On 12 January 2013, an estimated 100,000 Malaysians managed to pull off the latest in a series of demonstrations in the country’s major city, Kuala Lumpur. This time, it went off practically without a hitch.
There were none of the clashes with police that had marred the holiday atmosphere of the two most recent mass rallies – Bersih 2 on 9 July 2011 and Bersih 3 on 28 April 2012.
It has not escaped the notice of Malaysia watchers that these congregations have been not only peaceful in essence; they expressed most poignantly an optimism that carried with it a sense of disbelief.
This disbelief is accompanied by a sense of purpose as well, of course. It has all happened rather suddenly— thus the incredulity. And peacefully— thus the hope.
In future years, when enough time has elapsed and enough changes have taken place in the country, commentators will connect these rallies more tightly than we do today; and they will perceive what in effect is a history of how public space – restricted for so long by draconian laws and threats of racial violence – was gradually regained in Malaysia.
The fact that the government of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak quickly claimed that the rally
went so smoothly because of the success of his reforms testifies clearly that even the establishment knows what needs doing.
With this, the risk of street violence in the event of an opposition victory in the coming elections should be small. The peaceful demonstration strongly implies that a peaceful change of government is totally possible.
In most cases, when individual desperation explodes into action, there is no sense of long-term purpose, only an immediate release of frustration. Such was the case in Tunisia when the vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 after being deprived by police officers of his only means of livelihood.
In Malaysia, things have not been even close to being as desperate for most people as was the case for this poor Tunisian. The torment has instead been a psychological one; one that was slowly eroding the individual’s sense of justice and dignity.
For that is what institutional racialism does when applied for so long. It diminishes the soul.
The issues that will be the most important in the coming general elections are revealing, to say the least. Class issues will be prominent, and will take the form of debates about welfare, poverty and income distribution. These will be accompanied by disputes of governance—corruption, electoral skewing, and rule of law, etc.
It is certainly worth noting that all these are seeking to replace the race discourses that have plagued the Malaysian mind for so long. After five decades, the limits of such a structure are finally being breached.
What the abovementioned nature of these mass rallies signify—be they organised by opposition parties like the Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat on 12 January this year, or Bersih 3.0 organised by non-government organisations—is a society finally reacting to its psychological ailments.
All these years, whatever the excuse for racialism, the individual identity of all Malaysians was being repressed by the mantra of racial loyalty.
Arguably, this was most true among the Malays, who were after all the only ones defined so firmly in the Constitution itself. That strange legal exercise in ethnic designation may have been a strong defensive tactic in 1957 on the part of Malay leaders, who were functioning in the chaotic situation of those times.
But today, five decades later, that condition and the mindset it engenders are experienced by the young as collective confinement.
And we are not yet touching on the bad governance that took place under cover of the race game. The Bersih movement against the manipulation of the popular vote, though not as extreme in Malaysia as in many other countries, was one important step along the way. This followed a lawyers’ revolt in mid-2007.
It is in turn followed by an environment movement animated by the rare earth factory project in Lynas. All these have now come to a concourse. The fact that optimism and not anger, is still pervasive, bodes well for Malaysia.
The chance to change the game has never been as great as now. The occupation of Kuala Lumpur’s streets and the reclaiming of public space are therefore apt responses, imbued with deep historical significance.
What better way to overwhelm racial repression than through political picnics?
The writer is Deputy Director at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.