Malaysian democracy activist on new mass mobilisations: 'Bersih 4.0 is coming'

August 9, 2015

Bersih 3.0 mass protest for democracy in Kuala Lumpar, April 2012.

The Malaysian democracy movement, Bersih, has called its fourth major mobilisation — named Bersih 4.0 — for August 29-30 amid increasingly desperate and repressive attempts by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government of Prime Minister Najib Razak to suppress investigations of his alleged involvement in a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal involving the debt-ridden state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

A 36-hour overnight protest planned in the capital Kuala Lumpur and simultaneous solidarity events are being organised in other Malaysian cities and all around the world. Previous Bersih protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people into the streets since 2007, despite police repression.

Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle interviewed Sivarajan Arumugam, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) about this latest development.

* * *

Bersih 4.0 has been called for August 29-30. Could you explain what led up to this decision and the nature of the proposed action on the day?

After the general elections on May 5, 2013, then parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition parties attempted to spark another series of rallies to protest the outcome of the elections, when the opposition failed to gain power even though they won nearly 52% of the popular vote.

However, Anwar failed to get support, even from the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition members, to go to the streets in large numbers. Following that failure, there were calls for Bersih 4 then, but the momentum never really got this call off the ground, until now.

The current call to the streets by Bersih is not only an election reform agenda, it is in response to the blatant financial scandals directly involving PM Najib.

Bersih cites three events: the abrupt and unconstitutional removal of the Attorney General, Gani Pattail (who was believed to be on the verge of pressing corruption charges against Najib himself); the dismantling of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee in the midst of 1MDB investigations, through appointing the committee members as cabinet Ministers; and the appointment of the internal security minister as the new deputy PM to clamp down hard on any whistleblowers and protests against Najib.

Although details of the event have not been revealed yet, a July 29 press statement announces the Bersih 4 rally will be held on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu from August 29, 2pm to August 30 to demand that Najib step down and for institutional reforms to be implemented.

The pressure that PM Najib is facing over the 1MDB scandal has been intensified by the sustained intervention of former PM Mahathir bin Mohamad. What are Mahathir's motives and how significant is his intervention?

Mahathir's intentions are only to ensure that the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — the dominant party in the ruling BN coalition — remains in power. He is convinced that if Najib continues to lead UMNO, then surely UMNO will be voted out in the next general elections. Najib and his family are too tainted with scandals and controversies from the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, the Scorpene submarine scandal up to the current 1MDB fiasco. Mahathir felt that Najib's reputation was beyond repair and he had to be replaced.

Prior to Najib's latest cabinet reshuffle, there was growing opposition among UMNO members against Najib and Mahathir was on a road show to discredit Najib. Najib was beginning to lose support among his own members, thus he even decided to postpone the UMNO party elections to next year. Najib needed time to reconsolidate his support and flush out dissidents.

After the recent cabinet reshuffle, even Mahathir concedes that those whom supported his push to oust Najib have backed down and fallen in line. There is also talk that three state chief ministers, including Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, who heads the state of Kedah, will be replaced.

Some commentators have said that the present corruption scandals are a product of the political practices entrenched by the Mahathir government. Do you agree with this assessment, and if so, why is this the case?

The corruption can be traced back to Mahathir’s economic policies, where he initiated the privatisation of public utilities and assets. It blurred the line between the state and business. The state was heavily involved in various business through its state-owned enterprises. This was Mahathir’s model of fast tracking the rise of the Malay corporate elite.

Funds were readily available to these state-owned enterprises as they were backed by the government itself. They made big investments and spent lavishly with little accountability. 1MDB can be said to be the ultimate product of such corrupt practices that have been overlooked for decades.

Najib's desperate situation comes as the parliamentary opposition is more divided than it has been in years. Why is this and has there been any progress in rebuilding a new opposition front? Will PSM be part of such a new front?

The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) was a product of the people’s desire to build a credible alternative to the ruling Barisan Nasional government. The political parties, namely the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Party Islam (PAS) and the Justice Party (PKR), had to temporarily bury their political differences and hold hands. These differences were never resolved nor discussed entirely. It was a marriage of convenience to gain votes during elections. The ruling BN government knew this very well and always harped on issues like Hudud (Islamic Law) and Malay rights to drive a wedge between the opposition parties.

Both DAP and PAS were confident that their traditional vote bank (namely the Chinese voters for DAP and Malay Muslim voters for PAS) would not be affected if PR does fall apart, as it did earlier this year. Thus, in the absence of a strong opposition coalition to defeat the BN, the respective parties could still retain government in Penang, Selangor and Kelantan. The need for an opposition coalition is more crucial for the state of Selangor since the number of state representatives from the three parties are shared more equally here.

The PSM's position on a new coalition (if one eventuates) would not be very different from our approach to PR. PSM agreed to work with the opposition coalition to achieve the larger vision to defeat the UMNO BN ruling government. We know that being a formal member in the coalition will not work as our struggles and principles differ significantly from that of the DAP, PAS and PKR.

Since two years ago, PSM has decided to focus on building the newly formed Malaysian Left Coalition to articulate left alternatives in the Malaysian political scene.

Desperate regimes often become more repressive. Does the PSM expect a new wave of repression?

A new wave of repression has already started. It is more blatant and nasty and shows complete disrespect for the rights of the people. Whistleblowers and media are attacked for any attempt of expose or report the truth. Our freedom of peaceful assembly is being attacked harshly with larger sentences and longer remand periods for rally organisers and activists.

There might be a further crackdown on social media underway soon. Fascist mobs are used regularly to disrupt peace and instigate racial discontent. There could be a new wave of arrests among activists and political leaders prior to the Bersih 4 mobilisations at the end of August.

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