Politics Race Religion

Why so few Malays at BERSIH4? We ask a few of them.

* featured image is courtesy of a brilliant doodler that shared her images on Poskod.my

Over the last BERSIH weekend, one of the most concerning things was a significant lack of Malays compared to previous rallies.

bersih malays   Google Search

The figures are quite dire. Here’s an estimate of how the Malay attendance for BERSIH has dropped with every rally.

“Bersih 1 – Malay 80 percent and Chinese 20 percent,

Bersih 2 – Malay 60 percent and Chinese 40 percent,

Bersih 3 – Malay 50 percent and Chinese 50 percent. What happened?” Boon Kia Meng via twitter.

While we’d take those figures with a pinch of salt (orang India takde ke?), having attended a few BERSIHs, we  can tell you that BERSIH4 had by far the lowest ratio of Malays. Some put it at maybe 20% on the 2nd day (Kit Siang said 40%, but we don’t think many would agree with that figure).

Some people said it’s because of Government warnings. Others say it’s because PAS didn’t participate this time around. So we did a little poking around.

  • We asked a diverse group of Malays – those for whom BM was a first language, some Melayu modern, and even someone from PAS in Terenganu who went for the previous BERSIHs, but not this recent one.
  • We looked at the lead-up to BERSIH4, to compare to the previous ones

DISCLAIMURZ: Please keep in mind that this is NOT a conclusive study by a long shot (we didn’t conduct a survey, we just asked a bunch of people), but just explores the topic a bit deeper. Also, this article not so funny 🙁


BUT FIRST… the Malay presence at BERSIH 1, 2 and 3

“Sebab utama saya menghadiri Bersih ialah kerana saya menyokong semua tuntutan-tuntutan Bersih. Saya fikir saya punya tanggungjawab sebagai rakyat untuk menjadikan negara ini sebagai tempat yang lebih baik.” – Haziq, 23

Malays at the front lines at BERSIH 2 in 2011 - Image from NYTimes

Malays at the front lines at BERSIH 2 in 2011 – Image from NYTimes

If you look at any pictures of BERSIH 1, 2 and 3, you’ll notice that the ENTIRE front line facing the FRU or police, are always mainly Malays. For this writer, it was an AMAZING thing to behold – that these people, who have been given extra rights and promised much more by the government rejects their reign for the sake of unity of all races.

And they’re not just youngsters either, but Malays from all walks of life. The equality of races made for a very dramatic Petronas commercial that might never be filmed (actually someone did recommend BERSIH be turned into a film, but not the flattering kind).

“Among the tens of thousands of Bersih supporters were businessmen, corporate leaders, retirees, Barisan Nasional (BN) party members and at least one former diplomat. And they walked toward Dataran Merdeka together with many angry, Malay youths in an unlikely combination that will be cause for concern for Datuk Seri Najib Razak as he considers when he should call elections.” – The Malaysian Insider after BERSIH 3.0

lobloo bersih

How Petronas? Wanna do onot? Image via Facebook


So the question is… why did this diverse group sit out BERSIH 4? We investigate 3 common theories going around the internet

THEORY 1: Was it the scary stuff that happened before BERSIH?

“Kita harus ingat ada pelbagai factor-factor lain. Mungkin kesedaran tentang BERSIH di antara orang Melayu kurang daripada di antara orang Cina, mungkin sebab in current political climate, imbalanced & unstable.” – Student at UiTM Shah Alam, 22 years old

“There will be trouble, something will definitely happen. There is going to be bloodshed.” Khaled, to Malay Mail Online

Lowyat riot

The LowYat incident happened barely a month before BERSIH. Image via Malaysian-chronicle

Let’s recap all that happened before BERSIH that might’ve scared the Malays from joining.

July 13th – A scuffle between predominantly Chinese traders and predominantly Malay thugs is portrayed as a racial incident. In other news, Gerakan Harapan Baru is announced as a spinoff to PAS, which is not supporting the rally

July 24th – BERSIH 4 was announced

Anti-BERSIH Power Rangers demo. If you havent seen this, you NEED to click here.

Anti-BERSIH Power Rangers demo. If you havent seen this, you NEED to click here.

Aug 12th – BERSIH 4 given green light by cops, but without illegally calling for topple of government?

August 21stNGO claims BERSIH luring participants with cash

August 24th – Deputy IGP says TASERS may be used against protestors. IGP Khalid denies it the next day.

Aug 25th – BERSIH declared illegal organistion by Home Ministry for not being registered (BERSIH has had its approvals rejected numerous times). All BERSIH websites blocked by MCMC, with claims that they will clamp down on any other sites “found to be promoting, disseminating information and encouraging the public to participate in the illegal rally as such action could be detrimental to the country”

Posters like this strewn around KL gave an air of potential violence to BERSIH4

Aug 26thANTI-BERSIH red-shirt group announced, says ‘peace-loving’ but will have a closed door session to practice with parangs -_-. Video launched, and parodies ensue. In other news, PERKASA’s Ibrahim Ali says okay for his members to join BERSIH (!). Also, UiTM and MARA students are warned against participating in the rally.

