Two huge protest gatherings – or attempted gatherings – in the space of 15 days in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Amazing! But what does this tell us? A few things, actually:
More and more Malaysians are casting off their fear of the repressive powers of the state. That was abundantly clear in the Bersih gathering calling for electoral reforms on 10 Nov, when 50,000 Malaysians converged in the heart of KL despite the warnings, the intimidation, the riot police and their water cannons…. and now 20,000-30,000 at the Hindraf demonstration.
In both gatherings, it appears that the majority of those who were determined to show up were the disempowered and the disenfranchised and the marginalised. In other words, those left out from the development process.
Positive GDP growth every year has not resulted in equitable development for all – rather, the wealth generated from economic growth has been concentrated in the hands of the upper class. To make matters worse, the system is now mired in corruption while affirmative action policies have not reached many of those who most need them.
Many appear to be retreating to a fundamentalist worldview of religion out of disillusionment with the oppressive state, a sense of loss of identity due to the pervasive, homogenising effect of global corporate culture, and dissatisfaction that the fruit of economic growth has not been equitably distributed. Real participatory democracy has not been tried and found to be wanting. It has not been tried at all!
Sadly, many Malaysians are still shackled by a communal world-view – largely due to years of being indoctrinated by a system of racial politics. They are still unable to extend their hands in solidarity with all those who are suffering, irrespective of ethnicity and religion. This was less evident in the Bersih gathering, which probably had a greater multi-ethnic representation (though the majority were Muslim-Malays). But in the Hindraf gathering, it appears that nearly all of those turning up were ethnic Indians/Hindus.
The marginalised Indians, Malays, the Penan, the Orang Asli, and the exploited migrant workers still find it difficult to find common cause with one another. We need to break free from the barriers that divide the oppressed in our country.
It is largely the poorer Indians who were likely to have been at the Hindraf gathering, just as it was largely Malays from the lower-income group that took part in the Bersih demonstration. Those at the Hindraf gathering may be unable to trace the roots of their own disillusionment and could be putting on the cloak of Hindu rights, finding solace in the security of their religion. In the same way, many poorer Malays, rebelling against a corrupt and exploitative system, are probably finding comfort in the embrace of conservative Islam.
Maybe a common ethnicity and a sense of being discriminated against – and now a shared experience of a perceived sense of persecution (the result of temple demolitions and controversial sharia-related cases) – has been more successful in rallying the Indians together. In a sense, this is a pity because it suggests we are still trapped in a world-view that perceives suffering and marginalisation through ethnic or religious lenses.
There are shortcomings in such a world-view. It ignores the exploitative nature of our economic system, in which a few (of all ethnic groups) with access to capital and connections lord it over the masses. For instance, why have richer Malays, Chinese, and Indians not showed up at these rallies? It is really because they have benefited from the system and they do not want to revamp something that has served them with wealth and position, titles and status, and the comforts of life.
The exploitative dimension of corporate-led globalisation, which has concentrated wealth in the hands of this small group, has driven many ordinary Malaysians to despair. The introduction of neo-liberal policies, the slashing of taxes for the rich along with the removal of subsidies for basic goods and services – education, health care, fuel, higher education – have all made life more stressful, not only for the lower-income group but increasingly the middle-class.
The suppression of local wages through a policy of importing migrant workers, the lack of a minimum wage, a weak trade union movement (only now coming to life), and racial and religious divisions have all meant that workers (of all ethnic groups) have been unable to achieve the critical mass needed to cast off the chains of exploitation that tie them down.
I believe what we are witnessing now is the awakening of the economically marginalised and disempowered who are rebelling against the system, which has seen Big Business profiting at the expense of the people. I doubt there were many wealthy Hindus/ethnic Indians from the posh neighbourhoods of, for instance, Damansara and Bangsar at the Hindraf protest today… just as you didn’t see the wealthy bumiputera elite at the Bersih gathering on 10 Nov.
Although it is heartening that the marginalised are stirring, it is important that we realise that their suffering cuts across ethnic barriers and has some common roots. Many have simply been pushed to the periphery by our model of development, which is relentlessly driven by Big Business tied closely to the vested interests of the political elite.
More Malaysians must wake up from their slumber – and join hands with one another!