I just finished my exams for this semester! Yay! It also means I’ve completed all the undergrad requirements to get into Honours, so assuming I don’t fail any of my Arts subjects this semester, I’m going to spend next year conducting some Serious Political Research (as opposed to the frivolity of these past three years…).
But talking about Serious Political Research, I just wanted to share my final research paper for the pre-Honours unit I did this semester, Power (yes, that’s the name of the unit. Talk about short and sweet). It examines the Bersih 3.0 rally held in Kuala Lumpur on April 28 this year, and how it managed to garner the extent of local and international support it did. I really wanted to post it here because I don’t think there’s enough rigorous academic analysis of Bersih 3.0 out there yet, so hopefully my essay can help shed some light on what happened that day, and why.
Thanks to my parents for their support while I was writing this; especially Dad for taking out a one-month subscription to Malaysia Kini, just for my assignment.
Bersih 3.0: Online Resistance and Malaysia’s Digital Hidden Transcript
“When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts” – Ethiopian proverb (Scott 1990: preface)
The Bersih 3.0 rally was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 28 April 2012. Its primary aims, amongst others, were to call for the Malaysian government to clean the electoral roll, provide free and fair access to the media, and stop corruption (Bersih 2012a). As the third rally in six years organised by Bersih, otherwise known as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, it was significant for being the largest street demonstration in Malaysia in a decade and garnering extensive local and global support, with ten other states in Malaysia and Malaysians in cities around the world organizing simultaneous rallies (Hazri 2012).
This essay will examine the Bersih 3.0 rally and explore the reasons for its widespread local and international support in light of mainstream media censorship. Using James Scott’s theory of peasant resistance as a base, this essay will employ the concept of a ‘digital hidden transcript’ as well as a typology of communication functions of social movements to provide a framework for exploring how the Internet helped create a digital hidden transcript that facilitated local and global support for the Bersih 3.0 rally. After outlining the three foundational concepts, the key puzzle with regards to support for Bersih 3.0 in light of the lack of coverage by mainstream media and government bans will be presented. It will subsequently be demonstrated that the Internet facilitated a digital hidden transcript for Bersih supporters to disseminate information, interact, connect with other movements and global supporters, and express themselves creatively. It will be concluded that the Internet has helped create a new ‘hidden transcript’ that facilitates citizen resistance towards repressive governments.
2. Foundational Concepts: Theory of Peasant Resistance, a Digital Hidden Transcript and Social Movement Communication Functions
James Scott’s theory of peasant resistance revolves around the notion that subordinates create and defend ‘hidden transcripts’, or social spaces in which dissent to the official transcript of power relations can be voiced (James 1990: xi). The social production of hegemonic appearances in the official transcript results from elites exerting their influence to create the appearance of naturalized power, as well as subordinates disguising their resistance in order to protect themselves and minimize the consequences of possible failure (James 1990: 87-96). In applying Scott’s notion of the ‘hidden transcript’ to the recent Bersih 3.0 rally in Malaysia, I will draw upon two other concepts:
1. The ‘digital hidden transcript’: A concept put forward by Mark Liew in his examination of blogging as an instrument of student resistance in Singapore. Adopting Scott’s idea of the ‘hidden transcript’, Liew demonstrated how a digital version in the form of student-written blog satires facilitated online discussions that enabled the student community to address conflicting views on controversial issues without the intervention of teachers or parents (Liew 2010: 311). This ‘digital hidden transcript’ re-enacted the conflict underlying classroom relations, while simultaneously illuminating an illicit realm of digital interactions in which students expressed their own interests and identities (Liew 2010: 308). Liew’s reinvention of Scott’s concept has been echoed by Ashley Esarey and Xiao Qiang, who, in an examination of the Chinese blogosphere and its significance as a ‘hidden transcript’, proposed that the freer political expression afforded in blogs had several important effects, such as allowing citizens to gradually develop strategies for challenging regime positions without being subjected to harsh forms of state repression (Esarey and Xiao 2008: 770-771).
