It was a sombre September 16 as I spent my time following the Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu or “red shirt” rally via online news portals and the sharing of photos and videos on social media. There was one specific video that struck me, a lady in her very angry tone saying, “Enough is enough. Babi is babi!” Some said I should not be too shocked with the racist hate speeches and all the hatred messages. Well, I am all for the right to peaceful assembly, but racist hate speech has absolutely no place in our society. Some sincerely believe that skin color no longer matters. But there are also some believing the other extreme, that racism is at the root of nearly every problem.
Is racism really alive in this country? I am not sure if I should understand the September 16 event as a sign that frustration has reached its peak and was boiling over, because the boiling point could also be “manufactured”. It could simply be our perception. Having said that, I am going to discuss the “Bersih 4 vs ‘red shirt’” issue from a social movement perspective.
The emergence of the Bersih movement triggered the development of social movements in the country. The trend of counter mobilisation in Malaysia is, however, not new. For example, as a response to the Bersih 2 rally in 2011, conservative Malay group Persatuan Pribumi Perkasa (Perkasa) launched a counter-protest initiative under the name of Gerak Aman or Peace Movement.
Responding to Bersih and other movements fighting for human rights and civil liberties, these counter movements that are mobilised around ethno-religious issues, were aimed at defending their race and religion against ethnic minorities in the country.
Scholars David S. Meyer and Suzanne Staggenborg put forward an interesting argument on the movement-counter movement dynamic. According to them, the interaction between the two increases when states enable but do not satisfy challengers. This could be the case that Malaysia is currently in, based on its vulnerable political climate.
Looking at the dynamic of movements that Malaysia has now, it is reasonable to view it as part of political conflicts in which movements pursue goals in their struggle over political, social and economic resources. In reference to the particular case of the “red shirt” rally, I put forward three key arguments to explain the rise of the Malay groups’ counter movements.
First, the Bersih 2.0 movement shows a sign of success. The recent Bersih 4 rally was their fourth rally. The previous three took place in 2007, 2011 and 2012. Having said that, the movement itself has managed to sustain their voice to a certain extent. The Bersih 4 rally, although it was not permitted, proved that peaceful assembly is possible. With that measurement, Bersih 4 was seen as a success.
Second, the key debate that surrounded the Bersih 4 rally was the lack of Malay composition in the rally itself. As a result, the argument was that the political powers of the Malays are challenged. First and second arguments are interlinked. That is, when the movement shows sign of succeeding and that certain groups of people felt left out, it is very likely to provoke counter movements. Most movements have a demonstration effect and this is particularly true for political counter movements. That showing collective action, as shown by Bersih, can either foster or constraint change in particular facets of society.
From the slogans and banners displayed, it was easily seen that the “red shirt” rally, despite their claims to the contrary, was vying for attention from the mass media and the public. The fact that some Umno leaders also participated in the rally supports the third argument on the availability of political allies. This shows that when a movement like Bersih succeeds in posing a real threat to a powerful interest, then there is an attempt to foster a counter movement, be it directly or indirectly, as the social movement form is then considered as a useful political method.
Based on these three arguments, one can conclude that the fear over racial tension in Malaysia is expected to prolong. However, at the same time, the fear eroding every Malaysian’s comfort is difficult to articulate, simply because it is not due to one single event, but from an accumulation of multiple events. Ultimately, fear can be manufactured.
This article appeared in The Malaysian Insider on 21 September 2015.