Aug 27th – Armed forces are prepped to intervene in BERSIH if chaos ensues. cites Thai Bombing as example. Home Ministry also warns of an “anarchist group” that is planning to incite violence over BERSIH weekend.

August 28th – Home Ministry amends law to make BERSIH 4 t-shirts illegal the night before the rally. BERSIH organisers say go ahead and wear them. At same time, posters with the words “CINA Turun Bersih, Sedia Bermandi Darah!” showing a man about to decapitate a chinese BERSIH protestor were found around KL and Penang. Various Ministers compare BERSIH to LowYat incident, and advise people not to go for sake of “national harmony”. Traders fear bloodshed.

HOWEVER, while this is quite a bad leadup, the warnings were arguably similar to previous BERSIHs.

Occupy Dataran movement before BERSIH 3 was beset by gangsters and DBKL

The OccupyDataran movement a few months before BERSIH 3 was beset by gangsters and DBKL

Here’s an article by The Guardian before BERSIH 2.

“Earlier this week police held a military exercise in which soldiers held up banners reading “Disperse or we will shoot”. Najib threw his endorsement behind local silat – or martial arts – groups, including one that has openly vowed to “wage war” against Bersih. “If there are evil enemies who want to attack the country from without and within,” Najib said this week, “you, my brothers, will rise to fight them”.

Bersih organisers say they have received death, bomb and gang-rape threats in recent weeks, which they claim police have not investigated.” – The Guardian, July 2011

For BERSIH 3, students were also warned not to participate if the rally was deemed illegal, and sure enough, after the rally, 6 students lost their loans. Some politicians and activists were even assaulted before the rally and some students at #OccupyDataran as well, with police doing little to prevent it.

Oh, and Perkasa didn’t use to be so open to such rallies ya?

Having said that though, for BERSIH4, there was definitely a stronger racial violence overtone, whereas previous BERSIH’s, it was more Authorities-vs-Rakyat.


Theory 2: Or maybe the urbanites didn’t show up?

“I have a freelance deadline to attend to. And I’m convinced that my client is a pro-BN and doesn’t want me to be there, hence the deadline on the same day. I might be wrong.” – Khairil, 27, Klang

It wasn’t clear. The list of five demands were great, but for myself as I said (and continue to ask even now), just what were their plans to achieve these demands. They floundered with non-answers, so I made a viable choice not to go” – Hafidz

The Merdeka Centre poll about approvals to the BERSIH rally are similar, showing approvals for BERSIH clearly leaning towards non-Malay, richer, and younger Urbanites.

merdeka centre bersih

However, if you look at the top right corner, there’s a heavy skew of Malays in general not favouring BERSIH, urban or not. To our surprise, out of the 8 urban Malay respondents we spoke to, only two had ever attended any BERSIH event.

” Tidak hadir kerana saya mempunyai 2 orang anak kecil dan keadaan di tempat tersebut tidak sesuai           untuk kanak-kanak dari segi keselamatan dan kesihatan.” – Sofiyah, 29, Pharmacist

“Tak berminat utk bersesak dengan ramai orang dan takut terlibat dgn perkara yang akan memudaratkan diri” – Enab, Marketing Executive

“Work and family matters.” – Mohd. Izam, 30, Executive

When we were at BERSIH, there was even a Malay blogshop festival in a giant tent behind Masjid Jamek, which a few smart BERSIH Goers retreated to for some much needed air-conditioning. And inside, was 80% Malays, and 20% chinese.

2015-08-30 13.29.48

A predominantly Malay blogshop event near Masjid Jamek LRT, with a few chinese BERSIH-goers just there for the air-con

Looking deeper into Merdeka Centre’s report, we see that the Malays aren’t all that unhappy with the government in the same way that Chinese and Indians are. Also, there’s a worrying lack of concern about 1MDB. Unfortunately, we can’t tell if these are Urban or Rural Malays, but in general, the Malays seem to be less concerned than other races.

perception towards bersih 4

Reasons for supporting BERSIH – from MERDEKA REPORT

This leads us to believe that Urban Malays have never been a big part of BERSIH. Indeed, most Malays we encountered at BERSIH 4 were out-of-towners. Keep in mind also that unlike rural areas, the Malay population of KL is only 44.2% (slightly more than the 43.2% chinese demographic). Alot has been made between Urban and Rural Malays, but could it be that they’re not so different?

