Bersih and Merdeka

The signs are not looking good for the nation. Commodity prices have slumped. Of major concern is the slump in the price of oil, especially since the Federal Government relies on Petronas’ income to fund its budget.

Aug 26, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
The signs are not looking good for the nation.

Commodity prices have slumped. Of major concern is the slump in the price of oil, especially since the Federal Government relies on Petronas’ income to fund its budget. All this is going to affect the local economy.

Domestic demand has slowed as consumers have to contend with the double whammy of GST and imported inflation. While many other Asian currencies have also depreciated against the US dollar, the ringgit has been particularly hard hit, its decline aggravated by a general lack of confidence in the economy and the handling of the 1MDB scandal and the ‘donation’ of RM2.6bn into the prime minister's account. Foreign reserves have slid slowly but surely.

More worryingly, few can deny that there is a ‘trust deficit’ in the country — in the leadership and in the institutions which are there to protect the interests of the people. Strong credible institutions are vital for us to clamber out of the hole we find ourselves in.

Instead, we have seen how the 1MDB investigations were disrupted with the removal of members of the PAC (through appointments to the cabinet), the replacement of the Attorney General and the arrests and interrogation of MACC personnel.

On 29-30 August, on the eve of Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are likely to witness a large outpouring of people on the streets for the Bersih 4 rally. Already, the authorities have issued warnings to the organisers against holding the rally.

But the government-appointed Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has issued a statement, reminding everyone that the concept of ‘illegal assembly’ no longer exists following the repeal of section 27 of the Police Act 1967.

Peaceful assemblies can no longer be banned, especially “if its organisers have clarified that its intentions are peaceful and have duly conveyed them to the authorities,” said Suhakam chairman Tan Sri Hasmy Agam.

Given the gloomy scenario in the country and the suppression of open dissent, it is perhaps not surprising that many feel they have little alternative but to express their aspirations for a cleaner Malaysia at the Bersih 4 rally.

Ahead of the Bersih rally, the word ‘Bersih’ has already led to controversy in Penang. Schools in Penang have been barred from participating in the state Merdeka parade because the Penang government chose the theme Bersih, Cekap, Amanah (Clean, Efficient, Trustworthy) as its Merdeka theme.

The Penang Education Department deemed the word Bersih to be sensitive. The Penang theme, the education department director pointed out, was different from the Federal Government’s Merdeka theme of Sehati, Sejiwa (One Heart, One Soul).

The irony is that the tagline Bersih, Cekap, Amanah was actually introduced with much fanfare in the early days of the Mahathir-led Federal Government in the early 1980s.

When the military was then pulled out of the Penang Merdeka parade, the Penang state government offered to change its theme to be in line with the federal theme so the parade could proceed smoothly.

In 2007, Bersih held the first of its four major rallies to campaign for a clean and fair electoral process. By now, it has tapped into a wider groundswell among a significant segment of the public longing for cleaner government.

Bersih itself has several major demands, including clean elections, clean government, the need to save our economy and the right to dissent. It is difficult to argue with those demands, in any democracy worthy of its name.

The hope now is that the rally will be allowed to proceed peacefully, in line with the fundamental right to peaceful assembly. Suhakam has stressed that under the Peaceful Assembly Act, the assembly organisers are only required to give advance notification to the officer-in-charge of the police district in which the assembly is to be held (section 9(1)).

Many have asked what non-violent gatherings can hope to achieve. Will anything change?

Drawing on the philosophy of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King have shown us that there is an inexorable, if unpredictable, dynamism and energy set in motion whenever many are united in a common cause to pursue universal aspirations for justice, freedom and accountable governance.

Whether it be the struggles against apartheid, colonial rule, racial discrimination or corruption, this mass of people gathering peacefully but resolutely can influence the direction of a nation.

If people are looking for short-term results, then they are likely to come away disappointed. But if we take a longer view, then we may find outselves on surprising new paths.

So, as we approach Merdeka, we may find ourselves in uncharted territory. But we should not let gloom and darkness overwhelm those longing for the light and truth and justice to prevail.

Above all, we should never succumb to fear in the face of approaching dark clouds. Genesis has shown us that after the worst storm, a rainbow lies behind the clouds, just waiting to let shine its brilliant and diverse bands of hope — a reflection of the unity amidst diversity that God has willed for the human race.

As Jesus reminds us in the Gospels, during every period of darkness, trial and tribulation, “Do not be afraid.”

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