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Malaysians no longer want to protest

The days of mammoth rallies are over, and people have the economy to worry about
Protesters at a rally organized by Bersih at Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur on Feb 27.

Protesters at a rally organized by Bersih at Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur on Feb 27. (Photo: Facebook)

Published: February 29, 2024 03:23 AM GMT
Updated: February 29, 2024 04:16 AM GMT

There were fewer than 100 protesters on the morning of Feb 27 at Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur. The police personnel were more than three times that number and there were at least 50 journalists. The police and journalists probably expected a much bigger crowd.

The protest was by Bersih (meaning clean in Malay), a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) pushing for clean and fair elections and to demand the Anwar Ibrahim government initiate institutional reforms it promised to usher in once in power.

The fact that it drew fewer than 100 protesters is an indication of how insignificant Bersih has become. Its rallies used to draw tens of thousands of Malaysians onto the streets in different cities across the country and around the world.

From 2007 to 2016, Bersih organized five mammoth rallies.  

These rallies were an effective avenue for the then-opposition politicians to make a strong and vocal army of supporters out of the English-speaking urbanites who would sit comfortably on the quiet fringes of the political arena.

This crowd, mostly moderate Muslims and non-Muslims, eventually became a major force in removing a corruption-tainted 60-year-old government and its prime minister Najib Razak.

It was also a time when Muslim conservatives and non-Muslims ate from, so to speak, the same plate.

The opposition bloc then named Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) was made up of the Malaysian Islamic Party (known by its Malay acronym PAS), Anwar’s then multiracial National Justice Party, and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP).

The “enemies-of-my-enemies-are-my-friends” strategy was deployed.

In each of these rallies, PAS supporters would literally come in busloads from the Malay heartland in the north and east of the country, and for a moment political and ideological differences did not matter — but the differences did catch up later resulting in a dramatic fallout.

Before that happened, the whole country had come together for one cause — to overthrow the then-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

In 2018, the Barisan government lost the election, and Malaysia became the poster child for the people movement.

A lot has happened since then. The crowd-pullers at the previous Bersih rallies were opposition party leaders who are now in government, and the roles are now reversed. These crowd-pullers are now being targeted by Bersih for not making good on their promises.

Also, there are no more big names to draw the crowds and massive support it once enjoyed.

The people too have changed, and it seems as though they have given up. They had hoped that after years of protests and a historic election win, life would be better.

Instead, they find that in the last eight years, there have been four prime ministers running governments formed from fragile alliances.

Each government change ends up making the economy gloomier. It is all very unsettling after decades of having a single government and a relatively stable economy.

There was much hope when the Bersih 5 rally in 2016 saw tens of thousands of people, all dressed in yellow, which was chosen as the protest color, cause gridlock in the city. They were unfazed by the presence of 7,000 police personnel, the water cannons, or the arrests of key protesters.

But just as the momentum was building, the opposition bloc Pakatan Rakyat collapsed.

Both PAS and DAP were at odds with each other soon after PAS tabled Bill 355 in parliament in 2017. The bill, strongly opposed by non-Muslims who feared its spillover effects on them, did not reach the debate stage.

It proposed an amendment to the Federal Constitution to allow sharia courts in the states to mete out heavier punishment for criminal offenses.

An enraged DAP then cut off ties with PAS and declared that the three-party coalition no longer existed. Both parties vowed not to collaborate with each other again.

The irony is that DAP is now part of the government that is fine-tuning Bill 355 and is planning to table it in parliament by the end of the year.

Non-Muslims, most of whom are Chinese and supporters of DAP, are understandably disappointed and some feel betrayed.

They had strongly campaigned in the run-up to the 2022 elections for the Pakatan Harapan (Hope Alliance) coalition, saying this coalition was their last hope in stopping the march of Islamisation.

It was either this multiracial coalition which has DAP, Anwar’s now-renamed Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), and two others, or the coalition which has the Muslim conservatives.

The campaign worked, and Pakatan Harapan is now in power along with other parties. But all is not well.

Anwar has been trying to woo the crucial Muslim-Malay support that could bring greater stability to his government. His coalition managed to get only 20 percent of the Muslim-Malay votes in the 2022 election.

His attempts to appeal to Muslim hardliners through his over-the-top support for Hamas, his controversial introduction of a Hadith module in schools, his meet-ups with popular international Muslim scholars, and other such moves, are not going down well with non-Muslims, whose support was what got him elected.

Non-Muslims have returned to the quiet fringes of the political arena. Some have taken a step back and are letting moderate Muslims challenge the conservatives to avoid being accused of interfering in Muslim matters and getting harassed in the process.

Some have gotten tired of politics and have resigned to the fact that the green wave cannot be stopped and that Islamisation is here to stay.

Others are relying on Sabah and the Christian-majority state of Sarawak to do the job. The governments of both these states have consistently been saying that they would not stomach any attempt to introduce hudud (punishments prescribed by Islam).

The days of mammoth rallies are over, and the people are tired. They have the economy to worry about.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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