How can we understand BERSIH better?



Credit photo: Al-Amin Asri

Every time a social movement emerges to protest on what they believe to be the truth, we often ask ourselves – are they going to succeed?

Yet, rather than we put our focus on that question, it is also important for us to understand the mechanism behind a social movement, thus helping us to determine whether the strategies used work or fail.


General mechanism

BERSIH is the perfect example on how allies can collaborate together to reach certain goals. The members of the alliance might have different goals and identities before they decide to join the alliance. However, the alliance might happened due to the same threats that they face or the same goal that they want to achieve and by forming a coalition will help them to achieve that goals. That is the reason why we can see so many organizations that join BERSIH come from different spectrum of identities, method of approach, and goals. Coalition does not mean they have to break down their identity and fit themselves into only one identity. It simply suggests the emergence of different organizations while maintaining their distinctive identities. Thus, the identity of BERSIH will break down once they achieve their goals. We can see this the list of endorsing NGOs of BERSIH as below.

  1. All Women’s Action Society (Awam)
  2. Anak Muda Sarawak (AMS)
  3. Engage
  4. Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF)
  5. Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH)
  6. LLG Cultural Development Centre (LLG)
  7. Majlis Perundingan Malaysian Agama Buddha, Kritisian, Hindu, Sikh dan Tao (MCCBCHST)
  8. Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF)
  9. National Indian Rights Action Team (Niat)
  10. Pacos Trust
  11. Persatuan Masyarakat Sel dan Wilayah Persekutuan (Permas)
  12. Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran)
  13. Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia (Ikram)
  14. Pusat Komas (Komas)
  15. Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM)
  16. Suaram Malaysia
  17. Tindak Malaysia (TM)
  18. Angkatan Warga Aman Malayia (WargaAman)
  19. Baramkini
  20. Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)
  21. Greenfriends Sabah
  22. Hakam
  23. Institut Kajian Dasar
  24. Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (Jerit)
  25. Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS)
  26. Jawantankuasa Bertindak KL Tak Nak Insinerator
  27. Jihad for Justice
  28. Malaysian Indians Progressive Association (Mipas)
  29. Malaysian Indians Transformation Action Team (Mitra)
  30. Malaysian Physicians for Social Responsibility (MPSR)
  31. Malaysia Youth & Students Democratic Movement (Dema)
  32. Oriental Hearts and Mind Study Institute (OHMSI)
  33. One Race – Human Race
  34. Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)
  35. Persatuan Rapat Malaysia (Rapat)
  36. Projek Dialog
  37. Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (Sawo)
  38. Sisters in Islam (Sis)
  39. Student Progressive Front USM
  40. Student Progressive Front UUM
  41. Teoh Beng Hock Trust for Democracy
  42. The Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham)
  43. We Are Malaysians
  44. Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
  45. Women Center for Change (WCC)



Framing is the essence of every social movement. The way BERSIH framed themselves as bersih is sufficient for us to understand their message of peace, cleanliness and purity. This frame enables them to identify themselves as the party that fights for the right. The definition of what is right is relative to their definition. In simpler words, they put the frame into two dimensions of us and them – if you join us you will uphold the truth, if not, you are them. This framing is crucial for them to recruit more members and gain more support from the audience.


Collective identity

Establishing a collective identity among BERSIH members is so important. The fact that BERSIH rally is still continuing until five generations, gives a sense that this social movement is really good in recruiting members that can provide loyalty to the objective of the social movement. One of the successes of BERSIH is they created a collective identity that empowers their members. The slogan BERSIH itself gives a positive vibes to the members that they are doing something that is pure. Even though it is not right in our democratic society to make any changes to the system outside the political approach, the way the organizers put it into something “bersih” means it is alright for them to protest and do it outside our democratic framework.


Social movement is not a revolution

Social movement is not a revolution. It asks for some improvements to the system. At the same time it still respects the system used in this country. So BERSIH is not the same like Iranian Revolution back in the history. Yet, there are so few social movements that succeed in the history. A lot of them did well during their first emergence and then they just fade away and no one heard about them anymore.


BERSIH will never succeed

Based on my observation and understanding, I believe that BERSIH will never succeed in gaining their objectives. These are the reasons why I said so. First, BERSIH is not controlling the mainstream media, which gives them limitation in disseminating their agenda. Second, the image of social movement is still stigmatized in our society as something that is violent and irrational. Thirdly, the political environment of our country is not suitable for any changes to be made. The citizens still benefiting from the ruling party. Fourthly, the unity within the ruling party is comparatively stable. Lastly, BERSIH fails to gain support from millions of Malaysians, especially the Malays. Despite the consistent advocation of BERSIH annually since 2007, very little change took place in terms of change in the political environment. Instead, the ruling party seems to be getting stronger and BERSIH has become merely the arena to express political frustration of the citizens.


Hanis Noor
Student of Social Movement and Collective Identities,
Michigan State University


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