2. A typology of communication functions of social movements: Laura Stein’s typology highlights the functions most salient to social movement communication, and identifies the features within web-based communications that contribute to each (Table 1). This typology will provide a structure for outlining how the Internet facilitated a digital hidden transcript for Bersih supporters to disseminate information, interact, connect with other movements and global supporters, and express themselves creatively.
Table 1. Typology of communication functions of social movements and associated web-based communication attributes (Stein 2011: 150-152)
Case study: Bersih 3.0
3. The Puzzle: Support for Bersih 3.0 versus Media Portrayal, Government Bans and Censorship
A key puzzle is how Bersih 3.0 managed to obtain the widespread support it did, given that there was significantly less print media coverage of the event compared to previous Bersih rallies, and that the coalition had been temporarily banned last year by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein as a security threat (Centre for Independent Journalism 2012). Additionally, prior to its recent demonstration, media stories had portrayed Bersih negatively, linking it to Christian, Jewish and communist conspiracies, and even Islamic extremists (McDonald 2012).
Since independence, a vital source of power for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional has been the restriction of media freedoms through licensing regulations and the ownership and control of Malaysia’s print and broadcast media (Pepinsky 2012: 9). Nevertheless, in the past fifteen years, technological change, especially via the Internet, has enabled both professional journalists and ordinary citizens to report and access fresh perspectives on Malaysian politics with unprecedented freedom, aided serendipitously by the regime’s effort to establish wide Internet usage among Malaysians (Pepinsky 2012: 9). Using Stein’s typology of communication functions for social movements and their associated web-based communication attributes, the following sections in this essay will explore how the Internet helped create a digital hidden transcript that facilitated local and global support for the Bersih 3.0 rally.
4a. The Internet as a Tool for Disseminating Information and Mobilizing Protesters
The Internet enabled Bersih to disseminate information regarding previous rallies and its overall campaign, and mobilize protesters for the upcoming Bersih 3.0 rally. The Internet, being relatively free of centralized gatekeepers, allows for the direct and uncompromised information dissemination by social movement organizations (SMOs) (Stein 2011: 151).
Some Bersih 3.0 participants were inspired by online articles and video footage of the previous Bersih rallies to take part in the campaign this time around. The rapid speed at and the extent to which photos and videos from Bersih 2.0 spread across the Internet caught the attention of a Malaysian, Kuok Yeow, who participated in the protest this year (Yeow 2012). Yeow, who reported her experience for online alternative news portal The Malaysian Insider, mentioned two particular Youtube videos that had mobilized her to join Bersih 3.0. One of the videos Yeow mentions, ‘Truth that cannot be covered – Bersih 2.0 09/07/2011’by Youtube user ahfusim, juxtaposes statements from various Malaysian government officials regarding the handling of last year’s Bersih 2.0 campaign with graphic footage from the day of the protest itself, and has so far garnered over a million views (Ahfusim 2012).
The Internet also played an important role in enabling Bersih to create its own website and establish itself on various social media and networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube (Photo 1). Bersih used these various sites to promote the upcoming Bersih 3.0 rally, explain Bersih’s agenda and, in the case of Bersih’s Youtube channel, highlight footage from previous rallies as well as appeals for support from Bersih leaders (Bersih428 2012). The promotion of the Bersih 3.0 rally via various social media and networking sites further underlined the Internet’s importance in aiding Bersih’s coordination of real-world events.
Campaign materials were also circulated online, such as a ‘Street Rally Guide for Beginners’ purportedly published by human rights organization Suaram (Photo 2), which potentially provided further encouragement for first-time protesters to attend the rally.
