Why rallies matter
protests, and in fact puts the onus on the police to redirect any counter-rallies if they expect clashes to take place. Peaceful assembly is essential to a functioning democracy, and hence why it is widely enshrined in local and international law and conventions as fundamental freedoms. This is not some Western-based notion alone but stems from the human necessity for people to cooperate and collaborate to pursue their interests. Vibrant assembly is a crucial element of a fair and just society.
Third, rallies are an efficient way of bringing strangers together who would otherwise have no way of guessing the volume of people believing in a common cause, especially important in a time when activism is largely limited to reading and sharing news from an electronic device. There is great value in sharing a physical space and moving in or away from the same direction together.
These are collective visceral experiences that spur people on to, very simply, be motivated to do more.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm in fact wrote rather cheekily that “next to sex, the activity combining bodily experience and intense emotion to the highest degree is the participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation … it is by its nature collective … through which the merger of the individual in the mass, which is the essence of the collective experience, finds expression”.
But one might claim these to be merely self-indulgent experiences, because no actual policy change can take place as a result of rallying.
Much better to work from the inside through existing systems, it is said. It is perfectly valid to work from within the system, and those who do so should continue persevering.
However, the majority of people do not work within government and they have no access to the corridors of power.
I would in fact argue that the past few Bersih rallies were actually able to demonstrate significant milestones, which would not have been possible without the thousands on the streets and subsequent pressure to act.
Recall that it was only after the Bersih rally in 2011 (Bersih 2) that the government formed a Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform, which conducted public hearings in six states and presented a report to Parliament the following year in 2012.
Although most of the 22 recommendations have not been implemented, one was: the proposal to allow Malaysians residing overseas to vote at Malaysian embassies or missions. This is now a reality. Malaysians living overseas no longer have to fly back to exercise their right to vote.
The Election Commission also eventually implemented the use of indelible ink in the last general election, which was one of the key demands of Bersih in 2011, although the ink was easily washed off. Finally, international as well as local registered Malaysian organisations have also been permitted to observe the elections.
These are small incremental changes, and certainly much more needs to be done – calls for reforming the administration seem to fall on deaf ears.
But this is where civil society learns from each round of social action. In order to pinpoint the most accurate pressure