Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia

Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia

Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia

Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia

Synopsis

Protest and Possibilities explores the pursuit of political reform in Malaysia, an illiberal democracy, and contrasts coalition-building and reform processes there with those of electoral authoritarian Indonesia. The study considers the roles of civil society agents (CSAs) in promoting alternative (especially noncommunal) political norms and helping to find common ground among opposition political actors, and compares recent reformist initiatives with past political trajectories. The nature of illiberal democracy encourages a combination of contained and transgressive contention, with CSAs and political parties performing distinct but complementary roles. Enough space has been allowed over time for CSAs and political parties to accumulate coalitional capital, or the mutual trust and understanding necessary for groups to find common cause and work in coalition. In addition, shifts in political opportunities and threats encourage both CSAs and political parties to alter their strategies and thinking to take advantage of windows for change, facilitating long-term normative as well as institutional change.

Excerpt

It was supposed to be Malaysia's moment of triumph. Despite the trauma of the ongoing Asian financial crisis and the enormous cost of preparations, Malaysia was doing a laudable job of hosting the 16th Commonwealth Games, a major international sporting event. Amid the festivities, on the afternoon of September 20, 1998, Queen Elizabeth II was slated to attend services at a church on one side of Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile, a short walk away, at the Mesjid Negara (National Mosque), recently ousted Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was holding court before a crowd of tens of thousands of Reformasi (Reform) supporters. The mass then marched, chanting and singing, to Dataran Merdeka in what was probably the largest demonstration in Malaysia since independence in 1957. Anwar, who had been a student leader and Islamic activist before joining the ruling party in 1982, was arrested at his home later that evening. However, the protests continued into the night and over the next several days. They even reached the grounds of the brand-new Bukit Jalil Sports Complex, primary venue of the games. The ranks of sports photographers, when not covering matches, trained their lenses on protesters fleeing the acidlaced spray of water cannons while foreign journalists, in town for the games, rhapsodized about this latest display of Southeast Asian people power. Though it was Anwar who was beaten shortly after his arrest by the then-inspector general of police, it was Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who sustained the worse black eye.

The Reformasi movement, launched by Anwar upon his dismissal from the government on September 2, 1998, brought to the fore longsimmering middle-class resentments as well as alternative notions about the nature and goals of governance. The movement spawned its own organizations, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and a . . .

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