Photo 1. Bersih’s official website, displaying its various links to social media and networking sites – Facebook (left), Youtube (centre), and Twitter (right) (Bersih 2012b)
Photo 2. Excerpt from ‘Street Rally Guide for Beginners’ (original source unknown) (Calderon 2012a)
4b. The Internet as a Tool for Stimulating Interaction and Dialogue
The Internet provided a useful way for citizens to discuss the rally and shape the discourse surrounding it by contrasting online eyewitness accounts with mainstream media reports. Alternative media can serve as relatively independent sites of interaction and dialogue, with online participatory forums providing opportunities for dialogue and discussion, as well as facilitating the creation of discursive networks that offer alternative perspectives (Stein 2011: 152). James Scott extended upon this view by highlighting how social spaces of relative autonomy discipline and produce patterns of resistance via mutual communication within the public of the ‘hidden transcript’ (Scott 1990: 119).
One interesting example with regards to the Bersih 3.0 rally was Marina Mahathir, daughter of former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir, who runs her own blog and posted her account of her own experience at the rally, voiced her anger and disappointment at the use of razor wire and tear gas by police against protesters (Mahathir 2012a). Her article was further disseminated via social media and networks, in particular Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook (Mahathir 2012a). As an example of shaping discourse and stimulating dialogue around Bersih, Mahathir engaged in a discussion with her readers in the comments section of her blog entry, in which she underlined doubts regarding the procedures followed by the police (Photo 3), and subtly criticized the ruling party UMNO for its corruption (Photo 4). Additionally, Mahathir wrote another blog entry, entitled ‘Testimonies to Truth’, that provided web links to eyewitness accounts of Bersih 3.0, for blog readers to contrast with accounts from the mainstream media (Mahathir 2012b).
Mahathir’s online postings and discussions are arguably significant on various levels. Firstly, her debate with blog readers was unusually candid in terms of discussing her experience at the rally and criticising UMNO, given her affiliations with the ruling party. Such dialogue would likely have been banned or censored in traditional Malaysian media, though her support for the movement has undoubtedly provided Bersih with a certain measure of legitimacy and publicity. Secondly, Mahathir helped shape the discourse and stimulate dialogue around Bersih 3.0 by engaging in frank discussions with her blog readers and referring them towards other online eyewitness accounts.
Photo 3. Mahathir’s response to a reader’s questions about police procedure at Bersih 3.0 (Mahathir 2012a).
Photo 4. Mahathir shedding light on UMNO corruption (Mahathir 2012a).
4c. The Internet as a Tool for Promoting Lateral Linkages
The Internet was also used to form lateral linkages with other movements and the overseas Malaysian community. By uniting communities of interest across national and transnational space, the Internet can be used to communicate laterally and build networks among social movement supporters (Stein 2011: 152). In particular, the ability to connect one organization’s site to another through hyperlinks is a strategic choice that recognises the presence of other actors and establishes an interconnected sphere of online sites (Stein 2011: 152). It can also help refer supporters to sites of news and research, or national or international social movements affiliated with the cause (Stein 2011: 152).
One example of online cross-organization unity is the association of the Stop Lynas movement with Bersih 3.0. At Bersih 3.0 protests in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere, supporters of the ‘Save Malaysia Stop Lynas’ (SMSL) campaign were present, wearing green shirts or masks (Photo 5). The SMSL group is part of an environmentalist coalition aimed at stopping Australian miner Lynas Corporation from operating a rare earth plant in Kuantan, Malaysia, due to concern regarding the plant’s health and safety aspects (Kong 2012). SMSL showed strong support for Bersih 3.0 through its official website, with SMSL stating, in a lengthy blog post dedicated to Bersih 3.0,
‘Bersih 3.0 should NOT be compromised. It is precisely because of our lack of transparency and the dirty politics which has brought about the Lynas toxic project.’ (SMSL 2012).
