Social mobilisation takes many forms, especially in a country that disdains it. But once it gets going, the government, however repressive, has no choice but to respond. This it does reluctantly and through parrying movements and acts of denial.
On February 5 this year, more than 5,000 people flooded downtown Kuala Lumpur to participate in the Light up Jalan Sultan and Preserve Heritage event.
Artisans and performers from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds jazzed up the evening with song, music and drama performances; each performance narrating a fraction of the history of Jalan Sultan. The event celebrated arguably the last Chinese New Year for Jalan Sultan. Organisers and participants urged the authorities to prioritise heritage assets over development projects by realigning the Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) underground route away from Jalan Sultan.
Three weeks later on February 26, the Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) 2.0 was held concurrently in four cities–Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh and Kota Kinabalu–in solidarity with the main rally in Kuantan. Participants armed with self-decorated posters chanted the campaign slogan “Save Malaysia Stop Lynas”. These protests crystallised over concerns about potential radioactive contamination and threats to community health from the operation of the world’s largest rare earths refinery plant–the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant–in Gebeng, Pahang. Protesters requested the Prime Minister to intervene by immediately suspending Lynas’ license and stopping shipments of rare earths ore concentrate from arriving in Malaysia.
The central themes of these two campaigns may have varied from heritage protection to environmental conservation, yet they were not mutually exclusive or independent campaigns. Instead, they illustrated the widespread demand for meaningful participation in the policymaking process within Malaysia’s semi-democratic system. Since the 1998 pro-Anwar reformasi movement, social mobilisation activities, such as mass gatherings and rallies, have become the most significant vehicle for people participation in politics, beyond voting.The consequences from such collective events should not be underestimated. In November 2007, the mass turnouts during the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) rally and the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections demonstration (better known as Bersih 1.0) highlighted the growing dissatisfaction with the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. Consequently, the dissatisfaction on the streets saw a switchover of a large number of voters during the 2008 General Election.
With the next general election scheduled to take place soon, there has been a flurry of social mobilisation activities to articulate popular demands. On July 9, 2011, Bersih 2.0 mobilised a gathering of 50,000 people in Kuala Lumpur with solidarity protests conducted concurrently in 29 cities worldwide. Dongjiaozong–representing the national Chinese education movement in Malaysia–organised the “Assembly to Salvage Chinese Education” on March 25, 2012 in protest against the shortage of Chinese-speaking schoolteachers in Chinese primary schools. Bersih 3.0 and Himpunan Hijau 3.0 are staging a large sit-in protest at Dataran Merdeka and major cities in Malaysia on April 28.
There are those who criticise the rallies as being irrational, dysfunctional and abhorrent aberrations in a modern social system.
This article argues against this accusation, and through the examples of the Preserve Jalan Sultan and Stop Lynas campaigns, details the interactions between and the reactions of the authorities and its agencies when dealing with campaigners’ demands. This article also highlights the strategies of the campaigners who mounted a series of non-violent events, and at the same time employed unconventional methods in their efforts to affect change within Malaysia’s semi-democratic political system.The Jalan Sultan saga
The MRT Corporation was established by the Ministry of Finance in August 2011 to take over the management of the Klang Valley MRT system from Syarikat Prasarana Negara Berhad (Prasarana). Supervised by the Land Public Transport Commission, the MRT Corporation is entrusted with managing the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line project. With a total of 34 stations running over a distance of 51km (9.5km underground), this multimillion ringgit project was expected to start construction in July 2011, with completion by 2017.
The underground Pasar Seni MRT Station (to be constructed at the location of the Klang Bus stand) will integrate the MRT system with the Kelana Jaya Light Rail Transit system. To make way for this, the Plaza Rakyat and UDA Ocean supermarket along Jalan Sultan will be demolished. The 2.2km underground alignment at Jalan Sultan will also affect 45 lots of land with 20 buildings.
Better known as Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, Jalan Sultan, together with Jalan Petaling and Jalan Tun H.S. Lee is one of the city’s earliest commercial areas. Most buildings in this area are pre-war buildings built during the early 20th century, and bear significant architectural, heritage and cultural value. They are classified as a secondary heritage zone under the Kuala Lumpur 2020 City Plan Draft.
Therefore, when Jalan Sultan landowners and residents received compulsory land acquisition notices from the Department of Lands and Mines in July 2011, they were shocked that heritage had to give way to development. They had not been engaged, consulted or informed during public participation activities conducted by Prasarana from December 2010 to May 2011.
The first meeting between the stakeholders was held as late as August 11, 2011, during which they were informed that (1) land acquisition under the 1960 Land Acquisition Act was compulsory; (2) the MRT route was final; and (3) the acquired land would be developed upon the completion of MRT construction. The Department of Lands and Mines demanded that these landowners “collaborate” with the MRT development by surrendering their residential and commercial properties as soon as possible.
The high-handed and top-down approach, short notice period, lack of detailed information regarding the tunnelling project and the unsecured interests of the landowners and residents resulted in escalating grievances. According to Leong Lih Sy, senior secretary of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, and the treasurer of the Malaysia Preserve Jalan Sultan and Jalan Bukit Bintang Committee, “Although the Committee supported the MRT development to ease traffic congestion in Kuala Lumpur, we demand transparency in the decision-making process, and we are asking for the opportunity to work out the re-routing of the MRT project.”