by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun 3 September 2015
MANY of my urban, middle class friends and relatives went for their first ever rally last weekend, joining tens of thousands on the streets of Kuala Lumpur in a festive parade, mainly protesting against the prime minister and the RM2.6 billion scandal he has been reportedly linked with.
Yes, the unfolding narrative emerging out of the weekend’s peaceful Bersih 4 rally is that its participants were largely made up of the urban, posh, highly educated “haves” of society. Those who draw this conclusion usually also surmise that this renders irrelevant the cause for which they came, saying Bersih would be legitimised only upon gaining support from the rural, less educated “have-nots”.
Unfortunately, there is no attendance sign-in sheet to prove where the majority of people travelled from, nor their socio-economic backgrounds. Since there are no statistical means to test the demographic makeup of the rally attendees, one would have had to come to this conclusion based on observation alone.
This analysis is problematic on several levels.
First, this narrative conveniently ignores those hundreds of people who came from all over Malaysia, and not just hailing from Damansara Heights or Bangsar. People came in on their own by bus from the smaller semi-urban towns of Raub, Bukit Mertajam and Kota Tinggi. Mohd Hafis, 36, physically disabled as he was, rode his motorcycle from Penang for seven hours to join the rally. And these are just some stories among the thousands of others.
They exercised individual agency, taking a tremendous risk to come on their own initiative despite having heard of the harsh, violent treatment accorded to participants of previous rallies. They could not have guessed from the outset that the police would have allowed the rally to proceed without disruption, judging from previous incidents. Uncles and aunties came with self-made masks to protect themselves from tear gas.
Second, many revolutions, both historic and present-day, have been led by the middle class, including the French Revolution. The 2011 Arab Spring, and protests in Brazil, Turkey and China in recent years, have all been led by a younger, more highly educated and higher-income segment of the population, those more likely to make use of technology and social media to get their campaign messages across.
Even on home ground, the protest against the Malayan Union in 1946 was led by none other than Umno founder Datuk Onn Jaafar, who was born into the Johor sultanate and one of the few Malays privileged enough at the time to study in England. It cannot be denied that it was the aristocracy – the “bangsawan” – who fought for civil rights in our early years of nationhood.
Finally, it is difficult to comprehend why the message should be in any way diluted by the makeup of the people saying it. Nobody asks about whether or not the poor attend anti-Iraq war protests. Nobody wonders whether there is rural representation in Malaysian campaigns for the Palestinian cause. This is because the cause in itself is assumed to be benevolent and representative of the ails suffered by the low-income communities themselves.
And is this any different in the current scenario? Bersih has listed five demands, namely free and fair elections, a transparent government, the right to demonstrate, strengthening the parliamentary democratic system and saving the national economy.
While the right to demonstrate may not be the foremost demand on the minds of poor Malaysians who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis, this does not mean they do not value their individual right to have their voices heard. Surely there is merit in calling for the government to save the economy – in fact; it is the lowest-income communities who would benefit most from this, given the rising cost of living. And it is the small businesses – yes, even the bumiputra owners – which complain about the lack of transparency in public procurement. So whose cause is it that Bersih stands for?
Defining the middle class is not always easy, but using what the World Bank proposed in its December 2014 Economic Report, 33% of all Malaysian households fall into the middle class or beyond, who earned a monthly income of more than RM5,919 in 2014. But when defined on aspirations (taking a factor of 2.5 times the poverty line and average income), this grows to more than half of Malaysian households, 83% of whom live in Peninsular Malaysia and more than 75% of whom live in urban areas.
The reality is that in many of our modern societies, it’s usually the more educated and exposed communities who have the opportunities to point to the gaps and failures of government administration, the education and legal systems, and are more demanding of their leaders. The middle class is empowered by technology; the “me generation” that is not easily placated by top-down approaches.
But the middle class may be larger and more representative of Malaysians than we think. Just because a group of people is middle class – however you define it, and whether or not it accurately encompasses the myriad of people who turned up for Bersih – does this mean they are out of touch with and therefore cannot articulate the concerns of others? Shall we therefore wait for legitimacy to be granted to us by whom we patronisingly call our “rural, uneducated” friends before we begin championing a cause we believe is equally theirs?
We should not assume to know what we patronisingly refer to as the “rural” or “uneducated” communities are concerned about just because they could not, or would not, turn up in visibly apparent numbers. But likewise, a burgeoning middle class from your Alor Star mechanic to your Muar coffeeshop owner should not be patronised as being unable to articulate universal concerns.
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Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of IDEAS