Nurul Azlan Reports from Kuala Lumpur

DJI_0010-700x525Image of Bersih 4 in Kuala Lumpur. Picture courtesy of Malaysiakini.

(This text was originally published on the Global Urban Lab blog). The tension is palpable. It is the morning of August 29th, 2015, and I am peering out the window of my hotel room in central Kuala Lumpur for last minute clues. I have two shirts laid out on the bed, one checkered with yellow and dark blue, and the other is plain black. At the corner of the bed is the yellow Bersih t-shirt I bought after the ‘Your Rights and the Police’ talk I attended a few days earlier. Wearing that t-shirt is out of the question. I am there as an observer, not as a participant. Surely, the yellow and dark blue checkered shirt is safe enough for that purpose? Surely, the authorities are not serious when they announced that yellow items of clothing are banned under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984? Surely yellow t-shirts are not seditious?

I am in Kuala Lumpur to observe Bersih 4, an organised rally protesting against the 1MDB financial scandal, which also implicates the Prime Minister due to the RM 2.6 billion found in his personal bank account. As the name indicates, this rally is the fourth iteration of such organised by the civil society movement, Bersih 2.0, which is a coalition of NGOs that call for electoral reform. Since achieving independence in 1957, elections are regularly held every five years, even though the same coalition, Barisan Nasional, has won every time. Bersih (Clean in Malay) argue that the electoral system needs to be reformed, due to manipulation of the system such as gerrymandering. After all, elections are, the cornerstone of democracy.

The rallies organised by Bersih have always taken place in Kuala Lumpur, the financial capital of Malaysia, a city established on tin-mining in mid -19th century during the time of colonial British. The first rally in 2007 brought thousands of people to the streets of Kuala Lumpur after a period of relative quietness. That particular protest seemed to have opened the floodgates. There was an explosion of protest activities since then, with a myriad of causes ranging from the purely political to environmental issues.

Nurul2 First day of the protest (August 29th). Picture courtesy of Nurul Azlan

The first Bersih rally in 2007 also witnessed the use of social media, although it was not until the second rally in 2011 that it became truly widespread and, as some have argued, crucial to the success of the rallies in terms of mobilisation. Set against the backdrop of a worldwide eruption of protests in 2011, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, Bersih share a similar trait with the others, a prominent online presence matched with a highly visible occupation of urban space.

I check #Bersih4 on Firechat again, the app made popular by the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution. Instead of using broadband, the app utilises Bluetooth, requiring users to be in a certain radius within each other in order to communicate. It is believed to make surveillance of the protest a tad harder for the authorities. Last night there was a flurry of exchanges about the yellow t-shirt, with advice such as protesters should enter the city wearing normal daily clothes, and only change into yellow t-shirts once they have reached their intended destinations. I then check #Bersih4 on Twitter to see if there are tweets about people getting arrested for wearing the yellow t-shirt. On the Facebook page of Bersih 2.0, which the organisation uses to disseminate information and advice about the rally, there is no mention about the t-shirts today. So far, so good. I open WhatsApp to confirm our rendezvous point.

In postcolonial states, where mainstream media is saturated with government sanctioned outlets and colonial-era laws are typically used to silence the opposing voice, the Internet provides an opportunity for alternative media to emerge where people can discuss their grievances and mobilise for action. Beginning with alternative online news portals, the channels have now evolved to include social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, which allow for a more dynamic exchange of ideas. Chat applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram, on the other hand, allow for communication on a more personal scale. Thus, contemporary social movements typically have a very active online presence as well, since not only it provides a space for possible action, but it also provides convenience. However, as Zeynep Tufekci has mentioned, although this convenience has enabled social movements to mobilise protests in a short time, it is also difficult to maintain the momentum post-protest since the people who turn up may not be necessarily invested in the cause.

I am interested in what protest can tell us about the relationship between the virtual sphere and the urban space, which is why I am in Kuala Lumpur to observe the protest, while also collecting social media data hashtagged Bersih4. Most research concerning social media focus on how and what they are used for and also for social network analysis, neglecting the spatial aspect. On the other hand, twitter maps for example typically show the location where the tweets are generated, but do not tell us about the content of the tweets. (Through the twitter data I have collected for #Bersih4, I found out that on the day of protest, most tweets which are geo-referenced were actually against the protest). Although both are equally fascinating, I would also be interested in expanding the analysis by linking space to discourse and also mapping the places mentioned in the tweets, hence constructing the imaginary of the city through discourse of dissent on social media.

I put on the black shirt and go down to the lobby to be greeted by pockets of yellow-shirted protesters. Today is going to be interesting indeed. To be continued…

This text was first published on the Global Urban Lab blog. Nurul is a PhD candidate at Design as Politics, where she is working on her dissertation on the spatial aspects of protest in post-colonial Kuala Lumpur. She is trained as an architect University of Technology Malaysia, and received a Masters in Architecture (Urban Design) from the Bartlett, UCL in 2007.