“For me, I’d still vote for Barisan Nasional (BN). People can say a lot of things, but I don’t believe in them. What’s important is our country is still peaceful,” Husna, Store Owner in Pekan, to The Malaysian Insider

“You are using the LRT. The majority of the people who are paying for it don’t want these illegal demonstrations,” – Malay woman on LRT during BERSIH4 (click for video)

As a counterpoint to this, check out these brilliant video of a few guys asking Malays at BERSIH4 what they thought of UTUSAN Malaysia’s headlines after Day 1.

Anonymous M'sia attacking gomen in a few hours? Real or not?


One of our readers also sent us this Malay blogger, who didn’t agree with BERSIH’s demands (and he does speak ALOT of sense) – but we figure the same feelings might be held by many urbanites of other races as well.

“Bukannya minta serkap jarang “saya nak pilihanraya yang adil” semata. Ada banyak lagi sebenarnya penambah baikan yang boleh diamalkan. Benda yang aku cukup frust, makin lama perjuangan Bersih ni makin bodoh. Kekurangan idea. Hanya sekadar nak  ajak orang berhimpun huha-huha. Isinya? Bagi masyarakat reason! Bagi lah masyarakat logiknya! Baru orang akan respon. Slow memang slow….tapi berkesan.” – CursingMalay.blogspot.my

BTW bro, if you’re reading this… we’re looking for a BM Editor at CILISOS. Email here k?

Theory 3: Or maybe it really is the PAS factor?

“Saya ada menyertai BERSIH 2 & 3 tetapi bukan BERSIH 4. Biasanya, kite ikut satu bas dari Kuala Terengganu. Tapi kali ini tiada arahan dari PAS.” – Nazmi, Businessman from Kuala Terengannu, 35

Look a little closer at those front lines we mentioned, and you’ll notice that many of them are dressed in red(way before these idjits). These guys are PAS’ amazing Unit Amal. If you’ve ever been for any previous BERSIH before, you’ll know that when you see these guys in red-shirts around, you’ll know you’re in good hands.

Protestors march from Malaysia's iconic landmark Petronas Twin Towers towards the historical Merdeka Stadium (Independence Stadium) during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur on January 12, 2013.  Malaysian opposition supporters gathered by the thousands in the capital on January 12 to call for the ouster of the country's long-ruling government in elections due within months. AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN

Unit Amal usually leads the charge, at a rally in KLCC in 2012 – Image from wn.com

“PAS Unit Amal is well known for its well-oiled machinery in providing security during street rallies and protests while keeping participants in order and managing crowd movements.” – MalaysiaKini

“The police are totally to be blamed. They have let the situation come to this. Luckily good sense prevailed, and there were no serious injuries due to the good work of PAS’ Unit Amal members.” – Ferdtan

For those who aren’t familiar, unit AMAL are a youth task force created by PAS to involve youth in community, voluntary and charitable events. Often deployed by the busload, 10 were arrested at the first BERSIH in 2007, and 1680 brought in for BERSIH 2.0. For BERSIH 3.0, many will remember them as the source of leadership throughout the rally, often assuming the role of Field Commander.

“Ikutilah arahan dari Unit Amal atau *Field Commander* sepanjang program. Jangan pedulikan arahan lain tanpa merujuk kepada *Field Commander*. Laporkan pada Unit Amal bertugas jika terlihat sesuatu yang mencurigakan.” – Instructions to BERSIH 2.0 participants from Suaram.

Outside of Unit Amal, PAS’ late spiritual leader, Nik Aziz, had famously encouraged the use of demonstrations, comparing it to Muslim daily prayers. And PAS members had previously responded with amazing dedication, reportedly in the tens of thousands (!)

bersih gallery gas smoke tear protester sitting

“PAS members are very dis­ciplined. During a previous Bersih rally, several buses carrying PAS members from the East Coast were stopped by police on the Karak Highway. The members were not deterred and walked all the way to the city to join the demonstration, This time around, they stayed home.” – The Star, 6 Sep 2015

However, for BERSIH 4, because of the massive rift between PAS and PR, they officially sat BERSIH out. And in all fairness, the opposition responded poorly to the situation.

“On July 29, opposition leader Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail called for a meeting among the opposition parties but it was cancelled at the last minute as DAP said it did not want to attend the meeting if PAS was involved. PAS had decided to send three representatives to the meeting – deputy president Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, secretary-general Datuk Takiyudin Hassan and elections director Datuk Mustafa Ali. The PAS leaders arrived at the PKR office in Petaling Jaya for the meeting but found that it had been canceled. Dr Wan Azizah held a meeting with non-governmental organisation (NGO) heads instead” – Malaysianinsider.com “PAS begins to feel the chill of isolation”

Perhaps more because of this, rather than PAS not telling them to come, many members felt the cause was no longer theirs.

