Bersih as “not genuine or sincere”, but simply a stratagem to rescue Anwar Ibrahim’s career by distracting attention from his latest (and officially confected) “scandals”.

Now, more than ever, the situation here is what it has been: at least, and quite evidently, since the March 2008 elections whose results blasted away the underlying scaffolding and enabling mechanisms of the political domination of Najib and Hishammuddin’s party, the UMNO and the Barisan Nasional coalition that it heads.

Now, and since 2008, there has been in Malaysia a basic “regime crisis”. This crisis is not a division or split within the “ruling group” but a basic “disarticulation” (or “disconnect” as people now like to say) between state and society; a malfunction or disorder of the key connection that is made between those two via the “ruling group” or party by means of its proper identification and selection, then its duly ensuing formation and shaping, via a credible electoral system.

This is where the challenge of Bersih is made and why it has been so effective.

It is powerful because from beginning to end – from the delineation of boundaries to the conduct of elections and the counting of votes – the existing Malaysian electoral system, as a succession of scholarly studies have shown, is now fundamentally, undeniably and irreparably broken, discredited. It is distorted, politically suborned, and manipulated.

Had last weekend’s events not occurred, and its rally instead been allowed to proceed, Bersih’s demands would likely have developed a momentum that would have made them irresistible.

The result? The government might then have been able to go to the polls over the next year, but under new rules of the electoral game that would have precluded Najib’s party from gaining any kind of convincing win.

So the indefinite deferring of elections, on grounds of Bersih’s unacceptable challenge, may be just what the currently beleaguered lords of the land really want.

“I hope what happened today,” Najib soon said, “will be a lesson to the citizens of Malaysia”. He will draw his preferred lessons. Many Malaysian citizens will draw theirs, and they will be rather different.

11 pm 9 July 2011

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology, School of Social Sciences & International Studies, The University of New South Wales