The Lawan (to fight or oppose) Protests will be remembered by many in Malaysia as a critical voice of dissent during this tumultuous period of our history. Its capacity to mobilise and execute so many actions in such a short period of time is certainly remarkable by Malaysian standards. More noteworthy is the engagement and participation that was engendered from outside the activist circle – many first-time protestors attending the protest at Independence Square on 31st July. Its demobilisation and possible demise should also be understood from the perspective of wider failures within progressive and left movements.
This lays out the context in which the protests occurred, the political and organisational conditions leading up to the protests, a detailed account of the actions carried out, why it did not have the immediate potential to transform into a movement, and most importantly, what can we do about it.
Historical & Regional Currents
The emergence of the Lawan protest in 2021 is significant when seen against the backdrop of two trends or currents – the national and regional context. The Lawan protests follow a trend of popular expressions of discontent in times of economic crises. The Reformasi movement was triggered by the political shifts in the UMNO party, which were themselves caused by the 1997/8 Asian Financial Crisis. The Bersih protests and Occupy Dataran movement could be linked to the 2007/8 Great Financial Crisis. The ‘Tangkap Najib’ (Arrest Najib) rally in response to the 2015 1MDB revelations, which, along with the slump in oil prices, depreciated the Ringgit significantly and caused greater economic hardship.
In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia’s neighbours saw critical moments of popular protest. Thailand saw waves of anti-government and anti-monarchy protests, comprised mainly of youth and students across the country. In Indonesia, protests were organised largely by labour unions and environmental groups to oppose the passage of the Omnibus Bill. The bill would see a reduction in basic protections for labour and environmental deregulation in the name of development. At this point, Malaysia did not see any major protests aside from the party-political infighting before the pandemic.
Malaysia had the absolute misfortune of undergoing a parliamentary coup right before the pandemic swept the world that ended with the return of the wildly unpopular UMNO (United Malay National Organisation) as a junior partner in the new Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.
The PN government chose to handle the pandemic with strict lockdown measures that had initially earned international acclaim, despite abysmal economic aid that was given to the people who were, for the most part, not allowed to work in person or operate their non-essential businesses. In a bid to strengthen its position, the ruling coalition chose to have elections in the state of Sabah in late September 2020, even as the pandemic had not been completely addressed. The aftermath of the election, with a large number of campaigning politicians and voters leaving the state, resulted in a surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths for the rest of 2020. The year 2021 began with, then Prime minister, Muhyiddin’s move to declare a state of nationwide emergency – something not done since the racial riots of 1969 – in what is widely seen to be an effort to prevent another parliamentary coup against him. Muhyiddin held a very slim majority of just one seat and constantly faced allegations over his loss of that majority – worsened by the “party-hopping” incidents that were regularly occurring – by both opponents from UMNO and the opposition parties.
Compounding the political instability and global pandemic, the poor economic conditions were worsened by the inadequate and counter-productive state response. The ruling regime allocated financial resources equal to about 3.8 per cent of GDP, ranking second lowest in terms of financial aid provided in the ASEAN region. To add insult to injury, the government moved to allow citizens to withdraw from what is essentially their retirement funds to carry them through the crisis rather than providing direct aid as seen elsewhere around the world.
A Fragile Youth Alliance
In the depths of the interconnected crises befalling Malaysia, a loose coalition would attempt to channel the grievances and helplessness of the people after enduring worsening conditions under an incompetent political class. The Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) would begin to take shape in early 2021. A loose coalition, the SSR would be made up of the youth of mainstream opposition parties, prominent civil society organisations and collectives, as well as student groups that had gained new life during the PH administration (2018-2020). These groups occupied a wide left-to-liberal spectrum with varying degrees of ideological leanings and anti-establishment politics. What will later be seen is the – though short-lived – effectiveness of such a diverse coalition, mobilised and up and running within such a short period of time.
