Debunking the Bersih 2.0 critics
by Pak Sako

A number of political commentators have criticised Bersih 2.0 in the news media and blogs. Among these critics are Chandra Muzaffar, Anas Zubedy, Ahirudin Attan (Rocky’s Bru) and Mahathir Mohamad.

Their comments would have been welcome if they were honest and holistic assessments of Bersih 2.0. It would have been nice to see the use of sound reasoning. Instead we have faulty argument upon faulty argument, in article upon article.

This is regrettable not just for the dubious ethics with which personal political interests are advanced. It is also unfortunate because the trusting reader becomes confused as to what is true or false and becomes prone to accepting questionable statements and conclusions as truthful.

Misleading arguments and suggestions should not be left standing without a challenge. Here I show seven types of faulty arguments that have been made against Bersih 2.0 and comment on specific examples. It is hoped that the reader would be able to identify them on his own in the future, and be inspired to debate the critic to discover the truth or the best way forward for a given policy.

A. The middle ground

In dealing with what they see as a problem, the critics usually begin with an appeal to the middle path or ‘third way’. This is in spite of the fact that a middle ground might fly in the face of logic. They propose a fallacious kind of give-and-take — sacrifice a wheel or two here so as to keep a radiator or fan belt running there. This makes no sense when, for a policy choice or reformist action to truly work or have its intended effect, like a car you need to retain all of its necessary parts. Have yourself a very effective Bersih 2.0 rally, says one commentator, but do it in the pits of Putrajaya where no one hears you (Anas Zubedy in ‘Bersih 2.0 — is there a third alternative?’, The Malaysian Insider, June 23). Why rally, asks another commentator, when you can have dialogue with the Election Commission and national government — the very same parties that had four years since the first Bersih rally of 2007 to improve the electoral system but did very little (Chandra Muzaffar in ‘Understanding the context’, The Star, July 3).

The progressive option is not about having Bersih 2.0 or not having it. The progressive option is to reach an immediate agreement for commencing the reform of electoral processes, failing which a Bersih 2.0 march would proceed to inspire change through other mechanisms such as the ballot box. The Agong’s call for negotiations should be seen in this positive light. The government should take this as a golden opportunity to wrest the advantage. There is still time for half a week of intensive dialogue between Bersih, the Election Commission and the government to reach an agreement on reform action before 9 July.

B. Exaggeration

The critics also commonly play up unsubstantiated dangers and costs (e.g., by appeal to threat) and play down benefits and mitigating facts (the ignorance of counterevidence). Consider the following commentators’ statements pertaining to physical injury and business cost.

"In the first Bersih demonstration on November 10 2007, a number of people were injured. There were similar casualties in the Hindraf demonstration… in the same year.” (Chandra Muzaffar)

He reports not how many people were injured (10, 100 or 1,000), what kind of injury was sustained (scratches and scrapes or bullet wounds) and why (whether due to Bersih or Hindraf demonstrators quarreling among themselves or they were hurt as a result of unnecessary, heavy-handed police action). There is also a failure to properly discuss the desirability of the freedom to express fair demands and upholding democratic principles given the risk of scrapes, bruises and such.

It is also difficult to ascertain whether the commentator is sincere in his concern for the marchers and others nearby. Assuming that the planned march goes ahead, he does not ask for the authorities to fully cooperate with the Bersih 2.0 organisers to ensure safety and order. He does not ask of the police to refrain from possibly hurting the marchers. He does not suggest to the authorities to control or remove potential troublemakers such as Perkasa and their 'war general' Ibrahim Ali who openly threatened chaos. The commentator did not even encourage a peaceful, celebratory atmosphere.

“Traders and taxi drivers in the affected areas will inevitably suffer a loss of income. Here again, the past is a good teacher. In previous demonstration in Kuala Lumpur, people in various walks of life had to pay the price.” (Chandra Muzaffar)

“Merchants and business organisations need sales during the weekends to survive and make a profit to continue providing employment to the thousands under their care. We cannot afford to lose millions of ringgit every time the rakyat gather to voice concerns.” (Anas Zubedy).

Certain traders and taxi drivers might lose their regular daily income for that day fully or partially, but others at slightly different locations in Kuala Lumpur could benefit. The above two commentators refuse to see that benefits could also accrue to the shuttle-bus, energy, merchandise and food and beverages businesses as a result of there being a mass concentration of consumers about town.

There are also those benefits that are unquantifiable in monetary terms: the camaraderie between participants of different races and beliefs; the greatly broadened public awareness about the importance and urgency of electoral reforms; and the sense of empowerment people feel about being able to shape their collective destiny in pressuring reluctant national institutions to peacefully push through needed electoral improvements.

To be complete about it, there are other costs in the form of inconveniences to the public as a result of congestion. But these are not different to the price that Malaysians pay day in and day out when trapped in traffic jams and when having to shove about to board infrequent, jam-packed commuter trains.

It is difficult to imagine the catastrophic net business costs assumed by the second commentator as a result of a couple of hours of orderly marches (endangerment to “thousands” of jobs and losses running “in the millions”). Businesses have ample time to plan and prepare for contingencies, if any (Bersih announced the march many weeks ago). Businesses could also imagine that it is a public holiday. Would they complain so loudly about having to close shop if the sudden death of a monarch imposes an immediate one-day public holiday and road closures for processions?

C. Scaremongering

If middle-ground diplomacy and mild exaggeration do not compel the desired outcome, scare tactics might be used. Abusive ad hominems, straw-man attacks and deliberate omissions can be combined to make the following type of political statements:

“Anwar… [a] deeply flawed politician… the de facto leader of Bersih… wants to become prime minister… and will resort to any means to achieve his ambitions”; “PAS and DAP are also driven by the desire to gain power through the quickest route. For them also the end justifies the means.” (Chandra Muzaffar)

Observe the manipulation of emotion by using subjective statements such as “deeply flawed” and speculation (“will resort to any means”). There is little concern for providing evidence. We have also partial reporting; only opposition political parties are mentioned when all Malaysians, including the ruling Barisan Nasional supporters, were invited to join the Bersih march to advocate and demand for electoral reforms. The above commentator also ignores the fact that all rational political parties do seek power, and they do wish to attain it with the least possible cost or resistance, without recourse to violent acts or breaches of trust.

“If the stadium option had materialized, certain elements in Bersih, it is alleged, would have turned the stadium to a Tahrir Square, with demonstrators camping there day and night for weeks on end.” (Chandra Muzaffar)

Here we see the non-reporting of sources (“it is alleged”). Alleged by whom and upon what basis, we are not told. An honest commentator would just say he “fears” or “has a gut feeling that there might be” long-standing protests. Moreover, asserting a Tahrir Square scenario is, on its own, a domino fallacy (i.e., the unproven assumption that a particular event is the first in a series of steps that will inevitably lead to some specific, undesirable consequence).

D. Dishonest or incomplete assessment

The critics refrain from thoroughly evaluating the worthiness of the goals and possible impact of the Bersih 2.0 gathering. They stray to secondary issues such as the support of opposition parties for Bersih 2.0. These detractors do not discuss whether, in the first place, the Bersih principles are fair for all (given the condition that you do not know whether you will be on the winning or losing side) or whether the underlying goals of electoral reform will be more effectively galvanised this way or not. With regards to Bersih’s eight demands for electoral reforms, we see lazy dismissals such as this:

"The last three demands have nothing to do whatsoever with "clean and fair election", which is what Bersih was supposed to be about.'6. Strengthen public institutions', '7. Stop corruption' and '8. Stop dirty politics' are not within SPR's job scope. A 6-yr old can tell you that." (Ahirudin Attan/Rocky’s Bru, in his blog post entitled, ‘Anwar Ibrahim’s 8 demands to the Agong’).

What a 6-year old might tell this commentator is to read up the details. According to Bersih, ‘Strengthening public institutions’ is a call for the Election Commission to “perform its constitutional duty to act independently and impartially… [and that it] cannot continue to claim that [it has] no power to act, as the law provides for sufficient powers to institute a credible electoral system”. ‘Stopping corruption’ and ‘stopping dirty politics’ involves taking action against offences such as personating (the phantom voter problem) and making promises to “help you if you help me” — the offering of money or other concessions in exchange for votes. These offences are stated in the Election Offences Act 1954. They are perfectly within the purview of the Election Commission which is mandated to carry out this law. Perpetrators, however, still roam free.