Additionally, SMSL provided hyperlinks to the various facebook pages of Bersih 3.0 campaigns taking place around the country and the world (SMSL 2012). Global Bersih, as the international movement of ‘solidarity rallies’ to support Bersih calls itself (Global Bersih 2012a), demonstrated the ability of the Internet, especially social media and networking platforms, to connect transnational Malaysian communities and further increased international publicity for Bersih 3.0 (Global Bersih 2012b).
Photo 5. A Bersih 3.0 protester wearing a mask supporting both Bersih 3.0 and the Stop Lynas movement (Hamid 2012)
4d. The Internet as a Tool for “Creative Expression”
In discussing the everyday resistance strategies of peasants, James Scott highlighted how a partly sanitized, ambiguous and coded version of the hidden transcript was invariably present in the public discourse of subordinate groups (Scott 1990: 19). Scott identified, amongst others, rumours, gossip, jokes, songs and euphemisms as examples of the folk culture of subordinate groups that fell under this form of political discourse (Scott 1990: 19). The Internet arguably provides new mediums for modern ‘folk culture’ to be transmitted and to reach a greater extent of the population than previously envisaged by Scott, such as satirical videos and political cartoons.
With regards to Bersih, footage of Prime Minister Najib Razak mocking the previous Bersih 2.0 protest was incorporated into ‘Najib Techno Remix’, a Youtube video which intersperses Najib chanting ‘Long live UMNO’ with a clip from the film 300, where King Leonidas yells ‘This is Sparta!’ (MyNameIsRayChong 2011). The video’s apparent implicit message, of Najib as dictatorial leader of the preeminent Malay political party, potentially taps into fears of ethnic minorities that UMNO remains unable to divorce itself from its narrow pro-Malay agenda to develop a more inclusive, merit-based economic and political system (O’Shanassy 2011).
Additionally, an Australian news report that the Prime Minister’s wife Rosmah Mansor allegedly spent AU$100,000 at a Sydney boutique in January 2012 was rapidly circulated online through alternative news portals (Malaysiakini 2012). While Najib denied the spending allegations (The Star 2012), it fuelled speculation regarding government corruption and helped increase support for Bersih 3.0. This is exemplified by the political cartoon below, posted on Global Bersih 3.0’s facebook page, which juxtaposes Najib’s reaction to Bersih 3.0 protestors during his recent visit to London with his wife buying luxury goods from Harrods (Photo 6).
Photo 6. Political cartoon parodying Najib’s reaction to Bersih 3.0 in London (Global Bersih 3.0 2012)
To conclude, the Internet facilitated a ‘digital hidden transcript’ for Bersih 3.0 organizers and supporters to counter the lack of coverage and negative portrayal of Bersih by mainstream Malaysian media in light of government censorship.
Firstly, it enabled the direct and uncompromised dissemination of information in the form of online articles and video footage of previous Bersih rallies, as well as campaign materials. Bersih was also able to exploit social media and networking platforms to appeal for support and coordinate the rally.
Secondly, blogs acted as social spaces of relative autonomy that provided opportunities for dialogue and debate, as exemplified by Marina Mahathir’s discussion with blog readers, which provided a degree of candidness and insight lacking in mainstream Malaysian media. By referring her readers to other online eyewitness accounts to contrast with reports from mainstream media, Mahathir also helped shape a web-based discourse of ‘truth’ around Bersih 3.0.
Thirdly, the Internet was used to promote lateral linkages with other movements with similar grievances, in particular the Stop Lynas environmentalist movement, as well as a global network of Malaysians who staged solidarity rallies abroad.
Lastly, the Internet’s potential to embrace new mediums enabled Malaysians to caricature the ruling regime and tap into controversial issues regarding ethnic politics and government corruption through satirical videos, rumours and political cartoons.
While, as Thomas Pepinsky suggests, meaningful political liberalization in Malaysia will not take place absent fundamental changes to Malaysia’s ethnic and class cleavages (Pepinsky 2012: 2-3), it is hoped that this case study demonstrates the potential of technology to assist citizens in present and future efforts to counter the official transcript of power relations.
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