“PAS tidak menghalang ahlinya daripada pergi, tetapi ia juga tidak digalakkan oleh mereka. Macam kat PAS conference diorang cakap ada LGBT la, ada NGO-NGO lain yang tak berkaitan. Rasanya macam BERSIH pun tak berapa kisah yang PAS tidak akan hadir jadi kita pun kurang kisah tentang BERSIH.” – Nazmi, PAS member

Also, there’s a commonly held belief that UMNO and PAS are the only parties that exist in the minds of rural Malays. This article wrote that when PKR brought its members in, they were from Penang.

“Secara tradisi, Malays kebanyakannya sokong PAS atau UMNO. Dulu masa BERSIH 2 & 3, PAS adalah parti yang stabil. Tetapi sejak kebelakangan ini, UMNO & PAS dua-dua pun unstable. This can contribute to why Malays didn’t go for BERSIH. They aren’t sure who they would be supporting  if they went.” -Student at UiTM Shah Alam, 22 years old


So what can BERSIH do!?

BERSIH 4 malay supporters

“Tak berapa enjoy sebab tak ada klimaks dan Najib tak resign pun lagi semua orang dah balik. Then what’s the purpose of berhimpun sampai nak dekat 2 hari? Dah macam ceramah umum pula. Saya tak fikir kerajaan merasa tertekan dengan Bersih 4.0. Berapa tuntutan Bersih 4.0 yang kerajaan dah respon? Satu pun tidak lagi! Jujur saya katakan, kalau saya Najib, saya tak berasa tertekan langsung dengan Bersih 4.0” – Haziq, 23, UM Student

This was not an easy article to write. We came into this article to actually try to find out the REAL reason behind the lack of Malays at BERSIH, thinking the PAS reason was too simplistic. We asked ourselves – “If these guys were willing to be at the front line before, how can they just abandon the demonstration just because their party-leaders said so?”

Based on the information we found, here are our conclusions

1. The fear-mongering is similar to previous BERSIHs, maybe slightly more racial this time

2. The urban Malays were never the majority of BERSIH-goers, although more Urban Chinese were definitely mobilised this time.

3. PAS really was the backbone of Malay support for BERSIH. We just never realised it before.

However, on Day 2 of BERSIH (perhaps after it was deemed safe), there were many more Malays than the first day, and they weren’t afraid to be counted.

Image from finance-twitter

Image from finance-twitter

However, the Malays we saw there did have a certain look of alienation about them, and we think we can guess why. So here are two suggestions for BERSIH in the next rally

  • Make it as UN-Chinese as possible. No Emcees speaking chinese, no Chinese prayers, and no Chinese songs just before the countdown OMG (the band on stage even sang a Chinese song that was used in the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution. Needless to say, 80% of the audience sang along enthusiastically, and the rest just looked around, smiling weakly.). All speeches should be in Malay or English.
  • Make it less political. Some UMNO people wanted to attend BERSIH, but upon hearing “UNDUR UMNO” for the 12th time, probably just rage quit and went home. Ask for cleaner politics, perhaps even villainise one man, but if you know the opposition can’t win by itself, then why eliminate the possibility of other parties joining?
Tun M at BERSIH - Image via Says.com

Tun M at BERSIH – Image via Says.com

At the end of the day, it’s not wrong to sing any language of songs at BERSIH. After all, we are all Malaysians and we should be able to embrace each other’s cultures. It’s not even about political parties anymore – if Tun M, who is arguably the most respected man in UMNO can come down for BERSIH, then anything is indeed possible. But in these times of need, what we’re looking for is UNITY – and that requires some understanding, and to make each other feel at home.  

“Mungkin satu kebetulan setiap kali ada himpunan Bersih sya berada d KL. Jadi sya akn pergi melihat kerana saya suka mengambiltahu perkembangan politik negara. Sya enjoy semua Bersih yg saya hadir sebab sya berjaya laksanakan hak saya sebagai warganegara iaitu berada d mna2 tempat yg saya suka pada bila2 masa yg saya suka kecuali private property. Jika semua tuntutan Bersih sudah dilaksana maka tak perlu turun, tapi jika masih ada yg belum dilaksana maka mesti turun.” – Major Zaidi (yes, we spoke to THAT Major Zaidi), 47, Sungai Petani

In our previous article about BERSIH first-timer’s experiences, one of our interviewees shared that at each BERSIH, Malaysians learn to trust each other a little more. And on that count at least, BERSIH 4 was probably not as successful as previous events.

Despite that, it still looks like Malaysians are coming together like never before, with alliances happening this year that would not have been possible 3 years ago. One of the most heartbreaking things about writing this article is feeling slightly racist in searching “BERSIH MALAYS” continuously, only for Google to suggest something more optimistic to us.

bersih malays   Google Search

Someday, Malaysia…. someday.



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