It is easy to explain the current protests in Malaysia as an instance of the winds of the Arab Spring blowing eastward. After all, the demands look familiar: electoral reform, more transparent government, and an end to corruption.
The government’s efforts to stymie protests, too, are by now a standard formula:
Request protesters to file for a permit, refuse the permit, arrest the organizers, fire tear gas at demonstrators, crack down on the protesters and arrest ever more people. All of this executed under the guise of the government’s need to uphold law and order.
At first glance, Saturday’s protest in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur might seem an Arab Spring copycat, inspired and emboldened by the passion and courage of their Muslim brethren in the Middle East and North Africa. Both are inspired by ideals of democracy, reform, greater citizen participation, and a desire to have a voice in shaping political life.
Malaysians certainly find resonance in these ideals. This weekend’s protest in Kuala Lumpur is but a reflection of the attractiveness of transnational ideas that unify protestors the world over, whether they be Malaysian or Middle Eastern. Democratic ideals, especially those that sanctify free elections and a clean government, are infectious.
Malaysians, like Middle Easterners and North Africans, detest widespread corruption and rising inequality heightened by the fact that Malaysia too is an oil producer. No wonder that Malaysians and Middle Easterners demand a more equitable distribution of benefits.
That is however where a superficial comparison of the protests in Malaysia and the Middle East stops.
Protest is not a new phenomenon in Malaysia. In November 2007, the Bersih, a coalition of civil society groups and political parties marched in demand of electoral reforms in the wake of what they considered a sham election. It is Bersih that is on the streets again this weekend, pressing four years later for the same demands. Many of them choked on tear gas and landed in jail again.
In June 2008, mass protests rocked Kuala Lumpur, as hundreds of thousands converged on Istana Negara, the royal palace, to protest oil price increases and spiraling inflation. The opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim participated in the rally in support of the protestors’ demands.
The culture of protest goes much further back in Malaysian history to resistance against British efforts at colonially-inspired modernization.
An Anglo-Dutch treaty in 1824 allowed Britain to extract rubber and tin by dividing up the Malay world into separate entities. Indonesia was conceived as a state by the treaty.
The new economic order disrupted the existing subsistence economy and sparked the emergence of modern towns that had little to do with the natural economic rhythms of pre-colonial social formations.
They were artificial appendages of the British colonial empire, detached from the largely subsistence agricultural economy supported by a local elite that worked closely with the British colonialists. Britain’s granting of nominal sovereignty to local rulers whom it played against one another would smack in today’s parlance as blatant corruption.
The practice inspired protest elsewhere in the region, including the revolts against Spanish rule in the Philippines, Dutch rule in Indonesia and the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in the 1940s.
Seen through this prism, this weekend’s protest in Kuala Lumpur are but the latest episode in Malaysia’s search for its true political identity. It is the same spirit that inspired protestors in neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines to throw off the yoke of colonialism and the oppressive social structures inherited from centuries of colonial domination.
In the Philippines, the task of reforming a narrow elite structure founded upon an inequitable distribution of landholdings continues to fuel insurgency movements. Misdistribution of land, and therefore of wealth, is a direct outcome of the Spanish colonial practice of awarding land to only a few families.
Today’s calls for electoral reform and an end to corruption in Malaysia echo the yearnings of the struggle since the 19th century for a better deal with their government. The protesters, infused by a long-standing culture of resistance, have no reason to surrender the street anytime soon. Their ancestors were there before them, they don’t want their offspring to be there too.
(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)