Bersih 3.0 had a lot of Baru (new) in it. Among other things it was no longer a march, it was a sit-in occupation of a symbolic venue. It wasn’t dominated by one ethnic group or class but comprised many new communities: the middle-classes, religious groups, many more Chinese and even some children joined. Some would say, surely correctly, that Bersih 3.0 was more 1-Malaysian than 1-Malaysia.
Another important element of Bersih is how it signals a new era in Malaysian socio-political activism. A new kind of civil mentality. Given the excitement and passion surrounding April 28th, it may be easy to forget that less than half a decade ago, the biggest and most ‘enjoyable’ political story was of this lone ranger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, tearing up Putrajaya’s veil of corruption with his high-class exposés, now it’s about half a million people in the streets getting tear-gassed.
In 2008 the symbol was a fist; in 2012 it’s a flower. With RPK, the colour was always black (or a fierce red) – now we all know what colour rocks.
From RPK to Bersih. Has Malaysia made a transition? Maybe.
RPK is essentially an individual pleasuring himself via exclusive access to and dissemination of sensitive information (and his readers pleasuring themselves by watching him pleasure himself whilst secretly wishing they were privy to such restricted data, documents and, well, self-pleasuring). Bersih is about a collective movement that, quite literally, refused to be hemmed in, deals openly and transparently with public issues and cannot be limited to one or even a million persons, all of whom won’t find much pleasure in being tear-gassed.
RPK’s primary method is exposing classified information; everything hinged on the truth of RPK’s clandestinely obtained and thus by nature highly exclusive files. Bersih’s method is striking at the heart of a public and non-exclusive process which involves a more risky journey of debate, reflection, ‘grey areas’, conversations and scores of people doing something as radical as sitting down. (It is thus no coincidence at all that in his recent series of essays about Bersih 3.0, RPK brags that he will reveal the ‘real story, the untold story’ of Bersih).
RPK tells of dark, secret things and asks us to believe that he – and usually he alone – can guarantee knowledge no other can (willingly) provide. RPK, like a social pervert, ‘flashes’ and displays the obscene underside of political society and begs us to stare aghast and cry foul. Bersih, via its demands for fair and clean elections, asks for nothing more than what is already guaranteed in the Constitution. Its objectives were not to show off how much it knows about the dark side of Malaysian elections but to undermine the obscene practices of a ruling regime which publicly declare one thing (i.e. fair elections) but secretly cheats.
RPK requires an exceptional way of doing and knowing things; Bersih promotes a collective and open method. RPK tells you he knows something and asks that you believe him; Bersih says it doesn’t know anything other than the fact that the election process fails to meet the standards everyone agrees on. With RPK, one doesn’t debate or have a conversation; you either believe or disbelieve him. With Bersih, debate and engagement are part-and-parcel of the process; without participation, there would be no Bersih.
A fan of RPK is essentially homogenous, fantasising about how he/she too can be as powerful a writer as RPK who himself remains the exception to the activist community i.e. he is undeniably special. On the contrary, a Bersih supporter, whilst remaining within the community called ‘Bersih’, is nevertheless heterogenous, unique, with the colour yellow and the demand for clean elections being the unifying factors. And yet each of them is special in their own way. Each of them will have their personal stories, their unique experiences.
An RPK fan is essentially a non-participating voyeur, pleasuring himself on RPK’s fantasmatic quasi-truths, with RPK being the ultimate self-pleasuring purveyor of exotic information. A Bersih sit-in protester first of all believes in something bigger than herself, then participates as if everything depended on her (which is of course the most one can ask of a participant). With RPK, it was largely him against the government, one huge public arena with minimal substantial involvement by the public. Bersih, on the other hand, elicited greater communal debate and engagement (witness the unprecedented number of personal reflections, for example).
There is detectable shift from the RPK-style logic of exception and categorical rigidity (i.e. the masculine) towards BERSIH-like openness, non-boundedness and even ‘mystery’ (i.e. the feminine) in that no 100% absolute clear ‘resolution’ avails itself. RPK’s ways of exposes may unveil many dirty little government secrets, but the process is itself cloak-and-dagger-ish. He unmasks one lie only to hide another (his own). Bersih, on the other hand, pushes for an all-out national un-masking. RPK’s logic is that of exclusivity and exception; Bersih’s is about mutuality and transparency.
It’s also telling that those who seek to attack Bersih usually revert to accusing the movement of secret conspiracies and unstated connections. E.g. Helen Ang’s insinuation that Christians are the buddy-arm of DAP seems like an RPK-ish shot a exploding a kinky national secret except, unlike RPK, she doesn’t have men in black feeding her hidden files, hence her quasi-thesis comes across as boring conspiracy and torrid sociology.
RPK is phallic, Bersih feminine. One still relies on the cover-up of fantasy, the other seeks to expose all cover-ups. RPK behaves exactly like the political personalities he exposes in his work, creating admirers who love him without questioning his methods and sources. Bersih invites everyone to work and to please mind their methods.
In this vein, the controversy over the use of Dataran Merdeka for Bersih 3.0’s protest was a struggle between covering up (via fantasy) and the uncovering (via immersion). The government’s denial by force of the protesters right to ‘occupy’ the square with peace seeks to conceal the lie that there is already a hegemonic ‘occupation’ in place. To declare, as Kuala Lumpur’s City Hall did, that the square is permitted only for “sports and cultural (entertainment) events as these events are beneficial to the public” and to reject events of a “political nature” was not just hypocrisy (as if the barring of the Square was without partisan concerns), it was also a political gesture par excellence of separating and drawing a line between domains Political and otherwise. By disallowing Bersih the use of the ‘Independence / Freedom Square’, the ‘elected representatives’ of the people are now declaring that the very people whom they represent are not permitted to independently or freely exercise their rights to gather at one of the nation’s symbolic locations of independence and liberty to demand reformation to the way people’s representatives are chosen(!).
If Dataran Merdeka itself masks the originary violence of Malaysia as a nation-state and the ruling regime’s barricade of the Square signals their defense of the national lie (and everything that the process of Independence covered up), then Bersih’s occupation of the Square’s margins points at a rhizomatic perpetual ‘keeping open’ of a gap within the nation. This is to say that an event like Bersih directs attention to the cracks within society, fissures that hegemonic powers would like to pretend don’t exist.
In terminology made popular by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, one could say that the government’s position – like that of most if not all political usurpers – is akin to that of the Master, seeking to name and control the symbolic order; RPK approximates that of the Pervert who delights in presenting and showing off to the public the obscenities and inherent transgression of the powers that be without seriously demanding a change; and Bersih’s role is that of the Analyst who seeks to keep open the gap, the generative, productive space which is the Real and around which perpetual circulation happens.
Finally, in speaking against Bersih 3.0, Prime Minister’s Najib Razak’s insistence that Malaysians can demonstrate but not ‘lose their senses’ paradoxically echoes what, according to Lacan, feminine jouissance (or enjoyment) is fundamentally about i.e. losing one’s self (which surely includes one’s senses) within the framework of one’s existence and by so doing reconfigure one’s reality by bringing out that which is most ‘dangerous’ at the heart of it.
If enjoyment is a key political factor, then the Malaysian’s people ‘shift’ from RPK to BERSIH is to be welcomed. This is a move away from voyeuristic esoteric knowledge towards openness, participation and solidarity. This is a shift away from masculine arrogance to feminine immersion, from a craving for private ‘secrets’ to a demand for public truth, from the fist to the flower.
And nobody except those with something to hide would feel that’s a bad thing?