Heading to the Streets
The first action organised by the SSR was a small march on Parliament and 18 minutes of silence in response to the government’s attempt to obstruct the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. About 100 people from the SSR’s groups and collectives came to the protest on 27 March 2021, demanding the implementation of the bill, an end to the emergency and the restoration of formal democracy. (2)
It would not be long before a follow-up protest would be organised on 30 April 2021, called ‘Buka Puasa Buka Parlimen’ (Break Fast, Open Parliament) with about also 100 protestors. This protest put forward six demands (#EnamTuntutan):
- Guarantee the economic wellbeing of The People
- Serve The People, reopen parliament and end the emergency
- Immediate lowering of the voting age to 18
- Ensure a safe education environment for all Malaysians
- Enforcement of laws in a just and humane manner
- Uphold of rights of Sabah and Sarawak
Both protests would proceed without police intimidation or direct resistance, but prominent personalities and SSR leaders were called in for lengthy police questioning that would not result in legal charges – an indirect form of intimidation.
The momentum of the SSR would be diminished by the reimposition of nationwide lockdowns in May that would not begin to ease until early July. In late June, as the new round of lockdowns began to compound the previous round, wiping out the financial reserves of many, the #BenderaPutih or White Flag movement was organised through social media and word of mouth. The movement asked those in need of assistance to raise a white flag outside their house to signal their need, sparking an invigorated wave of mutual aid. The political establishment was likely feeling uneasy about ordinary people publicly pointing out their failure to provide aid and allegedly used the state to threaten those who did. This was happening in conjunction with the increased use of the black flag by the SSR to signal its opposition to the present government. (3)
The restarting of activity for the SSR would coincide with another significant time in Malaysian social history. 9 July 2021 would be an important date to parallel as it was the 10th anniversary of the Bersih 2.0 protests – Fahmi Reza has a good Twitter thread commemorating and recounting the protest. The protest was a historic moment for civil society as a public action of that scale had not been seen since the Hartal (General Strike) of 1947. The accelerating rollout of the vaccines and easing of the lockdowns allowed the SSR to move forward with its plans for public actions.
3 July would see the kickoff with what one outlet dubbed ‘Operation Black Flag’, a social media campaign that called on the public is display a black flag and post it online, demanding the resignation of Muhyiddin, the convening of Parliament and the end to the Emergency. Over 300,000 Malaysians expressed frustration at the Malaysian government on social media using the hashtag #Lawan. Encouraged by the response, the SSR demanded that the government fulfil their demand in three weeks from the date of the press statement on 6 July, promising more public actions if the demands were not met.
A follow-up campaign would then proceed on 10 July, titled ‘3 HARI, 3 AKSI, 3 TUNTUTAN’ (3 days, 3 actions, 3 demands). The SSR called on the public to put up a black flag in their home, wear black attire or fly a black flag from their vehicle from 3 PM, 10 to 12 July, asserting the 3 initial demands. A physical flash mob of about 20 people would on 17 July be carried out by the SSR at Independence Square. The black flags and effigies of corpses were used to symbolise the government’s failure to prevent Covid-19 deaths under its watch.
The growing momentum would later lead to a protest in Independence Square called for 31 July. A vehicle convoy protest would be called in major cities on 24 July throughout the country to build up interest and confidence for the later physical protest on the 31st to reiterate the three demands (resignation of Muhyiddin, convening of Parliament and an end to the Emergency). This would be carried out amid the Covid restriction on not going 10km beyond your registered place of residence was in place, a risk the SSR had prepared well to mitigate. (4)
It is worth noting that strike and protest actions did occur prior to this planned demonstration. One that drew much public attention was the ‘mishandling’ of packages by workers of a courier service over a dispute over year-end bonus payments in February. In early July, 23 contract workers for the national postal service protested their termination over the excuse of a ‘rationalisation exercise’. One high-profile strike was carried out on 26 July by doctors who were on precarious contracts with little opportunity for career advancement. They were under immense pressure due to the medical admissions as a result of the pandemic. While there were attempts to link the doctors’ strike to the Lawan movement, these opportunities for the SSR to link up with economic struggles did not materialise.
