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Will Malaysia Protests Bring Election Reform?

May 2, 2012

By Herizal Hazri

On April 28, Bersih 3.0 – a movement in Malaysia that is supported by 64 NGOs as well as the opposition party components – organized what turned out to be the largest street demonstration in Malaysia in a decade. Bersih in Malay means clean, and tens of thousands of Malaysians thronged the streets near the Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur, demanding that the government clean or reform the Malaysian Electoral system, which Bersih 3.0 claims to be manipulative and fraudulent.

Bersih 3.0 protest in KL

Thousands of protesters gather in Kuala Lumpur's Independence Square demanding election reform. Photo by Amir Shariff.

Disappointed with the government’s lack of response to Bersih 3.0 demands for electoral reform, Bersih 3.0 chair Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, said that time for discussion on these issues is over and Malaysians must now peacefully take their demands to the streets to get their government’s attention.

The support for Bersih 3.0 was massive. Ten other states in Malaysia organized their own rallies on the same day. Malaysians overseas also joined in, with rallies from Sydney to London. While the rallies outside Kuala Lumpur were much smaller in size, they were significant. This is the first time since the 1957 independence movement that Malaysians at home and abroad have organized themselves for a single cause in such force. To that end, the Bersih movement is considered very successful. Nevertheless, critics are questioning Bersih’s close proximity with the opposition parties. It’s no secret that the opposition party components mobilized their supporters and went on a national tour urging their members to attend Bersih’s rallies. A high-ranking opposition party member even made an open statement that he sponsored people to attend the Bersih 3.0 rally, on top of his party’s statement that they will help organize Bersih 4.0 and pledged 1 million people to be on the streets in months to come. When the crowd turned unruly on April 28, viral videos revealed that the first group of protestors who broke the police barriers were from the opposition party.

In Malaysia, there is a dearth of discourse around its electoral system. A serious review is badly needed and long overdue. Lately, as Bersih has generated more public attention around this issue, the government itself has showed positive signs toward election reform. In July 2011, the government formed a bipartisan panel, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform, which consults with civil society and the public on their concerns about the Malaysian electoral system and makes suggestions to the Parliament on areas for reform. The committee met 13 times from October 2011 to March 28 of this year, and has set up five sub-committees headed by PSC members to refine issues that came up at the public hearings that were held in six states: Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Penang, Kota Bharu, and Johor Bharu. From these public hearings, 106 associations, registered organizations, and individuals put forward their views and suggestions to the committee.

On April 2, 2012, the Committee presented a report to Parliament outlining 22 recommendations for reform. Recommendations ranged from auditing and cleaning the voter roll to extending the campaign period for elections. Of the eight recommendations that Bersih had put forward to the Committee, seven were included in the report. Bersih, however, remains dissatisfied. First the recommendations require action by the Elections Commission (EC), and Bersih regards the EC as incapable and unwilling to undertake reform. Second, Bersih wants the reforms implemented now, before the 13th General Elections likely to be held in June 2012.

A major obstacle to electoral reform moving forward is the lack of effective communication between the EC and Bersih, which stems from distrust between the two parties. While Bersih cannot continue to deny the influence the opposition parties have in their movement, the EC on the other hand must seriously take note of the demands made by the citizens in Malaysia and beyond who were on the streets on April 28. Both the EC and Bersih must now take a stand for Malaysia.

Herizal Hazri is The Asia Foundation’s program director in Malaysia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Malaysia, Washington DC
Related programs: Elections, Inclusive Economic Growth
Related topics: Corruption


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