‘Tis the season to be rallying
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 30 Nov 2012
THE past weekend has been a busy one indeed.
Not only was the city’s annual arts festival, Urbanscapes, taking place, but this time Sigur Ros, the atmospheric Icelandic band graced the occasion and performed right in the heart of Petaling Jaya.
Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s Socialism conference, “Revolt of the 99%”, was also held over the weekend.
And most relevant to the civil society movement were the twin rallies, Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) to protest against the rare earth Lynas plant which is about to begin operations in Kuantan, as well as the Dong Zong (Chinese association)protest against the draft Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013, in particular its seeming lack of emphasis on vernacular type schools.
One might consider this weekend as an example of the flourishing arts, political, and activist scene in Malaysia. Or within the Klang Valley, at least.
Why the need to rally and protest on the streets?
This is the question many debated hotly during and following the Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0 rallies.
After all, is it not enough that an organisation can be formed peacefully, and then seek very civil meetings and brainstorming sessions with the relevant government agency?
Would we not achieve the same goals by putting together a private or public forum where representatives could sit nicely on stage to carry out intellectual discourse?
If problems can be settled arbitrarily by the parties involved in a calm, rational manner, then what is the purpose of a street gathering? (After all, it creates conditions in which traffic is worsened, whether due to police’s active work of carrying out roadblocks and spot-checks or by the sheer size of the crowds, does it not?)
I would submit that attempting civil discourse and dialogue with the authorities ought to be the first line of action.
In advocating any policy change, the decision-making stakeholders – chief of which being policymakers within the bureaucracy – form the first level of a target audience.
In civil society and public policy work, one method is therefore to try getting the message delivered to as high the decision-making body as possible.
Malaysian NGOs are experienced in this regard, for instance sending memorandums backed with facts and figures to the appropriate ministries, members of Parliament, and so on.
In fact, the trend of late has been to deliver such notes to members of the royalty, either the Sultan or Agong.
But there is also disagreement as to whether the monarchy ought to be ascribed such great attention given their very minimal executive powers in reality.
But quite apart from mere gimmickry in the delivery of such notes, neither that for the reason of making it a publicity stunt, the first course of action ought to be real engagement with decision-makers and opinion shapers.
This may not necessarily be individuals within government, but could be those wielding influence say from within think tanks, professional associations (depending on the issue), the corporate sector, retired civil servants, the media and so on.
If, however, all lines of communication and attempts at getting a particular message across consistently fail, then it is certainly worth considering targeting a more radical approach.
It is all well and good to work from within the system, but when the system itself fails to acknowledge any semblance of real reform – despite the verbal commitment to it – then there must be alternative routes, an example being peaceful demonstrations which have the potential to send a strong message.
Bersih 3.0 was an example where no serious move was seen to be taken by the Election Commission despite the passing of the Electoral Reform Parliamentary Select Committee’s report in Parliament, hence the organiser’s decision to hold the third rally in April this year.
In the case of Himpunan Hijau, protesters felt their fears and concerns of radioactive waste disposal are unheard and disregarded.
As for Dong Zong’s protest, it was a way of displaying their sentiments on vernacular schools and although the Education Blueprint is merely at draft stage, this would send a political message that the current government ought not neglect Chinese-type schools especially so close to a general election.
Having said this, it is open to debate whether or not these movements had truly tried the first route of continuing closed-door dialogue with the government, failing which, that street or public protests were a measure of last resort.
Another related point is whether or not people marching are aware of the issues they are fighting for.
A cynic’s argument would be that “they know not what they do” and therefore be dismissive of an entire movement on these grounds since it becomes merely a populist mob, or ‘the cool and hip thing to do these days’.
An idealist would state that whilst the entire population is being thoroughly educated and made aware of a certain issue (say, the alleged detrimental environmental impacts of the Lynas plant), not all supporters need to know the specifics of why they are protesting – that by being part of the movement is the first – important – stepping stone in participatory democracy and exposure to issues affecting the nation.
Without a doubt, the spirit of comradeship and camaraderie is extremely strong during and immediately after a gathering advocating a certain cause.
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Ought we educate the young and only upon their thorough understanding of an issue, grant them blessing to participate in an activist movement?
Or allow them the space for involvement, growing whilst gaining knowledge, speaking to more experienced individuals, and in the process eventually being “conscientised” into the language of participatory democracy?
The latter seems to be the preferred choice, and that continual efforts at public education are carried out at the same time.
‘Tis the season to be rallying; which ones are worth time and attention?
To come to any conclusion, one would have to evaluate them based on their issues, subject content, methodology and advocacy efforts to stakeholders, messaging, impact of the said rally, and eventual objectives they respectively seek to achieve for the betterment of Malaysian society in the long run.