An insightful piece on our role as stakeholders in the future of Malaysia – of Bersih and beyond.
Alright, so Bersih 3.0 has come and is starting to go. The sit-in protest was scheduled to end at 4:30, and the organizers have asked the public to leave, but it seems that for some on both sides the end of the official protest only means the start of extracurricular activities.
Rovio took the opportunity to publish a Malaysian upgrade to Angry Birds: the special edition silver-colored TearBird smokes out green pigs (and yellow protestors) without needing to destroy surrounding structures. Meanwhile, in a Marvel publicity stunt sure to go viral on YouTube, several demonstrators overturned a police car, which is clearly meant to evoke the exploits of The Hulk just as Avengers debuts in local cinemas.
But really, what on Earth were a quarter of a million Malaysians doing charging down the roads of KL, braving police violence, body odor, unpredictable weather (on top of all the hot air streaming from Putrajaya) and inevitable political hijacking? What would compel some of us – normally half an hour late to even the most sumptuous wedding dinner – to wait at Dataran Merdeka a whopping sixteen hours (from 10pm last night) for what was basically an overcrowded picnic with no food, no sitting space, and no fashion sense? As Tashny Sukumaran tweeted: “when Malaysians are early, you know shit just got real.” We were early and polite to policemen and singing the national anthem with pride and taking orders from redshirts (sorry, Trekkie joke) and talking to people of other ethnicities and generally enjoying being around people for once – it’s like we all decided to try being Australian this afternoon or something. (Well, one of us looked pretty authentic – good one mate.)
What were a quarter of a million people doing on the streets of KL today? We were being angry. Angry with the state of affairs in this nation, angry with the callous incompetence at all echelons of government and civil service, angry with blatant abuse and mismanagement, angry with our own sustained indifference for half a century, angry with water cannons, angry with last year’s death, angry with this year’s diffidence, angry, angry, angry. And we have every right to be. Our anger is phenomenal, but so is the potential our country has wasted over fifty-five years of independence. Twelve elections later, with a thirteenth impending, the quality of our leaders shows little sign of improving, and our popular political discourse still revolves around angels and demons and who penetrated who where.
But so what if we’re angry? Being angry without thinking just makes us like the Hulk: green with rage, awesomely powerful but utterly insensible. The Marvel fans will remember recent events in the life of the Hulk. The greatest minds of the Marvel universe convened and decided that the Hulk was too unstable, too dangerous. They had him shipped off Earth to a distant desert planet against his will, where he overthrew the oppressors of that planet and, as its ruler, came back to Earth.
Isn’t that a story of redemption and the triumph of justice? Not really: in the sequel, the Hulk beats the living daylights out of every other hero on the planet, puts mind-controlling obedience disks on them and forces them to battle each other to the death, and plans to destroy the New York city he once protected as an Avenger; he is only saved when one of his desert planet allies reveals himself as the saboteur who caused his grief and is defeated as the real enemy.
I am glad that the people have found their anger, and have started to chip against the mental imprisonment which the state has so long inflicted on them. I am glad that a quarter of a million people showed their anger on the streets of KL, but it cannot stop there. It must not stop there. An election every five years does not a democracy make, it is true; but the freedom of speech and assembly are not to be protected just so we can wash the streets of KL yellow one random weekend too.
The mob must be taught – the mob must learn to think. We who march must learn also to speak, and to ask the difficult questions: how do we prevent PR from becoming the next BN? Will the compromising pragmatism of PKR always be able to hold secularist DAP together with sectarian-religious PAS? What happens when that uneasy pact breaks down? Who will make sure, in a day when both sides of the political divide are increasingly playing chicken rather than governing the land justly, that our political parties are training up future leaders of principle, and that civil society will find its successors to the boldly impartial Ambiga and Pak Samad?
Why have a free election unless there are leaders worth electing? Why kick out corruption if the only alternative is shallow populism? And why choose if you don’t even understand what you’re choosing between?
I am glad for all the young people, whether they are under my care or simply ones I know, who have found empowerment and liberation in marching down the streets of KL – who have even found joy in the face of tear gas and chemical-laced water, because they were suffering for the sake of something larger. I envy them (as my circumstances prevented me from joining them in person) and I am proud of them. But we cannot let this Bersih business stop at simply the warm glow of anger marching with anger: who knows how little time it would take for that to turn into the numb amusement of an Angry Bird player? They, for one, have long forgotten about getting the eggs back from the pigs in their quest for a high score for doing as much damage as possible – not as needed – to the status quo.
We must think beyond the yellow tide. We must advance this country beyond the necessity of a Bersih 4.0. We must bring change with all the anger we can find; but we must steer change with even more wisdom. Only then will we be sure that Malaysia will never vanish from the face of the Earth.