by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. first published in The Malay Mail 4 September 2015
After being on Instagram for two months I have been reminded of some of the more obscure aspects of social media. These platforms enable public projections of what users define as worthy qualities of themselves – tastes and habits, beliefs and principles, or sometimes, simply wealth and status – all of which can be conveyed through commensurate posts of pets, food, houses, cars, holiday destinations and quotations.
Of course, over the long weekend there were many photos relating to Bersih. Apart from the obvious ones of people attending the rally, there were also people doing normal weekend things like attending birthday parties and family lunches, but still flouting the Home Ministry’s ban on clothing (which we now know can be “publications”) that was yellow.
Incidentally, that day I was in Seremban, doing final rehearsals for a concert in the evening, and my clothes were in the predominant colour of the state flag. All anak Negeri Sembilan will know that the field of yellow surrounding the canton represents the Yang di-Pertuan Besar, but few Bersih 4 participants knew why they were wearing yellow: I had to remind them that the first Bersih rally in 2007 ended at the gates of Istana Negara with a petition to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
Apart from Bersih, old Merdeka photos were prominent on Instagram, mostly the ubiquitous image of Tunku Abdul Rahman with his hand outstretched during one of his seven cries of “Merdeka!”. I wanted to share some rarer photos, and I found one of Bapa Kemerdekaan addressing 100,000 people at a rally announcing the date of Merdeka, and another of him leading a peaceful demonstration in Kuala Klawang.
But apart from looking at what people are explicitly posting, much can also be gleaned by observing what other people are liking – on Instagram there is a dedicated feed for this. I certainly noticed some friends who might normally like mutual friends’ posts of cats, cakes or coffee art going suspiciously quiet on the posts with sprinklings of yellow, presumably because they didn’t agree with these shows of disobedience to authority. For most people however, these differences in political opinion do not damage friendships, but there are exceptions when spats in the political arena are played out bitterly on social media.
While both sides have in common the claim that their actions are in the cause of unity and patriotism, the language used from the leaders is different. While the initiators of Bersih spoke of protecting the constitution and democracy (although some of the participants might not have been so exemplary), government leaders have resorted to threats, name-calling and worst of all racialisation. It would be much more respectable if they attempted to explain how the causes or actions of Bersih were contrary to national principles, instead of saying they will set the police on them.
There were many good words for the police on the ground, though. My route to Seremban took me past the Dataran Merdeka area, and I saw police officers metres away from rally-goers. There was no tear gas or water cannon, and there may even have been smiles exchanged, enabling a festive atmosphere – though the blaring Bb of the vuvuzelas was irritating enough through my car windows: if there is a Bersih 5 people should bring serunais, which have a vastly larger pitch range. It might be true that the lack of police action was calculated to prevent nasty headlines – but the rally did achieve worldwide attention and as we have seen this week, international criticism of the leadership can happen even in Putrajaya itself.
I was asked to give an impromptu speech before my performance in Seremban – I am patron of the Euroasia Association of Performing Arts which was having its Gala Concert for its 3rd Youth Music Festival – and noted how over the long weekend compatriots were marking the values of Merdeka in different ways: official parades, peaceful demonstrations, bright clothing. The pursuit of a musical tradition is also a patriotic exercise, with this particular festival having travelled across the South China Sea and attracting young musicians from every state.
Later, Dato’ Johari Salleh’s arrangement of Sejahtera Malaysia was played by the Arioso Sinfonia accompanied by caklempong (too unwieldy for rallies), and I was not the only one mouthing the lyrics of this song so strongly associated with the Mahathir era, being performed by singers of various ethnicities after the gameshows on TV2.
When I learnt that Tun Mahathir was at the rally (as well as on the next day when he missed a family tea party), I recalled some photos and speeches that might be particularly suitable for Instagram over the next two weeks until Malaysia Day. I look forward to sharing them.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS