COMMENTOften in politics, the way you frame a question is more important than the answer it may draw.

Perhaps that is why aficionados of the genre are inclined to recognise as its patron saint the station master who, when asked when the train would arrive, said: "That depends."

"On what does it depend?" the master was pressed.

"That too depends," he again equivocated.

The manner in which the Asian Wall Street Journal framed its question about Malaysian politics in its edition of last weekend reminded one of the wisdom of that station master as political oracle.

Under the headline ‘Malaysian People's Court', the newspaper of the governing classes of Asia ran a editorial that suggested that it was inclined to view Malaysian politics as a geometrician, disregarding its inherent ambiguity and indeterminateness.

"The real question," the AWSJ asked simplistically, "is whether Malaysian society is best served by a faster pace of change and the opposition's confrontational tactics."

The paper was adverting to the April 28 protest organised by polls reform advocacy group Bersih that saw violence erupt at its tail end.

anwar ibrahim paa charge bersih 3.0 court azmin aliThree Bersih participants, Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and two others from his party's leadership cohort, were charged last week with violating the Peaceful Assembly Act, one of the reforms that the government of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak introduced in recent months as an earnest of its liberalising intentions, something that owed to the pressure generated by an earlier Bersih demonstration.

The AWSJ, in its editorial last weekend, urged Anwar to plead guilty to the charge because it argued that his marching with the protesters on April 28 was an act of civil disobedience vis-a-vis the Act.

Hence, the AWSJ reasoned, Anwar should pay the fine and not pretend to be innocent. In other words, he cannot have his cake and eat it too.

The AWSJ argued further that both government and the opposition should put their faith in the verdict of the Malaysia electorate in the general election scheduled to be held pretty soon.
Missed the crux by a mile

Its breathtaking simplification of the issues apart, the AWSJ's editorial missed the crux of the Bersih protest by a mile.

It's precisely over the authenticity of the electorate's verdict that Bersih, in recent years, has raised doubts on the basis of what it claims are anomalies in the electoral register that the Election Commission has not credibly dispelled.

Because of legitimate qualms about the authenticity of the electoral rolls, Malaysian oppositionists doubt that the verdict of the electorate in the coming election will be an accurate reflection of the people's will.

According to them, this verdict - given claims that the electoral register has been padded with phantom voters and others who are not bona fide citizens of the country - may well be short of the electoral process's distilled wisdom: vox populi vox Dei.

That's only the core of the issue raised by Bersih. The peripheral concerns it has raised are no less significant and critical to the fairness of the electoral exercise.

By denying access for the opposition to state-owned media, and through the appropriation of state machinery by the government for its campaign purposes, the electoral process is skewed in favor of the powers that be.

These concerns weighed but little with the AWSJ's editorialist who seems to believe that Najib Razak is on to a substantively liberalising drive, about which a querulous opposition is unwarrantedly tetchy.

Never mind that this liberal drive is more glister than gold, the AWSJ is blasé about what has been evident in the last five years of Malaysian politics: demonstrations - their size and composition - have had a big role to play in the country's electoral process; they conscientise the people and that influences the vote.

hindraf british petition rally 251107 asialifeThis is what the Bersih 1.0 march and the Hindraf rally of November 2007 did to the vote four months later, in the general election of 2008.

A government of half-century' incumbency was jolted by the results of the vote, out of its complacent assumption that its writ would last forever.

A public beguiled by media that is an adjunct of the government, an electorate in the grip of ignorance about discontent smoldering in neglected corners of the country requires the drama - it seems from Malaysia's recent history - of a huge projection of people power on the streets to prod them out of their inertia and face up to doing something with their vote.

Demonstrations in Malaysia have become what election year primaries are in the United States: they are battles of attrition leading up to the war of collision which is the general election.

No matter what the organs of government propaganda have made of the Bersih 3.0 protest of April 28, the facts of its undeniably huge size, its emancipating multiracial composition and its generational variety are filtering through to the consciousness of the powers that be, even as the calendar runs down on the next general election.

All the powers that be can do is a series of improvisations in the increasingly forlorn hope that these will stave off the inevitable, which is not electoral defeat but something more insidious - the realisation that the government is the problem.

TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for close on four decades. He likes the occupation because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them. It is the ideal occupation for a temperament that finds power fascinating and its exercise abhorrent.