It is with a mixed emotion of bewilderment, amusement, and sadness that I read the statement issued by SUARAM’s adviser, Dr. Kua Kia Soong on 12 July 2021 where he made many spurious and misleading allegations against Bersih 2.0. The title of his statement/article was “Is Bersih 2.0 a people’s front or PH front?” In his personal statement, he accuses Bersih of hypocrisy, inconsistency, and inaction when it comes to Pakatan Harapan (PH). Such serious allegations by a veteran social activist and educator such as Kua requires a factual and robust response from me as the current Chairperson of Bersih 2.0’s Steering Committee (SC). I would not even venture to speculate on his motivations in launching such an attack on a fellow civil society partner.
Bersih 2.0 is totally a civil society-led organization since 2010 and our position has always been non-partisan when it comes to political parties. The scope of our focus as an organization is the strengthening of democracy with an emphasis on electoral reform. We fight for procedural democracy without any illusion that there is a set of ideals that would fit or unite all Malaysians. We do not take positions on economic, environmental, education, or ethnic policies, but we endeavour to ensure that there is a level playing field for political parties competing on these matters and the institutions are effective checks and balances to the government of the day.
Some of the questions Kua raised included:
– Why was Bersih so compliant with the PH government between 2018 and 2020?
– How was it that so many Bersih leaders were co-opted into the PH government which morphed into BN 2.0?
– Were there no issues that they were dissatisfied with during the PH rule?
– Is it not time to put forward concrete demands if we are concerned about real reforms in Malaysian society instead of just for “free and fair elections”?
I will respond to each of the questions raised in the order they were expounded in Kua’s statement.
(1) Why was Bersih so compliant with the PH government between 2018 and 2020?
Kua alleged that Bersih was in hibernation during the 22 months that PH was in power. Anyone who closely follows the politics of this country or follows Bersih on our Facebook page or website postings would know that far from being compliant or in hibernation, we have been speaking out through press releases, media interviews, and comments about the political and electoral developments of Malaysia.
From 10 May 2018, when PH came to power till 29 February 2020 when PH was overthrown with the Sheraton Move, we issued 129 unique statements, not including translations, to speak to the powers that be. That is an average of 5.86 statements per month during the 22 months of PH’s rule. Most of these statements are critical of the government and held the PH government to account for their manifesto promises, their sidelining of the opposition then, unequal Constituency Development Fund allocations to elected representatives, and party hopping. In fact, one of the first statements issued by Bersih 2.0 on 13 May 2018 after PH took power was to state our stand against party hopping. (https://www.bersih.org/media-statement-12-may-2018-bersih-2-0-condemns-party-switching/)
Beyond issuing statements, leaders of Bersih 2.0 were active members of the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC), mandated by the Prime Minister to look into every aspect of electoral reform. After two years of research and nationwide consultations, the ERC made 49 recommendations in its final report to comprehensively overhaul our electoral system. These include the establishment of three election management bodies to oversee different aspects of elections, change of electoral system to a proportional system, and political financing reform.
Since the Sheraton Move, 17 months ago, we have continued to speak up in the midst of the political chaos, proposing solutions to deter party hopping and reforms to bring about political stability. We issued 113 unique statements in this period and commissioned 14 research reports to reform the many weaknesses in our political system.
My personal stand against party hopping and unequal CDF is consistent. On the 13 May 2018, just 4 days after PH won GE14, while I was out of the Steering Committee of Bersih 2.0, and long before I knew I would be elected the next Chair in October 2018, I led a protest of around 100 people in Johor against the Johor PH government for accepting ADUNs from UMNO into Bersatu and for the MB’s unwillingness to give equal CDF to opposition members.
It is manifestly clear that Kua’s allegation of Bersih being compliant (or silent) during PH’s 22 months rule, is false, imaginative or both. We spoke up for the Rakyat and the then Opposition when it was unpopular to do so amidst the euphoria of Malaysia Baru.
But please don’t take my word for it, you can review all our statements on our website at https://www.bersih.org/press/
(2) How was it that so many Bersih leaders were co-opted into the PH government which morphed into BN 2.0?
Kua alleged that when PH became the political master, “erstwhile Bersih leaders were co-opted into the administration.” Vague, nameless, and false allegations were made. The description of the “Bersih leader” who was rewarded with the Chair of a commission, then changed camps to be with Perikatan Nasional (PN) could only be inferring to Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun, the former Chair of the EC who was then appointed as the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat after PN took over. We want to categorically state that Azhar was never part of the leadership of Bersih 2.0 since our inception in 2006 in any capacity or even associated with the Bersih SC in any way. He could be one of the hundreds of thousands who joined one of our rallies but even that we can’t be sure. For an opinion leader of Kua’s standing to make such baseless allegations without first checking the facts is, at best sloppy, or at worst, done in bad faith.
Perhaps Kua does not understand how Bersih’s leadership structure works. We are led by a Steering Committee that is elected by our endorsing NGO members every two years. No one who is actively involved in a political party can be on our SC and if they want to be active in party politics, they must resign their position in Bersih. And when someone leaves our SC, it doesn’t matter that that person was the Chairperson or founder, he or she no longer has influence over the direction of Bersih and does not speak on behalf of us. And we do not appoint them as advisers to represent us.
