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Can protests change the country?

  • Getting into the streets is an approach to get our voices heard, but protestors need to understand that protests alone are not sufficient to make changes.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Last Sunday 10 November marks the 10th anniversary of the first rally of Bersih, Malaysia's electoral reform movement that took place on 10 November 2007. After its first rally in 2007, the Bersih movement has organized another four major rallies in years 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016. 10 years on, the question of whether protests can change the country remains a debate.

Many have argued that Bersih has achieved little in demanding the government to make meaningful reforms, but we could not dismiss the fact that the movement has influenced the Malaysians' ability to challenge the government in many ways.

For the past 10 years, we have had various protests in big and small scales. Amidst the growing protest momentum, there is a bigger question – will it actually change anything in the country? Protests highlight the ability of ordinary citizens to make their disapproval heard, but do these protests matter?

Concerns about the efficacy of protests are not just in Malaysia, but also all over the world including the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and many more. For hundreds of years, protesting has been effectively used in many cases to raise awareness.

Bersih protests and many other protests in the country have been around for a long time. Two famous examples are the non-violence protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. In many cases, we have to wait for decades afterwards to find out if a protest can be labeled as truly effective in making changes.

Political fatigue is real among Malaysians. There are various reasons for the creeping political fatigue. Many Malaysians are now politically fatigued by the lack of action over the various issues happening in the country ranging from the political scandal to the racial and religious issues.

Getting into the streets is an approach to get our voices heard, at the same time; protestors need to understand that protests alone are not sufficient to make changes. So, creating changes through protests are dependent on various factors, for example a favorable political environment. There are several aspects of the favorable political environment, such as a democratic system and a polity that open to the challenger's claims.

After the 2007 Bersih rally, protest culture has now changed and become part of Malaysia's “norm” and it is seen as a common part of the political process whereby its messages are seen as legitimate supplement to other means of political efforts.

The blooming of social media as a tool makes protests easier and its ability has fundamentally shifted the way we protest, but it is not to dismiss that the actual factor that bring people to the street is because of real grievances and because of years of outrages and frustrations.

The effectiveness of protests also depends on the subject of the protest and the manner in which it is conducted. Contrary to most views, well-organized and nonviolent protests are proven to be more effective and making changes by keeping issues in front of the public and building public sympathy for the cause.

Having said that, the cause of the protests ideally should be considered significant and close to the heart by most of the general public. The point of protest, rather than creating chaos, at least in theory, is in fact to inspire change and to get something done.

But the good news is, around the country for the past 10 years; more people have come together in solidarity protesting peacefully. The understanding of why we protest although remain low, but people are increasingly understand the logic of protests. Peaceful acts of defiance are not necessarily to be on the street, and they do work although we do not see the immediate change most of the time. It works simply because protests get people politically activated and empowered.

Evaluating the efficacy of protest is no easy task and it if often than not, challenging to quantify. Protests have effects where they serve as a wake-up call to those in power and protests highlight concerned issues on political agendas where they weren't before.

The bottomline is, awareness is crucial and even a shift in just one of us makes a lasting impact on the entire world. This is something that people often overlook as most are expecting for significant change immediately. But history has taught us that changes do not come straightaway and it takes years and decades.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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