Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Sweeping the Unclean: Social Media and the Bersih Electoral Reform Movement in Malaysia

Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Sweeping the Unclean: Social Media and the Bersih Electoral Reform Movement in Malaysia

Article excerpt


It was 1.45 pm in Kuala Lumpur. The Light Rail Transit (LRT) station at Pasar Seni was unusually busy. A crowd of thousands, mostly young, walked towards the Dataran Merdeka, a historic square once a focal point and cricket pitch for the British colonial presence in Malaysia. Wearing "Bersih 3.0" T-shirts, some of which were green, they looked high-spirited. Along the walk there were some young men handing out free bottles of mineral water. Various slogans were shouted: "Bersih! Bersih! We want fair and clean elections! Reformasi! Reform!"

After more than twenty minutes of walking, the crowd was forced to stop. Apparently the road was blocked by about 100 riot police. One of the Bersih leaders told the crowd to sit down and let the Bersih leaders proceed to Dataran Merdeka. The protesters followed the order briefly but they quickly became restless. Many started walking to multiple directions. A small crowd was walking towards the Masjid Jamek LRT station, flve-minutes walk away from Dataran Merdeka, and soon the crowd grew larger and larger.

At 2.15 pm, the Masjid Jamek station had become over crowded. At 2.34 pm, Bersih chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan took a megaphone and announced that the rally had been a great success telling the crowd to disperse. The insistent crowd responded by chanting: Dataran! Dataran! The chanting turned to panic when a warning shot was fired and tear gas was deployed. People screamed. Smoke was everywhere. It started looking like a war zone.

The excerpt above is taken from a field-note author wrote while observing and 'experiencing' the Bersih 3.0 rally in Malaysia on 28 April 2012. Author saw the crowd in green Bersih 3.0 T-shirts. Author heard people chanting. Author saw protesters dispersed as the police started firing tear gas canisters and water canons. People cheering, loud gunshots, smoke rising, the crowd screaming, author witnessed them all. Yet, author was not 'there'. Author did not physically experience any of these. Being 9,000 miles away, author was sitting in front of my computer with multiple windows opened on the monitor screen. Author saw the six-hour protest journey, from 1 pm to 7 pm, developing over time from multitudes of tweets, links, photos, and videos transmitted from the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Johor Baru. The impressive amount of live reporting made a real time observation possible. Within 24 hours, there were over 300,000 tweets, 2,000 YouTube videos, and 300 relevant blog posts posted online. This could possibly be one of the most recorded popular protests of the year.

Coming from the Malay word for 'clean', Bersih is a popular name for "The Coalition of Free and Fair Elections" attempting to reform the electoral system in Malaysia by addressing pervasive electoral misconducts to sweep any 'unclean' practices to ensure free and fair election. Many credited the first Bersih rally in 2007 as a major contributing factor to a shift in the political landscape in the 2008 election where the ruling coalition Barisan National failed to obtain a two-third super majority for the first time since 1969. The third and the largest rally, Bersih 3.0 in 2012, just a year before the next election, can be credited for not only mobilizing the highest voter turnout in the Malaysian history but also with the relative success of an opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat. Although the ruling coalition still secured the majority of seats, the opposition won 50.9% of the popular vote (SPR, 2013). By the time of writing this article, Bersih movement just held its fourth mass rally, Bersih 4.0, on August 2015, calling not only for a clean election but also the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Beyond Bersih, the use of digital media for political activism in Malaysia has a long and impressive trajectory. It began with the use of the pre-social media internet during the Reformasi (a Malay word meaning 'reform' in English) movement in 1998 [1,2] that took place concurrently with a similar movement in Indonesia where the internet also played a substantial role [3,4]. …

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