Weeks of planning and coordination had led up to the 31 July protest at Independence Square. Through testimonials and social media posts, the SSR would later find out that a sizable number of the protestors that had come were first-timers to politics. (5) Estimates of the crowd size have it at over 2000, a praiseworthy number by Malaysian protest standards. The police had set up extensive roadblocks and posted up a heavy presence in and around the Dataran area. Because of the obstruction, the SSR attempted to negotiate with the police to allow the protestors to reach Independence Square but were unable to persuade the officers on site. After about 30 minutes of a sit-in with speeches, the organisers asked the crowd to disperse slowly and follow Covid-19 standard operating procedures while doing so. (6) This would arguably be the SSR’s highest achievement in terms of its capacity to mobilise youths who were looking for ways to express their dissatisfaction and demand better from their government.
The mobilisation is also admirable in the confidence it was able to inspire despite the heavy state and police intimidation – a constant throughout the various actions organised by the SSR. Prominent politicians in attendance and the better-known leaders of the SSR were repeatedly brought in for questioning. The worst of this harassment was the arrest and detention of an SSR organiser, Sarah Irdina, on 29 July, in which she was in police custody for 11 hours – 5 of those hours in lockup, her room raided, and she and her family threatened. Acts of solidarity and help from the SSR’s legal team got her out of police custody at about 1 AM on 30 July.
Demobilisation and the Fracturing of SSR
After this massive action by the SSR, the initiative seemed to have shifted to the political parties. On 2 August, dozens of politicians from the opposition parties gathered and attempted to march on parliament to protest the Muhyiddin government but were stopped by police. The de facto leader of the opposition claimed that Muhyiddin no longer held a majority in the lower parliament, and the government had already fallen.
Not long after, on 16 August, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced his resignation after mounting pressure and attempting to keep together a combative coalition of parties. Sensing this would not be the end of the political turbulence, the SSR organised a small candlelight vigil at Independence Square to remember the victim of Covid-19 under the government’s watch. This seemingly harmless action was met with a very disproportionate response from the authorities. Police forcibly hauled the roughly 30 attendees into trucks and brought them to the station for questioning despite insisting they were not being arrested. The attendees, mainly made up of SSR component organisation members, were eventually released later that night.
Source: Malay Mail
On 20 August, Ismail Sabri from the former dominant ruling party, UMNO, became the new Prime Minister of Malaysia. The SSR, seemingly burnt out from the steady succession of public actions, went into a period of low activity for the rest of the year. In December 2021, the SSR would threaten to take to the streets once more if the new Sabri-led government did not take measures to address the rise in food prices, but no public action was organised. Heading into 2022, SSR effectively demobilises after rifts between key members of the leadership over the lawsuit on the unlawful arrest and questioning of the candlelight vigil attendees. The lawsuit involved a high-profile lawyer who was accused of sexual misconduct, and the discomfort felt by some of the SSR members involved was inadequately handled by the leadership. With many of its component collectives and organisations choosing to leave, it seemed that the SSR was at an end.
The Making of a Movement?
It is hard to say if the Lawan protests or at least the SSR – a coalition of NGOs and party representatives – could have formed the nucleus of a new social movement in Malaysia. Given enough time, it could have been possible but, in my opinion, unlikely. The opposition party reps, who were happy to join the dissent when their enemies were in power, may not be so inclined when their party leadership reels them back or if their parties return to power and become the next object of criticism.
But even if it could have a critical mass without the political parties, the SSR would have had to figure out how to turn this loose coalition and a relatively small number of politicised individuals into a movement proper. It seems unlikely that this coalition of left and liberal forces could come together to agree on a next step, mainly if it involved electoral politics. Furthermore, its heavy concentration in urban spaces and reliance on social media for mobilisation would limit its reach to the fairly educated and better-off people in the Klang Valley. While this limit could be overcome with a great deal of time and effort, the resources and momentum to do so would be challenging to gather and sustain.
