Breezes of change in Malaysia

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Malaysian riot police officers fire tear gas at activists from Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) during a rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday 9 July
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Protesters on the streets of Kuala Lumpur were met by police in full riot gear and clouds of tear gas

Malaysia's reputation as a peaceful, multi-ethnic role model was shaken last weekend when thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The rally was organised by a collective of non-governmental organisations and activists calling itself Bersih - or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. The word "bersih" means "clean" in the Malay language.

The group's stated aim is to push for reforms of Malaysia's electoral system, which it claims is skewed in favour of the governing coalition.

In a determined effort to enforce a ban on the march, police locked down the centre of the city. Traffic was allowed - almost encouraged - to leave, but nothing was allowed back inside the cordon.

The protesters pushed on regardless, gathering in front of the road blocks, determined to make their point. Police in full riot gear were waiting.

Jets from water cannon flooded Kuala Lumpur streets. Clouds of tear gas billowed overhead - empty canisters were thrown back towards the police lines.

Screaming headlines

Protesters beat a retreat with baton-wielding police officers in pursuit. More than 1,000 people were arrested, though most were quickly released.

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Haris Ibrahim says they needed to convince authorities to take them seriously

A day later everything had returned to normal. Apart from the screaming headlines in the local newspapers, it would be impossible to tell anything untoward had happened.

Standing on the spot where just 24 hours earlier he had been trying to direct the crowd, one of the protest leaders, Haris Ibrahim, reflected on the way things had developed.

"We promised things would be peaceful," he said.

"But we felt there was a need to press the authorities to take these reforms seriously."

Those reforms include a longer campaign period before polling day, equal access to the media for all parties, and accurate voter lists.

"On polling day the dead get up to vote," he said.

But the government says there is more to all this than meets the eye. Among the protesters' chants there were clearly recognisable opposition slogans, evidence, the government claims, of the reform movement's partisan agenda.

In an office decorated with football trophies and photographs, Khairy Jamaluddin, leader of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the party which has dominated Malaysian politics since independence more than 50 years ago, acknowledged the electoral reforms were needed.

But he said Bersih's approach was deliberately confrontational.

"If you are talking about electoral reforms, then there's a way of doing it. That's to work with the elections commission to push for some of the points they have highlighted and not try to create a kind of us-and-them polemic," he said.

Haris Ibrahim does not deny Bersih is a political organisation. But he strongly rejects the charge the reform movement is bent on removing the government from power.

"Any time you push for change it is political," he said.

"We don't pretend to be otherwise. We don't apologise for being political. But we are non-partisan."

The government may, in part, be nervous because of the results of the last election in 2008. It retained power, but it lost five states - its worst ever performance.

That election was preceded by a protest march organised by an earlier incarnation of Bersih - the new movement has the full name of Bersih 2.0.

Changing dynamic

Part of the problem for the government is it can no longer control the message the way it once did.

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There is desire for change in Malaysia, but it is not Egypt or Libya

One striking phenomenon of last weekend's protest was the number of people using their smart phones to record and upload video and to get real-time information on where the police blocks were and how to avoid them.

Malaysia now has 60% broadband penetration and there is free wi-fi in many parts of Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysian Insider, an online news portal, has tapped into the growing demand for information. Its offices display clear influences from the new media ethos developed in the US.

There are chalk boards on the walls with a mix of motivational messages, team objectives and a list of names who had signed up for an office bowling night. It is open-plan, informal, and hi-tech.

Jahabar Sadiq, who is both editor and company boss, says he is convinced social media is changing the political dynamic in Malaysia.

"Internet media is changing the way people think, giving them a wider choice between what the government says and what is actually going on," he said.

And he made this striking prediction: "Someone within Facebook or Twitter will capture people's imagination, and he or she will take over leadership of this country, I think, within a decade."

There are definitely stirrings of change in Malaysia. But this is not Egypt or Libya. Malaysia is not on the verge of a violent uprising.

But there is a growing desire for a genuine and fair political choice and an increasing willingness to make that demand heard.