At least 1% of the population attended BERSIH 4

The mainstream media is burdened with the discussion about the racial composition of BERSIH 4 to a nauseating level. I hope to provide some other perspectives.

I have attended most of the mass rallies in this country since 20th September 1998 -the day Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was arrested.

I recall that after every rally (except the 9th July 2011 BERSIH 2 and 28th April 2012 BERSIH 3 rallies, when ethnic Chinese participation was reasonably high) the question always asked was, “why so few Chinese?”

I headed the secretariat for the first BERSIH rally on 10th November 2007. Almost everyone I knew then complained to me about the lack of ethnic Chinese participation, as if the Secretariat had committed a great sin for organising a rally without notifying the ethnic Chinese to come.

And there will be countless intelligent and non-intelligent guesses to explain it away, such as “Chinese are culturally and inherently afraid of chaos”, “Chinese are selfish people not prepared to sacrifice for the larger good”, “Chinese fear the recurrence of the May 13 incident”, etc.

So it is amusing now, to read about the theories behind the lack of Malay participation and its grave consequence.

For those such as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who is foolish enough to argue that non-participation at the rally means support for the Najib Government, they just have to look at the results of the 2008 general election.

Ethnic Chinese turnout at the rally in November 2007 was negligible, but the anger against the Barisan Nasional Government simmered quietly away until they were at the polling booth four months later.

In fact, the participation of every citizen is an invaluable contribution to the nation and should be celebrated.

During BERSIH 4, I entered the crowd thrice with Lim Kit Siang, early evening and 11.30pm on the first day, as well as in the evening of the second day.

In order to see for myself the faces of participations and to listen to their stories, I also walked on my own from Dataran Merdeka along Jalan Tun Perak to the junction at Jalan Tun HS Lee on three occasions during the two-day rally.

Others put a higher figure but I am quite sure that not many, apart from Najib and the Police, would dispute that at least 300,000 unique visitors attended the rally at some point during those two days.

In other words, even by the most conservative estimation of mine, 1% of Malaysians (out of a population of 30 million) attended the rally. It is definitely the largest ever rally in our nation’s history.

These brave Malaysians came out in defiance of the risks and threats of a crackdown and clampdown.

Of course there were “kaki demo” who might have participated in rallies since time immemorial. But the sheer size of the turnout also means that many first timers were in the crowd.

Even to “regular” rally goers, a 34-hour rally which involves sleeping in the street is something unprecedented and requires huge psychological commitment.

Friends joked that ethnic Chinese participants must have thrown their cultural taboos away to sleep on the streets in the 7th month of the Lunar calendar (known as the ghost month), something quite unthinkable for many.

For most participants, there must have been a struggle from within to decide whether or not to go. I knew of CEOs, academics, and community leaders who took pains to decide to be at Dataran because they wanted to “do something” for the nation.

For everyone who made it to the rally, there were many more who did not go either out of fear or due to work commitment or other reasons.

A few Buddhist monks and nuns told me they wished to be there but they didn’t like to be the subject of media attention. For those from outstation, cost of travelling alone is a significant concern to the lower to middle income groups.

Each and everyone come with some struggle inside, and with a story of his or her own. They threw caution to the wind for those few hours in the hope that their presence could change the course of the nation for the better.

Many have not sang Negaraku with such zeal and passion for a long time.

When this 1% of the population return home to their workplaces or schools, their stories are bound to have an impact on many more within their circle of influence.

One can expect that now, this 1% of the population are politically awakened and inspired.
After all, they went to the largest pilgrimage for democracy in our history.

They will now question the institutions, the media, the political parties and generally the status quo. They will not take things for granted any more.

There is another aspect of the rally that is yet to be discussed by others: the presence of the very young.

Many senior citizens turned up at the rally for the first time in their lives, including a 90 year-old former Prime Minister.

But the presence of what I called “the very young” was not obvious in the past BERSIH rallies was quite visible at BERSIH 4. I saw many faces whom I feel were probably around 15 years old to 18 years old, especially on the afternoon of Sunday, 30th August.

I was 21 in 1998. The rally on 20th September, 1998 prompted me to get actively involved in politics at a young age.

Last Sunday, those who were born around the year 2000 were there as active participants. Post BERSIH 4, every existing organisation, party and institution -DAP included- has to learn to listen and talk to the 15 year-olds and their generation.

Bear this in mind: if the general election is held in 2018, someone who was born when the last economic crisis hit in 1997 would be eligible to vote.

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