The Liga Demokratik Rakyat (People’s Democratic League) – with its primary activity being political education and, during the pandemic, mutual aid – represented a similar and more recent attempt at developing a youth movement. Its politics spanned the left-liberal-centre of the political spectrum and were drawn from civil society and the student movement. However, it had its leadership and energy diverted in part towards campaigning for the People’s Justice Party (PKR) approaching the elections in 2018 and, in some ways, became a point of contact for those who would later join the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA). Sporadic instances of mutual aid throughout the country during the pandemic also did not lay the foundations for a social movement, given the widespread NGO-isation and very voluntaristic nature of social and refugee care in Malaysia – as opposed to local communities coming together.
Despite the well-known shortcomings of parliamentary socialism, as the history of the Left in the 21st century shows, electoral politics remains the most relied upon outlet for social movements. The early 2000s saw the Pink Tide, where social movements brought leftist leaders to power across Latin America. The 2007-8 Great Financial Crisis generated Occupy Wall Street and the European anti-austerity protests, which led to political parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. In the US and UK, these protests laid the foundation for the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour Party and Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic Party. (7)
With the SSR’s demands being primarily institutional – with a focus on abiding by the laws and governance, the possibility that they would evolve into political demands is difficult to imagine. The economic dimensions of the demands were present but rarely centred and were diluted among the other demands due to the contending views on what constituted bread and butter issues. Left forces within the SSR – Malaysia Muda, Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and Misi Solidariti – did attempt to centre such economic demands but fell short of proposing a positive vision for the movement. That being said, putting forth such a vision would indeed be a challenging task in the middle of a pandemic. Regional protests such as the anti-Omnibus Bill protests in Indonesia were mobilised by the trade union movement and could take on an explicitly bread and butter dimension because their leadership and base were fundamentally rooted in such economic concerns.
What Is to Be Done Now? (How is it to be Done?)
The need for a social movement in Malaysia that is by the people and for the people is more urgent than ever. The recent UMNO victories after Sabah, in the states of Melaka and Johor signal a possible complete return to the full-blown authoritarian capitalism prior to 2018. The pandemic-induced need to recover lost profits and the constant fight over state resources has created a slow-biting cost of living crisis.
Left and liberal forces need to be sober about their failures to bring about meaningful social change and reconsider what it takes to convert public anger into a lasting institution rather than merely periodic protests and NGOs. Unlike many societies, the Malaysian state is strong, has massive reach and is able to provide the bare minimum of relief to most of its people. Within this context, the Left would have to be creative in playing its traditional role of social integration and political education. A recent example of this creativity is the La Morada (The Residence) in Spain, where the political party Podemos set up a social space for community and political interactions that became centres for organising.
Going forward, however, it appears inevitable that the Malaysian Left – because it is relatively small – will have to continue engaging in alliances with liberal or progressive forces. This will no doubt be a tricky tight rope to walk as we struggle to affirm our commitment to our principle while working with people we may not fundamentally agree with, especially on political and economic outcomes. In line with Trotsky’s thinking on the United Front strategy, left forces must see themselves as “independent detachment[s]” in these alliances, taking the initiative to “lead the struggle” when the occasion calls for it. There also needs to be more forethought on the gains from such alliances as they would demand precious resources that are often in short supply. An example is the Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s participation in Bersih, which neither dramatically increased its membership nor its public profile. Defending freedoms and public institutions alone do not build lasting movements. Building the capacity to participate in moments of social unrest, within or without such alliances, would be critical to ensuring the Malaysian Left grows its presence numerically and ideologically.
