Demonstration and Democracy

The practice of political demonstration as the means of political expression has existed in Malaysia since post-World War 2 or even prior to that era. However, as a political culture it is still relatively new. Historically speaking, the most cited example of public protest was the Natrah’s case in 1940s. When the High Court announced that Natrah should be returned to her Dutch biological parents and that her marriage to her Malay husband was annulled because of her young age, it had outraged the Malays in Malaya and also Singapore. This demonstration had caused many innocent deaths (See Fatini Yaacob, Natrah (1937-2009).

Then there was the 13th May 1969 riot in Kuala Lumpur which had also ended with over a hundred of casualties (See Kia Soong, May 13: Declassified documents on the Malaysian riots of 1969). The most recent demonstration in our political history was during Anwar’s case in 1998. The event was dubbed as the biggest demonstration ever staged in Malaysia. The great support by the public was partially due to his “magnetic charisma” and “leadership appeal”. Since then, Anwar’s case in 1998 – public demonstration has entered into the Malaysian political psyche and inadvertently became part of Malaysia’s political culture. The rise of this culture, statistically speaking is attributable to Anwar, who has managed to convince his countrymen of the efficacy of demonstration in facing the powers-that-be. It is not surprising that in the post-Anwar era, demonstration has increased significantly, it grew bolder and has become popular political expression in the modern Malaysia.

My question here is simple: if we view this issue from the perspective of political theory: is demonstration symbolise country’s vibrant democracy? Or to put in more simple term, is demonstration democratic? To its advocates in Malaysia, demonstration is an expression of “suara rakyat” or “people’s voice”, therefore logically it represents democratic practices. According to Lincolnian’s definition and advocate of democracy, it is “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Thus, since “suara rakrat” is truly coming from Rakyat, then it must be democratic.

How true is this hypothesis? Firstly, let’s talk about numbers. When a demonstration is organised, how many people would turn up? Is it 1000 people? 10,000 people, 100,000 people? Or maybe 200,000 people. They came to one designated area with banners and flags, gathered and chanting the slogans. After few hours, they went home, satisfied for so called expressing people’s wish for a change. Now, let’s put this figure into wider perspective. Malaysia’s total population is 26 million. The figure we have just now was, says 100,000. So, what happened to another 25 million and 900,000 people who did not express their opinion in that manner? Can we call this democracy? However, democracy is “one man, one vote.” The 25.9 million is not equivalent to 100,000 people. This is a simple fact that many were ready not to heed. But, it lies at the core question about democracy. How come our people who claim wanting of democracy but ended up become undemocratic?

This phenomenon reminds me of al-Ghazali’s metaphor of a thief. He says, sometimes “victim become more ferocious than the thief.” When someone becomes a victim of theft, he would cry at the top of his lung calling for help. People would come and beat the thief to death. Now, who is more ferocious here? The thief who just stole a few ringgit and beaten to death or someone who calls for people to beat the person to his death? In fact, the oppressed could be crueller than the oppressor, especially when he used “undemocratic means” in the name of democracy to express injustices the oppressor has committed.

Similarly in the case of demonstration, it was used to express dissatisfaction and injustices the so called “oppressor” has committed. But, they have caused tremendous problems to others, to economy, small traders, people going to workplace and road users. The only few trouble the many. So, what’s so democratic about demonstration? To Bentham and Rawl, that’s simply unacceptable.

Secondly, was demonstration effective in attaining its objectives, whatever that is? Effective here means to “achieve their targeted objectives” such as unseating the government, forcing the powers-that-be to change their policy/ course of action and etc.

The advocates of demonstration might think so. But, if we read the history of demonstration, we can observe that the end result of demonstration is casualties. Let me present some examples. Since I am an 80s-generation, I’m just familiar with events occurred during my era. Let’s go to Europe. How demonstration ended in Revolution Square, Bucharest during Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989? Western press reported that there were about 26,000 deaths before Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were prosecuted? The August Coup in Soviet Union during the last period of Gorbachev era in 1991 also ended with death. Same case in the Tiananmen Square China in 1989. Red Cross reported that, the 1989 Protest ended with 3,000 deaths.

So, are we going to that direction and extent, by trading human life with our political objectives? Is that democracy is all about? Show me statistics that democracy can bring about positive changes to both sides. Even in the most flourished democracy in the world, i.e. United States of America, demonstrators were not entertained, partially due to the US’s hypocrisy. What’s so hypocritical about the US was that, they criticise other governments that trying to stop demonstration. But, when it happens in the US itself, they have no reservation whatever to detain and charge the person with “disturbing public order.” Because they knew demonstration is bad for the US. But, unfortunately to some unenlightened Malaysian, they still believe in this combustible instrument of change, so to speak!

In sum, public demonstration is not a “civilised way” of political expression, but it is a scare tactic and cheap way used by a desperate to call for a change. Change for what, we are not sure!

* This post is contributed by a guest author known as Mr EJ Stone. Whatever written here are views of his own


7 thoughts on “Demonstration and Democracy

  1. Nell,
    I supposed that to define is it democratic or not the “demonstration” depends on the issue/ cause of such act, and numbers that involved in and how being act upon the cause.

    For example, I believe that most of demonstrations held in the early days of before Persekutuan Tanah Melayu “existed”, people were short of avenues to show protest against the Brits.

    Another example is demonstration held in terms of voicing disagreement to foreign interventions of how the local handles their matters, i.e: Demonstration against 50 Australian MPs who have nothing to do with court proceedings here in Malaysia.

    However, holding demonstration without regard of thinking majority that have voiced their opnions in terms of political choice, that’s undemocratic.

    Perhaps the last part is one of the gist of the whole article..

    Just my two cents,, 🙂

    ~ OnDaStreet

  2. Thx Ondastreet. The author will respond to your comment anytime soon.

    What is democratic to us maybe undemocratic to others and vice versa.

    I find that the practice of democracy can be practiced in many ways. I’d have to agree that the locals were short of avenues in expressing their disatisfaction during the colonial times. Today, we have various means of doing so. However, the government needs to work out the proper mechanisms to cater the needs of the people.

    Then again, there are also protests which are not really championing the interests of the general public but instead it is just about issues that revolve around particular figures.

    As for me, my worry is on the unwanted latent functions of protests such as jeopardising public security and disruption of their daily activities;business, transportation, social and etc. I just hope nothing as big would ever happen again.


  3. Dear Ondastreet

    I think you read my article well and it seems (from your commentary) that you have understood my points correctly, particularly with reference to your last statement.

    Thank for your commentary.



  4. Dear Author,

    In reference to your article, I think there are many other ways to demonstate our concerns about unfulfilled promises or what ever reason which made call for the demonstration (just like what Nell says).

    However, without we ever noticing it, demonstators reminded us that Government has not taken any steps to keep its promises (i.e justice, national security, family law etc). It could be translated that they were very upset by promises which seem to be trivial for those who made them.

    There is no guarantee that we will not be exposed to another big issue, leading to another “most attended demonstration” in future but if it happens, I hope it’s worth one.

  5. Dear Ainis,

    Your arguments reflect your political maturity and sober-mindedness that rarely adopted by hot-blooded young people of today.

    I hope you also can spread this model of well-balanced thinking to your generation.

    Thank you.

  6. can i spread this by sharing it so some ppl can see things from other perspective, the best thing about this n most importantly, not a politically motivated.

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