Malaysia: 30,000 on streets to demand electoral rights

Biggest demonstration since ‘Reformasi’ movement of ten years ago

On Saturday 10 November 2007, as many as 30,000 people gathered and demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur to demand reforms to the electoral system despite massive government intimidation tactics and threats. It was the country’s largest public protest in the almost 10 years since the 1998 ‘reformasi’ movement. This time, the rally was organised by Bersih (clean), a coalition of opposition parties and non-governmental organisations, formed to protest against the rampant irregularities in recent elections, voter fraud, gerrymandering and the use of public spending to sway voters. The large turnout was a sign of growing discontent against Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s government, not only over the issue of subjugating electoral rights but also its failure to control increasing living costs, rising crime and the unprecedented level of corruption since taking office in November 2003. Moreover, many of the protesters appeared to be young, from working-class and middle-class backgrounds, and from urban areas that have been overwhelmed by the growing cost of food and other necessities caused by the uncertainties in the global market and increasing world fuel prices.

A few days prior to the event, Badawi warned that the government would not tolerate street demonstrations and vowed to take stern action if the organisers proceeded with their plan. This was followed by threats from the police and other ministers in the mainstream media to use water cannon and the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) to contain the rally and arrest the demonstrators. On the day of the demonstration, police checkpoints were stationed on all major roads into the city and as far as the northern state of Kedah to prevent demonstrators from attending, and thousands of police were mobilised to block off roads and cordon protesters into various locations, to keep them away from gathering.

Police also fired tear gas and water cannon at largely peaceful demonstrators. According to the police, 245 people, including 18 children, were arrested and although all have been released, they could be charged later and face up to a year in prison for taking part in an illegal assembly. The massive turn out also worried the ruling government that has been preparing for general elections in the coming months. In that respect, they could plan to use more undemocratic and repressive measures to restrain further mobilisations and demonstrations.

Despite these high-handed manoeuvres of the government, thousands gathered to protest against government policies, which showed increasing disenchantment especially among the urban population.

Monarchy intervention

The Bersih organisers deemed the awesome turnout an excellent success and vowed to continue further such tactics. The Bersih organisers, with the leadership of opposition parties (PAS-Malaysian Islamic Party, PKR-People Justice Party, DAP-Democratic Action Party), put forward a programme to demand electoral reform through the intervention of the King of Malaysia. At the end of the rally, the opposition, with former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim as its leader, submitted a memorandum to the palace official for the intervention of the monarchy to correct the government’s incapacity to reform. With the success of the rally, Bersih is planning to organise similar demonstrations at state level to appeal for the intervention of Sultans, which is the system in practice in the nine states of Malaysia.

However the King and Sultans are powerless constitutionally, because they are recommended by the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers, respectively, in the appointment of executives, judges and others as well as in religious and ceremonial matters. They have no rights or power to interfere in federal or state government politics. Furthermore, they enjoy substantial privileges and respect accorded by federal and state governments. Therefore, the monarchy would not jeopardise their privileges that are protected by state by opposing the government and its policies.

Although the gathering was stewarded and organised in a professional manner – which is another reason for its success – the direction, programme and political perspectives put forward by its leadership is also crucial for building a mass movement towards victory. The PAS, PKR and DAP leaderships are utilising the Bersih platform to increase their respective electoral support in the impending general election but they have no conscious policies to empower and guide the masses to play a role in changing this rotten system. This is reflected by their present programmes and directions as well as their communal and reactionary characteristics.

‘Reformasi’ movement

The last time such a scale of turn out was seen in street demonstrations was during the ‘reformasi’ movement in 1998 after Anwar was sacked following a challenge to former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s autocratic power. This internal crisis in the ruling party occurred amidst the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98. Subsequently, the use of state apparatus such as the police, judiciary and others to crush democratic rights and opposition was clearly revealed to the masses. However, the programmes and characteristics of opposition parties and their leadership undermine the possibilities to build a solid movement.

The ‘reformasi’ movement was mostly supported by the Malay middle class and students with its demands concentrated on reforms to the undemocratic government-state apparatus such as the police, judiciary, media, etc. It also failed to popularise more general economic and social demands such as union rights, decent housing, a minimum wage, etc, in order to garner support from the working class regardless of race or religion. The undemocratic role Anwar played when he was in government and the communal characteristics of opposition parties such as PAS and DAP, did not inspire the majority of the working class or the middle class regardless of race and religion, that suffered under the impact of economic turmoil and the undemocratic nature of the state, to unite for common struggle. Therefore, in a country like Malaysia where the people are very much divided by racial and religious sentiments, there is a crucial need to unite the working class and middle class regardless of race or religion.

United action and clear leadership

Last week Badawi announced that the government could not continue the fuel subsidy due to the increase in global fuel prices, which means that there will be another fuel price hike. This will further increase the cost of food and transport, which will mean further burdens on the urban working-class population. On the other hand, the global economy is in disarray and the impending global economic crisis could seriously weaken the vulnerable Malaysian export-oriented economy. This could create a situation like that of 1998 and more struggles could develop.

The government under Badawi has continuously implemented neo-liberal and free market policies to mollify the national and international capitalists. In that process, the democratic rights and the benefits of workers have been further undermined. In August this year, the government modified the industrial and labour laws that were already favourable to employers to still further exploit the workers. There were protests by thousands of workers organised by the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) nationwide last June to demand minimum wage and cost of living allowance (COLA) for private sector workers in the reaction to the skyrocketing food prices. A few weeks ago, around 4,000 bank workers demonstrated to demand a bonus from bank employers that are making billions of ringgits in profit. Meanwhile, foreign workers have been pushed into very low-wage jobs and deplorable working conditions. In recent months, hundreds of Bangladeshi and Indian workers have protested against this exploitation. In September, around 2,000 lawyers marched to demand legal reforms to prevent the increasing corruption and misuse of power of the judiciary. There is also growing opposition among university students against high-handed measures practised by university authorities. All these frustrated workers, students, middle class professionals and others could be united against government policies in a common struggle by linking together the democratic, economic and social demands.

Reforms can be won through massive pressure from below but they cannot be sustained under capitalism. This has been obvious from the struggles in neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. For instance, in 1998 the dictatorial Suharto regime in Indonesia was overthrown by a massive movement of students and workers which demanded democratic rights. Although the masses gained some democratic reforms and rights through this struggle, their fundamental needs have been further undermined since by succeeding governments under the pressure of the market economy and international capitalism. This is mainly because the subsequent governments of Habibie, Wahid, Megawati and Bambang have also safeguarded the same profit system. Last year, Bambang reduced the fuel subsidy which further increased fuel prices and altered the labour laws to be market friendly, which further burdened the workers and poor.

Therefore the democratic, social and economic struggles must be linked to political struggles. It is vital to fight for democratic rights such as genuinely free elections, unfettered rights to form political parties and contest elections, the right to meet, assemble and demonstrate with no fear of harassment by the forces of the state, the right to organise trade unions and to strike, freedom of the mass media from state interference etc.

But the Malaysian government policies are based on capitalism and the free market economy which prioritises profit for the minority (national and international capitalists) rather than fulfilling the fundamental needs of the majority (workers, students, the middle class and the oppressed). It is therefore also necessary to fight for the nationalisation of major industries under workers’ control and management and the democratisation of government institutions, under the control of the majority, as part of building a democratic socialist society. Moreover, the movement must be led by a party whose leadership has a clear programme, tactics and perspectives to guide the masses in the struggles towards transforming society.

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November 2007