By Stephanie Sta Maria | The Edge Markets

The idea that a country is democratic as long as it holds regular elections creates a false impression about how democratic societies ought to work, say a new breed of activists who have made it their mission to make Malaysian institutions more responsive to the people’s wishes.

Given the entrenched belief that elections give political parties an unquestionable mandate to govern, the task of educating voters about their multi-dimensional roles as citizens is an intergenerational one, said lawyer and activist Edmund Bon, 36, a driving force behind the non-partisan citizens movement UndiMsia! in a recent interview with The Edge Financial Daily.

The deep faith that Malaysians in general place on the ballot as a means of legitimising political power may have grown out of the long rule of the government from the time of independence in 1957, when Malaya was signed, sealed and delivered to the citizens of the then-new democracy.

For four decades afterwards, the functioning of this democratic system remained largely unchallenged — until a political awakening took place with the birth of the Reformasi movement in 1998, following the sacking of the then deputy prime minister and current Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

The Reformasi wave was to roll along for another decade until it acquired new force in the 12th general election four years ago. This was when the Opposition denied the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition its long-held two-thirds majority in Parliament and captured five state governments, but losing one state a year later. The watershed election has come to be called the political tsunami of 2008 and has spawned a host of democratic reform initiatives.

The youth in particular, who have often been criticised for being apolitical, apathetic or simply uninformed about their crucial role in making democracy truly work, found themselves connected in a common belief that important reforms needed to be brought into the country’s democratic system.

Among these reform-minded activists is Bon, who has been elected to the Bar Council three times and holds a full-time job as a partner at a legal firm, in its criminal law and public interest litigation department.

Bon is probably best known for his association with the popular LoyarBurok online forum, colloquially called a blawg, or a socio-political blog written by lawyers or that provides legally-oriented content. Besides the blog, he is also behind UndiMsia! and the MyConstitution campaign to create awareness about the Federal Constitution.

Through UndiMsia!, Bon ropes in the youth to become active participants in the country’s democratic processes. Half-jokingly, he refers to the movement as an activism school, with a short-term solution of churning out activists and a long-term one of creating institutional change.

“The dropout rate from activism is very high especially in Malaysia where there is no culture of coaching,” said Bon about the challenges facing agents of change.

“So we teach young people the science of activism — how to deal with problems, their causes and consequences through a non-partisan approach,” he said.

Bon: The dropout rate from activisim is very high

This is where the young learn about connecting the dots. UndiMsia!’s signature activity is the People Power #IdolaDemokrasi GameShop, a five-hour workshop where Bon and his team guide participants in identifying trouble spots, tracing their root causes and brainstorming possible solutions.

“We talk about the big picture, the layout of power relations in Malaysia and how these elements affect us,” Bon said.

“Most people get depressed when building the big picture because they suddenly see how the things like ethnic problems, religion and race issues are all linked together.” Another key factor that influences the staying power of activists is the link between past and present, Bon said. There is usually a 10 to 15-year gap between movements, he said, observing that this is already emerging in the post-Reformasi era.

While many activists from that period have moved into politics to have a direct influence on events, others like Bon have chosen the route of non-partisan activism. In fact, Bon’s own initiation into activism occurred through the Reformasi movement. When demonstrators were arrested in street protests, he joined the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Centre to defend them.

This led him to the Kamunting camp for preventive detention, in the quest to make habeas corpus applications for the Reformasi activists detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which has now been repealed. When the Reformasi-generation lawyers stepped forward to fight for the detainees’ rights, Bon was naturally in their midst.

More than a decade later, Bersih, the movement for clean and fair elections, opened the doors for the younger generation to engage with the democratic system. Although they followed in the footsteps of Reformasi activists, to Bon, that historical context was lost on many of the young people.

“There is a very large gap between Reformasi and Bersih,” he said. “Ask these young people about [the role played by former premier Tun Dr] Mahathir [Mohamad] in national affairs and you’ll find that he is irrelevant to them,” said Bon.

“They also think Bersih popped out of nowhere, so you have to explain that it was fomenting from the days of Reformasi,” he said. “And that the Chinese and urbanites didn’t take to the streets back then as they are doing now. People need to know these things.”

To ensure that they do, UndiMsia! has produced Ombak Perubahan, a short film depicting the relevance of Reformasi to the present day. Launched on Sept 15, the film’s underlying message is that activism is a game for the long haul.

“The problem is that everyone is impatient to see change happen and gets increasingly restless when elections are around the corner,” Bon said. “When they don’t see immediate results, they get disillusioned and don’t want to take part anymore.”

Herein lies another important role played by UndiMsia! The movement consists of four pillars — information, process, action and platform, Bon said. “#IdolaDemokrasi falls under the third pillar and involves choosing a specific action route to achieve the targeted outcome,” he said.

Participants later present their strategy to a panel of judges who vote on the best of the lot. The winner then has to implement his strategy through a Youth Action Group (YAG), which they will set up within the community.

Aimed at keeping the spirit of activism alive, the fourth pillar offers a platform for like-minded NGOs to gather, share resources and cheer each other on.

Bon has also infused UndiMsia! with activism models developed by the renowned activists Gene Sharp and Bill Moyer to add further substance to the science of activism.

Sharp, who runs the US-based Albert Einstein Institute, has spent the last three decades documenting strikes and boycotts around the world and has drawn up a list of 198 methods of activism that have become a guide to successfully pressuring governments to change.

“Many of the methods used in the Arab Spring originated from Sharp,” Bon noted. “So it starts from the basic method of using symbols and posters and progresses to more drastic methods, such ich method is most effective for their cause.”

Moyer, on the other hand, has slotted the different types of activists into four categories — the reformer, rebel, social change agent and citizen.

“The reformers are the intellectuals who spark ideas and usually those who draft the laws,” Bon said. “The rebels have a negative image but are needed to take the protests to the streets,” he said.

“The social change agent, on the other hand, educates and empowers by going down to the ground to simplify the message and build support.”

“The citizen will follow anything exciting until its immediate relevance passes. This is cause-based activism and we need everyone to play their part for it to work.”

UndiMsia! is certainly playing its part as a social change agent. Since its launch on Sept 16 last year it has run 30 GameShops that have extended to even Australia and the UK.

Despite the encouraging response both locally and abroad, Bon admitted that the idea of activism is still only hovering above ground and hasn’t quite taken off yet. He provides an interesting analysis of the cause.

“People are not disillusioned enough with Pakatan Rakyat,” he said bluntly. “The idea of UndiMsia! will only become a groundswell if people are disillusioned and fed up with a new party coming into power.

“Then they will start considering other options in moving forward. And this is real people power. Not just voting once every five years.”