Bersih – a movement or an institution?

Kenneth Cheng Chee Kin

The writer says Malaysians should not forget how transformative the 2007 Bersih rally was and how it managed to inspire a whole new generation. – EPA pic, November 26, 2023.

THE recent Bersih shake-up, which culminated in its chairman Thomas Fann resigning and his total defeat in wanting to help the civil society group “evolve” into a people’s institution, reminded me of a quote I often turn to and spoken by someone whom I still admire politically.

In his retirement speech as a British lawmaker, Tony Benn said he now has more time and freedom to devote to politics.

He was essentially saying he was quitting parliament to have more time with politics.

With his acerbic wit, he was actually delivering a parting shot to an institution that he had served for nearly half a century but had achieved very little in improving people’s lives.

And true to his words, Benn did have more time and freedom after retirement to pursue “politics”.

By the age of 80, he still continued to attend fringe political meetings, giving radio broadcasts and making television appearances.

Most importantly, he was the president of Stop the War Coalition, which was instrumental in a series of massive protests against the UK participating in military conflict ranging from the 2001 war in Afghanistan to the 2003 Iraq war.

Perhaps, this is the kind of politics, activism and conversation he had always yearned for and one that he was discouraged from participating in when he was still the MP.

Being too long in parliament while not affecting change and seeing his country embracing Thatcherism fully had made Benn realise that power had been usurped from parliament and would concede nothing without a forceful demand, and change would only be possible with a demand from below.

Admittedly, this one paradoxical quote about quitting parliament to join politics has sustained and defined my political belief for as long as I remember. 

Incidentally, I am of the view this is the existential question the recent Bersih elections tried to resolve.

There have been two different visions competing within the Bersih elections, with the status quo intending to preserve the gains it has achieved in strengthening democracy by means of advocacy and lobbying and to complete the group’s evolution to a full-fledged people’s institution.

Whereas, the camp that is challenging the idea of people’s institution is arguing for a return to the roots of the Bersih movement of rallies and protest.

It is a civil society strategy that intends to pose difficult questions for the powers that be to achieve change and reform.

Instead of a loud and pronounced dissent, which the sitting government may not take kindly, some have come to believe the political climate generated since 2018 has rendered the idea of pushing reforms through the streets unpopular and may even reverse gains that have been achieved.

It is an understandable position to be adopted if Bersih intends to continue acting as a lobby group to persuade or cajole the government into committing to electoral and institutional reforms.

Most sitting governments, and especially the unusually petty Madani government, would not appreciate engaging with a civil society group in any constructive meetings while knowing that the same group is also actively staging a protest against them.

However, the case for Bersih returning to a people’s movement also deserves to be heard.

While it is undeniable that the group, in recent years, has managed to inject ideas such as the confidence and supply agreement and equal constituency funds into the public realms through its advocacy, it is also equally true that those advocacies have so far not resulted in a concrete change of policy or new legislations being carried in parliament.

Even if there are remnants of reforms to be found, it was not borne out of conviction but of a politician’s instinct of self-preservation. This could be reversed easily.

Take the example of equal constituency allocation: its merits have been well argued and accepted but the government still refuses to budge on the matter.

The leader of reformasi would know best what reformasi means. And it pains me to say no amount of lobbying and advocacy from Bersih would have changed the mind of Anwar Ibrahim when we all know he is doing this out of self-preservation and political expediency. 

And certainly, you don’t need a fancy hotel with PDF slides to lecture the government on the importance of separating the roles of the attorney-general and the public prosecutor.

The stumbling block from reforming the AG is not due to a lack of knowledge, but political will – something that a people’s institution could never inspire at this juncture.

In this position, the late Benn would have argued that the only lesson this government should be taught is one that can only be found on the streets.

In a time when the government has abandoned its promise and the opposition is unappealing, a return to the people’s movement is more imperative than being a people’s institution.

We should not forget how transformative the 2007 Bersih rally was and how it managed to inspire a whole new generation.

But most of all, politics is about change and if change cannot be carried from the corridors of power, it is perhaps time we return to the streets and look for it again. – November 26, 2023.

* Kenneth Cheng has always been interested in the interplay between human rights and government but more importantly he is a father of two cats, Tangyuan and Toufu. When he is not attending to his feline matters, he is most likely reading books about politics and human rights or playing video games. He is a firm believer in the dictum “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.

* 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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