Ahirudin Attan also snubs the demand to use indelible ink as a method for preventing voter fraud during elections. He pronounces instead his support for the use of biometry for this purpose. But he fails to discuss the relative merits of biometry and indelible ink (whether or not indelible ink would be a superior option given that it is highly effective and cheap, or whether those who have control over the electronics and data of biometry could manipulate it to perpetrate fraud without detection).

E. False comparison

Chandra Muzaffar alleges that Bersih intensifies the ‘polarisation’ of partisan politics, and compares the situation to the politics of Thailand. The title of Muzaffar's article purports to give an 'understanding of context', but he overlooks the fact that the matter in Thailand itself involves a different context from that of Bersih 2.0. He uses the loaded word ‘polarisation’ when the more accurate term would be 'differentiation', that is, differentiated politics. He does not mention that having space for different political positions can be a healthy development in politics. For example, if the Germans had not flocked under Hitler but were differentiated in opinion due to a countervailing political bloc that was a force of reason against the Nazi party’s ideology, so much suffering could have been avoided.

The Malaysian people also have the fundamental right to choose. Preventing people from having political alternatives or choosing between political alternatives is, in one word, oppression, whatever the excuse proffered. Differentiation in politics has the benefit of deepening the value of political discourse. Differentiation encourages the comparison of policies that competing political groups offer. It encourages the questioning, as opposed to the blind acceptance, of what is foisted upon them. This would represent a desirable drift towards issues-based politics, away from purely racial or religious politics.

F. False association

"Its objective is to tarnish the government’s name and the police, and with that the opposition parties will win… It is an attack on the government because it is claiming that the government is not doing things… The purpose is political… precisely for PR (Pakatan Rakyat)… It is not about whether the election is clean or not… that is secondary… they want to paint the government black and therefore, although you are gray, you look more white." (Mahathir Mohamad, 'Dr. M: Bersih not seeking reforms but political tsunami', The Malaysian Insider, 2 July).

It is true that a movement like Bersih would make a government that is unwilling to enact electoral reforms look bad. It is also true that any party that puts its weight behind electoral reforms will look better. These are all fair assumptions for which this commentator should be given credit. But he appears to erroneously convey the impression that governments are irreproachable, or even untouchable. Governments are, after all, for the people to criticise or replace when they do not perform satisfactorily or when they fail to uphold the principles that underlie their mandate, such as ensuring that democratic processes are not in a state of compromise. Love for the country and its people is patriotism. Love for the government is mere partisanship.

G. Biased citation of studies to support an argument

Chandra Muzaffar asserts that elections in Malaysia have been “largely fair and just — given that no electoral system in the world is totally devoid of flaws”. He cites only one source to justify his claim, Election Watch, a group to which he himself belonged. He does not cite peer-reviewed studies by local or foreign social scientists that give evidence to the contrary, that “the country’s record on free and fair elections has been abysmal” (see a review of the evidence by the Centre For Policy Initiatives, entitled ‘Academic consensus on unfair elections: reinforcing the case for Bersih’s march’). Muzaffar also commits the logical error of concluding that elections have been “large fair and just” based on an inferior and unacceptable criterion (that there are flaws in all electoral systems everywhere).

These are just a selection of numerous argumentative tactics employed by political commentators to safeguard or further their partisan interests. The Bersih 2.0 debate is only one of the many victims.

The public should be inoculated against such insidious tactics aimed at shaping public opinion and political outcomes. I would propose that the news media endeavour to solicit alternative viewpoints to debate about an issue rather than limiting themselves to publishing only one side of the story. This would curb the incentive to brazenly use faulty arguments and deceptive logic. Avenue for reply would also allow for quick rebuttal. It would bring out quality discussions. Online news media such as The Malaysian Insider should be commended for allowing space for opposing views and giving both equal prominence. The mainstream news media such as The Star have yet to show that they are capable of this higher level of discourse.