Arab Spring or T-shirt Revolution, it has arrived in Malaysia
The last straw for Malaysia's nearly 30 million population could well be a simple, yellow round-necked tee.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has declared illegal the wearing of a t-shirt related to a free and fair elections rally, reinforcing the views of many regional experts that Prime Minister Najib Razak may have precipitated an early Arab Spring in the Southeast Asian nation. Or more precisely, a t-shirt revolution.
"I have been following the Bersih 2.0 saga very closely. I believe that Najib and his government – because of their statements and actions -- are painting themselves into a corner," John Malott, the former US ambassador to Malaysia told Malaysia Chronicle.
"Increasingly, it is a lose-lose situation for Najib and his government. No matter what happens on July 9, both domestically and internationally, Najib already has lost."
Absolute power and corruption
Indeed, after the 2008 general elections where the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim swept 47 per cent of the popular vote, the signs have been on the wall for Malaysia's totalitarian BN government.
It has ruled the country for more than 5 decades and Najib's UMNO party calls all the shots in the coalition. UMNO itself, which began life as an idealistic nationalist party fighting the British colonialists for independence, has become an old-boys club spolit by years of absolute political power. It has spawned unimaginable corruption, and what been tracked by the Washington-based Global Financial Integrity amounting to US$291 billion (RM888 billion) in illicit outflows is believed to be just the tip of the real iceberg.
Power within UMNO is now distributed amongst three main families - Najib's family, Hisham's family and the Mahathir family. Najib and Hisham are cousins and their dads were the 2nd and 3rd prime minister, while Mahathir Mohamad was the 4th. Despite a membership of more than 3 million, few ever get a stab at the top echelons of power in UMNO.
And it is this instinct for self preservation that has provoked the cousins, no doubt supported by Mahathir as well, to fight the Bersih rally with all their might. Their overkill was their undoing. Despite Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat coalition throwing its full support behind the rally organised by 62 of the country's best known NGOs, the march could have at most re-emphasized that the inevitable was due sooner or later.
It would also have been a hard slap in the face for Najib and wife Rosmah Mansor, both of whom are known for their 'sensitivity' to criticism. But so what? Tough cheese for the first couple, but that's about it. Anwar and Pakatan would still have to battle uphill to achieve their goal of taking 11 states out of 13 in the coming 13th general election.
Hardline regimes don't work these days
Now the equation has changed somewhat. If before the opposition was viewed as something that Malaysians should not be associated with, this no longer holds true. Post the Bersih fiasco, it will be the BN that Malaysians will shun for fear of being ridiculed as cultural dinosaurs. BN knows it is in trouble because try as it will, it has failed to attract quality new blood. Yet, it still refuses to budge from its time warp.
"I would say it makes our job simpler. But we still have to work very hard, that's for sure. In a way, Bersih or rather Najib's over-reaction to it has been great advertisement for the Pakatan's cause," PKR vice president Tian Chua toldMalaysia Chronicle.
"Even if the BN launched a crackdown now, how long can it last, for how long will Malaysians including the Malays support emergency rule or a hardline regime. Even in Singpaore, Lee Kuan Yew and his son know they have to accept the demands of a changing society. I would say even the Myanmar regime is in danger. It will be swept off sooner rather than later."
Unpopular obsolete tactics
Malott believes that the best solution, both for domestic and international reasons, would have been for Najib to allow the Bersih organizers their constitutional right to hold their Walk for Democracy. That way, the BN government could have “controlled” the situation, blaming the fallout to the Pakatan.
But due to Najib's preference for unpopular and obsolete tactics such as the threat of counter-marches on the same day by Malay rights group Perkasa and the UMNO Youth wing - in the belief that it would frighten off the crowd - BN is now left on the defensive.
Even if a token crowd attended on July 9, it would allow Bersih and Pakatan leaders to claim a moral victory. So popular are they now that it would immediately raise a cheer across the nation. Even if they were all "pre-emptively" arrested as threatened previously by Hisham, BN and Najib would still have lost.
"Najib then could have claimed to both Malaysians and the world that it shows that Malaysia is genuinely a democracy. But no, because Najib is Najib, he says and does nothing. And so the situation only has gotten worse – for him and for Malaysia," said Malott.
On Wednesday, Hishammuddin had stunned the nation when he pronounced the yellow-coloured Bersih tee illegal. "If the Bersih t-shirt is related to an illegal activity, then whatever they are wearing is illegal," he told reporters.
What happens now?
It is hard to see the Bersih organisers backing off now. Already, they have achieved more than they ever expected - without even getting a single one of the 8 electoral reforms they are demanding passed by Najib and the Election Commission.
The message that Malaysia needs to clean up its voting system, that the existing system is corrupt, that until there are reforms Malaysian voters won't get the government or the leaders they chose at ballot boxes, has been made loud and clear.
Yet, for Bersih to cancel now would be a grevious misstep that organising chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan, a former Bar Council president and receipient of the prestigious International Women of Courage Award, is unlikely to make.
Come July 9, unless of course she and her collegaues have been arrested, it is more than likely that the rally will take place. It may not be as huge as previously anticipated, but certainly, many of Malaysia's growingly civic-consious society will show up.
And they won't be alone. Marchers may have to suffer the sting of tear gas, the water canons and the police detention. But law groups are springing up across the country offering free legal aid for detainees as part of their contribution to society. And that should be another scary sign for Najib and cousin.
Additionally, Bersih can count on the world's media to track their march and broadcast to prime-time TV networks around the globe their fight for democracy. A sad reflection it may be, but it is this presence of foreign media that will temper Najib's heavy-handedness rather than any local factor.
"If the Bersih 2.0 organisers defy the police and exercise their constitutional right to assemble, they will no doubt be met with force by the police. And the world will see it – on CNN and BBC, both in Malaysia and overseas," said Malott.
Where does it leave Najib?
The Bersih rally has reached a stage where either way Najib and Hisham will lose.
The door to the UMNO presidency is now wide open, although aspirants such as Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will still have to get past Mahathir, and to an extent 5th prime minister and Najib's immediate predecessor Abdullah Badawi.
Should Najib U-turn at the 11th hour and do what he should have done right at the outset, which was to lay down rules for the rally rather than embark on a confrontation with his own citizens, it would still be a lose-lose situation for him and Hisham. The door to the premiership would still be wide open.
"If the government comes to its senses and follows the Constitution and allows the march to take place – which I doubt – then the Government will lose support among the right-wing fringe groups that they believe they need for success in the next election, like Perkasa. So this is a lose-lose situation for Najib," said Malott.