Nuffnang Add

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The real cost of demonstrations

Posted on 7 May 2014 - 06:09pm
Natalie Shobana Ambrose

TRYING to head to Monas, Indonesia's national monument, on Labour day was quite the experience. Busloads of workers were headed to the centre to demonstrate. In what would seem like a dangerous place to be in, it was a different atmosphere from what the term demonstration has come to mean. Looking out the window while in standstill traffic, I saw people singing, laughing and a sense of solidarity. It almost looked like a Family Fun Day.

I was a little confused. This was Indonesia's first May Day holiday and I couldn't help but wonder what would make people give up a perfectly good day of rest to spend it on the streets, in the heat taking part in a demonstration. This is not something confined to one country, this was a universal phenomenon as protests marked May 1 around the world even in our country.

Malaysia seems to have a new culture of protests. While many are against it – claiming it wastes time, resources and hampers business – the question remains why would people go out to the streets when they could enjoy a day off.

The answer is obvious – at the very heart of a protest is the fact that people feel they are not being heard. This is probably the last resort in an attempt to air their grievances and to satisfy the feeling of inequality. People also tend to believe that a protest will alter the situation and change policies. Do these many people feel that way about certain issues? People also protest because there is a sense of identity and when people can feel they belong to the collective identity, they are more willing to join protests if that is a cause they strongly believe in.

Should we then listen to protesters or is this like negotiating with terrorists? I believe there is a delicate balance.

Let's take the case of Malaysia. Whenever there is a protest, it is downplayed. Most media will report the numbers, and protesters are made to look like rogues.

They cause traffic jams, they hold places captive by sit-ins and businesses lose money. Not to mention the cost of mobilising the police.

But if you dissect the crowd, you will see that most protesters in Malaysia are a mixed bunch of people, who would normally not be seen together, willing to walk the streets of KL in protest.

So should protesters be heard? While I was a little disappointed that plans were halted as the streets became a parking lot, I realised that the costs of demonstrating are not high enough to the protesters – their cause was far greater than the threat of being arrested or having a mark on their record. They believed they deserve better.

To the authorities, however, public order is key. It is more important that protests do not take place and dialogue about issues only encourages more protests.

Many governments and leaders use this strategy. Yet delegitimising concerns of a large group of people is not wise especially when there is little avenue to air their grievances. But if people are expected to behave, their leaders should behave too.

If we go back to the cause of Malaysia's Labour Day rally, we would see that people were not particularly against GST but many are convinced that GST is not the right thing right now for the country. While slanted infomercials are meant to be a remedy for people's grievances, simple observation of human nature would say that in order for people to obey authority, they have to feel heard and have clear outlets that work for their opinions to be understood and received. In Malaysia this proves difficult because obeying authority is not just based on access to be heard but also on the fact that people need to know that laws do not just change willy-nilly and that there is fairness for all. When all these three elements are not in balance we will see more and more protests.

Protests don't just happen, they are built up from frustrations that are not addressed and injustices that are perpetuated. While we might think the cost of listening now is great, the cost of not listening is really greater.

Natalie believes, the time to listen is now. Comments:

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