Letter from the outgoing Bersih chair

IT has been 10 days since the end of polling for the Bersih steering committee (SC) elections (2023-2025). I have had time to reflect on the outcome of the results and what it means to me. Though I won another term uncontested as the Bersih chairman, it is clear to me that my leadership and efforts to evolve Bersih into a people’s institution were rejected by the majority of the endorsing NGOs. In light of this reality, I hereby tender my resignation as chairperson of Bersih with a two-month notice.

The results for the five contested positions of deputy chair, treasurer and three committee member posts were won by all four candidates led by Wong Yan Ke, who stood against the team that I had put forward, except for one committee member post won by Aira Azhari, who came in third. The rejection of my team that was led by Ngeow Chow Ying (outgoing treasurer) by the majority of the NGOs in this actively contested election that saw a record 50 of 60 endorsing NGOs take part (83.3%), was a clear message to me that my vision and direction for Bersih were rejected. It was a vote of no confidence.

From the official statements of the two teams that contested in this election, it was also clear that two visions of Bersih were offered. My team campaigned on continuity to evolve Bersih into a people’s institution while Wong and those who campaigned for him, pushed for a restoration of Bersih to its roots as a people’s movement, presumably with organising protests as one of its main tool to connect with the grassroots, the people. 

I see this as two opposing visions for Bersih, one proffered by the chair and the other by his deputy. While Wong’s team with four seats in the nine-member steering committee does not necessarily represent the majority of the SC, he does have the mandate of the majority of the endorsing NGOs who voted. As much as his team and those who helped secured their victory are committed to restoring Bersih as a people’s movement, I am committed to evolving Bersih to become a people’s institution. 

In good conscience, I cannot lead a divided SC that is pulling in opposite directions or defy the will of the majority of the endorsing NGOs. Nor can I go against my own conviction and lead Bersih in its attempt to become a people’s movement again when I believe that Bersih’s future is for it to be an institution that is actively and constructively contributing ideas and solutions to strengthen our parliamentary democracy. 

While Bersih has its roots in protest rallies as a people’s movement, it is just one of many channels to advocate for reforms. In a changed political environment after the 2018 general election when BN was toppled, other effective channels of engagement had opened up and Bersih under my leadership in the past five years had utilised those channels effectively and achieved impactful outcomes.

By definition, a people’s movement can only thrive if there is a groundswell of support for an idea by a vast number of the population. For Bersih in its pre-GE14 years, that idea was regime change, even if it was not necessarily the intention of all the Bersih SC members then. The yearning by a vast segment for regime change was satisfied when BN was defeated and Pakatan Harapan (PH) won in 2018. To many, the mission was accomplished. There was little interest in Bersih post-GE14, even among civil society actors. 

In my view, Bersih’s viability as a people’s movement ended on May 10, 2018, the next day after GE14. It could either “close shop”, evolve into a political party (though that opportunity had long passed) or evolve into an advocacy institution to go beyond regime change and focus on changing the system. You can only be a people’s movement if there are people behind you. It is normal to lose your momentum or support because most people’s movement don’t last beyond a few years or sometimes even months.  I harbour no illusion that Bersih’s past successes as a people’s movement was due to the efforts of the SC or the NGOs. Rather, it was because of  the mass support we received for our demand for change during that period. We, Bersih, were just a tool of history, doing the right thing at the right season. That season is over and has been for a long time.

I accept the outcome of the Bersih SC elections, that most endorsing NGOs want to see Bersih as a people’s movement to rally the masses again. I will step aside and allow the formation of a united SC with the election of a new chair who champions this aspiration. 

It’s only fair for Wong and his team of young and veteran leaders committed to “revitalising Bersih as a people’s movement” to have a free hand to take Bersih in the direction they see fit for the next two years.

It has been the greatest honour of my life to have had this opportunity to serve as the chairperson of Bersih these past five years and the years before that since 2013 as part of the SC. Incidentally, today is the seventh anniversary of the Bersih 5 rally, of which I became the commander after the then chair Maria Chin Abdullah was detained under Sosma on the eve of the even. 

For me, to serve in Bersih is to serve the interests of all segments of the Malaysian public, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, region or party affiliation. I have given my best. If I have fallen short in any way or offended anyone, I do apologise. 

I want to express my deepest appreciation to the secretariat of Bersih without whom Bersih could not have attained any achievements. I have been privileged to have the dedicated and capable support of Yap Swee Seng (executive director 2018-2022), Ngeow Chow Ying (acting executive director 2022-2023) and Ooi Kok Hin (executive director), Asraf Sharafi Mohamad Azhar (senior programme manager), Ahmad Salami, Lhavanya Dharmalingam, Dorina Esut, Raveena Kiran, Benjamin Lim and many others.

This two-month notice is to facilitate a smooth transition of tasks and responsibilities to the new team. I am committed to this process. In the meantime, as the outgoing chair, I will be in caretaker mode, not making any major decisions or launching any new campaigns. If the election of the new chair is completed earlier than the two months, I will graciously take my exit then. 

My sincere and best wishes to the new SC and the soon-to-be elected chair. I wish the best for Bersih under the new team, supported by the dedicated secretariat, for the next two years. In Bersih, we struggle for ideals, not power.

Hidup Bersih, Hidup demokrasi! – November 19, 2023.

* Thomas Fann is the outgoing Bersih chair.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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