Our past Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah made a personal decision to offer herself as an independent candidate contesting under the PH banner at the last General Election. She had to resign first as our Chair before she took up the candidacy for Petaling Jaya. We respected the decision she made just as we would respect the decision of anyone, be it from civil society or not, to contest in elections and join political parties. Shahrul Aman Mohd Saari, our Deputy Chair then, took over as Acting Chair until our next internal election was held, where I was elected to be the new Chairperson. After relinquishing his post as Acting Chair prior to our election, Shahrul took up a job as the Press Secretary to the then Education Minister Maszlee Malik. As to the Bersih leader who allegedly “lobbied among PH leaders to be given a high post in the PH administration”, we have no idea who Kua was referring to. If Kua’s allegation is grounded on facts and not imagination, he should courageously name the person so that the public can make their judgement and any accused person can opt to take actions to clear his or her name.
(3) Were there no issues that they were dissatisfied with during the PH rule? Did Bersih protest these reneges on the PH manifesto?
Kua accuses Bersih of opportunism for “happily going along” with PH when they embraced Mahathir with his single objective of expelling Najib Razak but not changing the political regime and economic system, or the racist and exploitative rule. Kua then went on to list out PH’s failure to reform the race-based economic policies, failure to abolish draconian laws, political appointments over GLICs and GLCs, not restoring local council elections, and even the non-recognition of the UEC issue. and he ended with the question, “Did Bersih protest these?”
We wish to make it absolutely clear that Bersih 2.0 is not a quasi-party to take on every issue in the name of “the people” narrowly defined by one’s values and preferences. For us, “the people” is plural and democracy is the platform for different segments of the people to compete and compromise”. We perfectly understand if Kua has a fixed idea of who constitutes the People and what struggles that he expects everyone to take up. Kua can always set up an organisational vehicle, even a quasi-party, that pursues his ideals, but he has no right to impose his values and preferences on others, Bersih 2.0 included. No one has appointed him as a spokesperson or advisor of “the People”.
It should be stated again, Bersih 2.0 is an electoral reform watchdog that pushes for reforms that strengthen our democracy, not a one-size-fits-all NGO that monitors and holds protest at a drop of a coin over every single issue that people like Kua is unhappy about. Where PH was reneging on manifesto promises with regards to electoral or key institutional reforms, Bersih has issued many strongly-worded statements to remind them and the public of PH’s promises. Among us NGOs, there is an unspoken understanding and coordination that we would only speak up on issues we are monitoring and leave other issues to the relevant NGOs to voice out.
If by protest, Kua meant holding peaceful assemblies, Bersih 2.0’s stand has always been consistent. It is a non-negotiable fundamental right of a person or group to hold a peaceful assembly as guaranteed under Article 10 of our Federal Constitution. Peaceful protest is also a hallmark of a healthy democracy. But protest is always the last option when all else has failed. When the government or authority that we are engaging with refuses to entertain our demands, then protest becomes an option. During the 22 months of PH, there was much engagement between civil society and the new government, and progress was made in some areas, albeit slower than we would have liked. Does Kua seriously expect Bersih to lead massive protests when the new government was still engaging with us? It would be utterly irresponsible, reckless, and drunk on heroism if we had taken such an action.
Bersih 2.0 has played a role in the development of democracy in this country by normalizing the right to hold mass peaceful protests. Ordinary Malaysians were inspired to take to the streets to voice out their disenchantments and to do so in a disciplined and peaceful manner. We are encouraged to see more and more people’s movements coming forth to organize protests and we will always defend their rights. Should it be necessary for Bersih to lead another big protest, as always we will do so responsibly.
(4) Is it not time to put forward concrete demands if we are concerned about real reforms in Malaysian society instead of just for “free and fair elections”?
Kua claims that Bersih’s demands even when we organized the five rallies were not clear or concrete enough and yet people took to the streets and that we should come out with concrete proposals about what kind of society we want for Malaysia. I would suggest that it is Kua whose mind is unclear and he has once again shown himself to be a person who does not read beyond headlines or the back of t-shirts and is too lazy to fact-check. All our rallies came with clearly spelled out demands for electoral and institutional reform, and many of these found their way into the PH’s GE14 manifesto.
As to putting forth concrete proposals to shape a better political system, since the collapse of the PH government through the Sheraton Move, Bersih has identified key areas of weaknesses in our system that not only allows elected representatives to party hop freely, under current laws, there are real incentives for them to align themselves with the incumbent Prime Minister. Over the past year, we have commissioned 14 research reports that address these weaknesses in our legal framework and made recommendations to amend current laws or enact new ones so that we would have more robust laws and institutions to strengthen democracy in our country.
There are six key areas that Bersih 2.0 focuses on:
- Reforms that deter party defections.
- Equality before the law.
- Independent and functioning Parliament.
- Comprehensive political financing reform.
- Reform of electoral and representative politics.
- Rebalancing Federal-State-Local division of power.
Most of these research reports are completed and available for download at https://www.bersih.org/research-report/
Bersih 2.0 is not beyond scrutiny nor criticism and we welcome constructive criticism that is based on facts and truth, not scurrilous and slanderous accusations based on hearsay, imagination and one’s own obsession with a certain former leader. We believe that if we are to build a sustainable political structure and system, we must move away from personality-based systems to an institutionalized system where good laws are in place and institutions are empowered to enforce them against any abuses or corruption.
In an ever-changing political landscape, Bersih 2.0’s role as an electoral watchdog goes beyond organising protests. We have always been a strong advocate for reforms and have ran many campaigns in the past to raise people’s awareness of the critical issues facing us. To achieve our aim of seeing some of our advocacies coming to fruition, we make efforts to engage constructively with politicians from all parties regardless if they are with the government of the day or in opposition.
In answer to Kua’s question, “Is Bersih a people’s front or PH front?”, I can categorically state that we exist for the purpose of advocating for reforms that would protect and promote the interests of the people and not that of any party or coalition, let alone an individual.
Statement issued by:
Chairperson, Bersih 2.0