Afraid of its own "Tahrir Square", the Malaysian government is cracking down hard ahead of a massive protest rally originally planned for Saturday at Kuala Lumpur’s Independence Square.
Organisers of the Bersih (Bahasa Malay for clean) rally have been detained, pro-government media outlets are warning of trouble, new police checkpoints have been set up all the way to Singapore and Malaysians are being arrested just for wearing yellow T-shirts, the emblem of Bersih 2.0.
Perhaps most worryingly, for a protest that is yet to happen, authorities are warning editors to focus on the lawlessness of the protestors and ignore violence by police.
Bersih is an umbrella group for dozens of NGOs and was set up to press for free and fair elections. That’s what Saturday’s protest is about. The last Bersih protest brought more than 40,000 people onto the streets.
They have chosen the royal yellow as a mark or respect to the monarchy and the nation, rather than the government.
Despite relatively strong growth — forecast at more than 5 per cent in 2011 — Malaysia is a country in crisis.
Political dissent is rising, there is a strong brain drain at the top and a new outward flow of unskilled migrant workers at the bottom, ethnic divisions are growing, driven by the skewed polices of the Mahathir doctrine, there is no rule of law — and corruption is endemic.
Inflation is officially a little over 3 per cent, but traders say food prices are rising 20-30 per cent a year. And there is growing resentment among Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous people alike that the wealth is not being shared.
"It’s not a failed state — yet. But it’s a failing state," says a former senior official of the Malaysian Chinese Association, one of the leading parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional and a major business and media player in its own right.
"Mahathir’s policies of division and dumbing down the population have ruined this country," he adds. He’s referring, of course, to Mahathir Mohamad, PM from 1981 to 2003, whose career dates back to the turmoil of early independence and the race riots of 1969.
"They (the government) are terrified of a Malaysian Tahrir Square, or a repeat of 13 May 1969. They will do anything, anything to stop that."
As some in Kuala Lumpur stock up on food and water ahead of Saturday’s rally, King Mizan Zainal Abidin made an unprecedented political intervention in a country where the monarchy, which rotates among the nine sultans, is largely ceremonial. At his request, the protest will now be confined to a stadium. But the government and Bersih are locked in a row over just where the protest — declared illegal by authorities — can be held and the compromise does nothing to address the deeper problems facing this resource-rich country.
Pro-government groups are planning counter protests on Saturday and police have warned the public to stay away from the centre of the city, where rally organisers plan to protest at Sadium Merdeka (Independence) despite being barred by the authorities.
Similar rallies are planned in more than 30 cities around the world.
The extent and vehemence of coverage of Bersih by pro-government media is a clear sign that the government — already only precariously holding on to power — is worried.
"They are afraid, terrified," says the former MCA official. "This is not about re-establishing their power, it’s about saving their fate. They are afraid this could be their Tahrir square and they will do anything they can to stop that."
Rattled by a poor showing for the once dominant UMNO and Barisan Nasional in the 2008 election and falling popularity, Prime Minister Najib Razak is now expected to call elections in October — more than a year early — before the rot goes too far. 2008 saw the worst performance by the party since independence in 1957 — and the loss for the first time of the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to make constitutional changes.
UMNO and Barisan Nasional are slowly losing their grip, analysts say.
"They are not on the ground. They don’t know what is going on," says Pang Khee Teik, a gay activist who is fighting to have the colonial era sodomy law used against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim repealed. He is also director of the Annexe Gallery, a space where art meets dissent in a country where the media is muzzled and there is no freedom of speech.
"They have no … idea."
"We are segregated from the age of six — how can we be united?" a woman in the audience at a recent play about racial divides, Parah (Pariah), at the Annexe Gallery, asks. "How can we be one? How can we not be scared of each other?"
As tourists swing their feet in pools downstairs, while Thai ‘nibble fish’ eat the dead skin off their feet, Pang’s audiences for his exhibitions, plays and other shows are swelled by plain clothes policemen.
He has not been arrested or closed down yet. But the constant calls and visits from authorities hang over him.
Najib, son of Tun Razak who rose to power in the turmoil after the 1969 riots, which still very much colour the Malaysian psyche and politics today, epitomises the new Malay dilemma. He rules a wealthy country where rights groups says the money stays in the hands of the elite, he oversees a social engineering project designed to unite, but which divides. He spends billions on infrastructure that does not work and corruption is endemic at all levels.
He may be called by a French court to testify over allegations of corruption in Malaysia’s 2002 multi-billion-dollar purchase of French Scorpene submarines.
But the opposition here still lacks a real leader.
Anwar Ibrahim, fighting sodomy charges and amateurish doctored sex videos, is short on power, charisma and credibility. But the government has lost several states to opposition parties and analysts say the electoral reforms demanded by Bersih pose a serious risk after widespread allegations of vote-rigging in 2008.
"Change is coming. Coming soon," says the former MCA official. "We only do not know what or how."
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