By Mohan Ambikaipaker
In the aftermath of the history-breaking Bersih 4 rally for democracy
in Malaysia, there is a natural question that comes up: What now?
Furthermore, deep inside us, sceptical thoughts may arise and people
may start to wonder what exactly will be the concrete outcomes: Will the
rallies lead to a no confidence vote on Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak
in October? Will the rallies free Anwar Ibrahim and other political
prisoners? Will the rallies save the ringgit from plunging further?
Although these are interesting and important questions, I believe they
are secondary issues for the rakyat. To start with, we have to
understand the meaning of what we have accomplished from the point of
view of the political culture of the rakyat.
The political culture of the rakyat is the slow process by which the
rakyat is evolving to become itself, and learning to act independently
on its own behalf.
The rakyat is constructed as a social force through political struggle
and through the process of freeing itself from oppression – all forms
of oppression: corruption, racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia,
Islamophobia, and the exploitation of the poor, the Orang Asal and the
To think and act as part of the rakyat and for the rakyat is very
different from the thought process of one who is a leader in a political
party. The political culture of the rakyat is not simply the means
towards a specific end, for example, the overthrow of one set of corrupt
leaders to be replaced by another set of elitist leaders.
It is also not equivalent to regime change and the emergence of a
two-party system, such as those seen in the West. Even in the West, the
troubles of the ordinary people are not resolved by the two-party system
that is controlled by the wealthy and by dominant racial groups.
However, what has transpired in Malaysia in the last few days, through
Bersih 4, is a fresh and exciting chapter in the recent story of the
political culture of the Malaysian rakyat.
Since the launch of Reformasi in 1998, and following the sacking of
Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister, Malaysians have re-embraced
street-based participatory democracy as an expression of their
grassroots political power.
At that time, 60,000 Malaysians took to the streets to protest what
they saw as the authoritarian regime of the then prime minister Dr
While Mahathir had unleashed state repression on his opponents, both
from within and outside Umno many times before, the Reformasi protest
was an eye-opener for Malaysians, and for the Malay community in
particular, concerning the dangers of authoritarian Mahathirism. The
culmination of these protests was the eventual stepping down of Mahathir
It may have taken the Malaysian people five years, but the rakyat
eventually did secure an important victory in their struggle to stop
one-man authoritarian rule from becoming permanent.
Many other post-colonial countries have sunk into authoritarian rule
and there was no guarantee that Malaysia would not also go down the same
Hindraf protests an important milestone
Following the 2007 Bersih rally, the emergence of the Hindraf protests
was an important milestone. The historical significance of this
demonstration lies in the fact that a marginalised racial group in
Malaysia was able to make visible the neglected suffering of its
There had been many critical analyses prior to the Hindraf moment
concerning the lack of support from minority Chinese and Indians during
the Reformasi period. The re-entry of racial and ethnic minorities into
protest politics therefore signalled another important step in the
development of the political culture of an insurgent rakyat.
For racial and ethnic minorities in Malaysia, the Hindraf street
demonstrations finally broke down the fears of violence associated with
the threat of ‘another May 13’ that was often used by the ruling
regime to maintain coercive electoral support.
These popular historical developments would also, in time, give rise to
the emergence of vibrant opposition parties and their successes in the
two general elections of 2008 and 2013.
These electoral successes managed to remove the precious two-thirds
majority of the ruling regime in Parliament in 2008. After stopping the
seemingly endless reign of Mahathir, this was a second important victory
for the rakyat, who were now able to stop wanton changes to the
The general election of 2013 saw another triumph for the rakyat. This
time, victory was embedded in the multiracial vote majority of the
opposition parties that won. Another seemingly insurmountable barrier in
modern Malaysian history had been broken.
The significance of Bersih 4 has to be examined in the light of the
story of the slow and steady emergence of a confident rakyat that is
learning to claim its power in cooperation and equality with the various
identities that comprise Malaysian society.
By defying a corrupt government through civil disobedience, the rakyat
has evolved even further in realising that they should only give consent
to be governed when a government truly represents their interests and
actively acts on their well-being.
Hence, the question of Malay or Chinese participation in Bersih 4 has
to be put in perspective. Of course the tactics of divide and rule will
be used to break up this evolution of the rakyat. But the rakyat’s
evolution has not concluded with the end of Bersih 4. This is in fact a
Just take a look at the magnificent photographs of Muslims praying
during Bersih 4 while non-Muslims respectfully supported them and even
helped them with their ablutions (wudhu).
A picture is worth a thousand words and it is clear that by breaking
segregation and isolation, the rakyat exemplified the principles of an
alternative multiracial and multi-religious Malaysian society that is
waiting to be fully born.
This is why it is important for everyone to understand what their role
is in the development of the emerging rakyat. We cannot criticise
leaders if we ourselves do not continue to change, learn and evolve as
people who practice taking responsibility and fighting for justice for
And to do this we do not need any more leaders. And, as American
Chinese activist, Grace Lee Boggs put it,
“We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”
MOHAN AMBIKAIPAKER is an assistant professor with the Department of
Communication, Tulane University, New Orleans, United States.