The role of left forces, such as PSM within the Lawan coalition or such coalitions in the future, heavily depends on their capacity to mobilise and maintain a mass base for public action. The larger the base they command, the more likely economic demands can be centred and fought for. PSM’s efforts to link the struggle of workers and the peasantry to wider ‘reformist’ struggles, while admirable, have not had much success. More will need to be done to effectively tap into pre-existing social structures with the potential for greater mobilisation. Given the destruction and co-optation of the labour movement, as well as the deep penetration of the Malaysian state into many other facets of social life, finding those structures for left-wing mobilisation will be a challenge that demands deep and strategy planning.
Seeing the SSR as a failure seems shortsighted given the exposure it gave the current generation of activists and the newly politicised youths who took part in its protests. While its somewhat premature end is unfortunate, what is more critical now is that the Left internalises the SSR’s limitations from the start, both its creation and the conditions it was born into. Strategies for transcending protests and mutual aid must be developed if socialism is to have any purchase in 21st century Malaysia. Despite the SSR’s earlier threats against the government’s inaction on the cost of living, the student movement has picked up where they left off. They, too, will have to confront the challenge of building something that will last beyond this crisis.
(1) This wiki page does a decent job of summarizing the important characters in the Sheraton Move and subsequent political crisis.
(2) See #Undi18NOW and #ManaUndiKami.
(3) Read a piece by Zikri Rahman on the importance and symbolism of the white and black flags https://malaysiamuda.wordpress.com/2021/07/04/hubaya-hubaya-bahaya-dua-warna/, and this Twitter thread on white and black flag movement by YPolitics https://twitter.com/YPoliticsMY/status/1411673902925811712
(4) For a full list of cities, read this article.
(5) Read the #KisahLawan project (#1 and #2) for the story of first-time participants who went to the 31 July Lawan protest.
(6) For a more detailed timeline of the events on 31 July: https://www.amnesty.my/2021/08/03/lawan-a-recap-of-31-july/
(7) For a detailed analysis of the successes and failures of Left strategy in the 21st century, watch this lecture by Leo Panitch. This lecture served as the inspiration for writing this essay.
1MDB – The 1MDB scandal refers to a 2015 scandal in which then-Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was accused of channelling over RM 2.67 billion from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a government-run strategic development company, to his personal bank accounts.
Barisan Nasional (BN) – This is the primary ruling coalition that has ruled Malaysia from independence till 2018, historically consisting of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. A variety of other parties have since joined BN from the 70s onwards.
Bersatu – (The word for united in Malay) The Malaysian United Indigenous Party is a component party of the ruling coalition, with its current leader, Muhyiddin Yassin. This party was founded by Mahathir Mohamad, who is no longer with the party, and a splinter party of UMNO.
Bersih – (The word for clean in Malay) Also known as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. A coalition of NGOs, formerly in league with political parties, that demanded an end to the unfair electoral practices under the BN regime.
Ismail Sabri – Malaysia’s ninth Prime Minister (August 2021 – present) and vice president of UMNO.
Mahathir Mohamad – Malaysia’s fourth (1981 – 2003) and seventh (May 2018 – March 2020) Prime Minister, and leader of a Bersatu splinter party, Pejuang.
Muhyiddin Yassin – Malaysia’s eighth Prime Minister (March 2020 – August 2021) and current leader of Bersatu.
Najib Razak – Malaysia’s sixth Prime Minister (2009 – 2018), son of the second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein and heavily involved in the 1MDB scandal.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) – The coalition of parties that won the fourteenth general election, consisting of BERSATU (prior to their leaving the coalition in 2020 in the Sheraton Move), PKR (another UMNO splinter party led by Anwar Ibrahim), DAP (a centre-left party) and Amanah (a splinter party of PAS).
Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) – The Malaysian Islamic Party is an Islamist political party currently in government with the present coalition. This party is also a splinter party of UMNO from the 1950s, prior to independence.
Perikatan Nasional (PN) – A coalition led by Bersatu, comprising of PAS and a handful of small parties that are currently in government with UMNO-led Barisan Nasional under Ismail Sabri.