Webinar on “The Profound Impact of the BERSIH Movement since 2007”

In this webinar, Prof Khoo Boo Teik talked about how Malaysia’s BERSIH Movement influenced popular dissent and gave voice to grievances beyond the core issue of electoral reform.


Monday, 21 March 2022 – The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (also known as BERSIH) is a group that advocates for reforms in the Malaysian electoral system. To understand BERSIH’s evolving tactics in mobilising Malaysians and its societal impacts, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Professor Khoo Boo Teik to deliver a webinar titled “The Profound Impact of the BERSIH Movement since 2007”. Prof Khoo is Professor Emeritus at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (Tokyo) while concurrently serving as Research Fellow Emeritus at the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE-JETRO).

Prof Khoo Boo Teik discussed the BERSIH movement. Dr Lee Hwok-Aun moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof Khoo started his presentation with an overview of the beginnings of BERSIH. BERSIH was thrust into the spotlight in 2007 when it organised its first mass rally, with four demands pertaining to the use of inedible ink, electoral roll, postal voting, and free/fair access to media for all parties. Even though the BERSIH rally was championing electoral reforms, it occurred during the same period where numerous civil society groups (for instance Hindu Rights Action Force and The Malaysian Bar) demanded social and legal justice from the then incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) government. Prof Khoo argued that 2007 marked the beginning of BN’s eventual fall from power which culminated in the 2018 General Election when Malaysia experienced its first-ever regime change.

BERSIH continued to grow between 2007 to 2011 as Malaysians who were previously uninterested in electoral reforms joined the movement. In the second mass rally held in 2011, BERSIH adopted the style of a Gandhian movement. By 2012, senior leaders in Pakatan Raykat (predecessor of Pakatan Harapan) publicly rode onto BERSIH’s electoral goals with Nurul Izzah calling for the mayor of Kuala Lumpur to be an elected official rather than appointed by the (BN-led) federal government. Backed by political support from key opposition leaders, BERSIH held its third rally in 2012.

In 2015, BERSIH held its fourth rally which attracted an unprecedented number of attendees due to widespread discontent against the excesses of then Prime Minister Najib Razak as the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal unravelled. In contrast to previous rallies which were held in an atmosphere of confrontation, the 2015 rally had a carnival mood. Prominent participants of BERSIH 4 include former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who criticised Najib for his corrupt activities. The fifth rally occurred in 2016 where, in addition to the gathering in Kuala Lumpur, BERSIH organised a seven-week tour around Malaysia to raise awareness on 1MDB and the need for electoral reforms.

Prof Khoo concluded his presentation by emphasising the role which BERSIH fulfilled beyond electoral reforms. BERSIH, as Malaysia’s first multi-racial mass movement, contributed towards a re-imagined Malaysian society that transcends racial boundaries.

In the question-and-answer session, participants raised issues concerning ties between BERSIH and other civil society groups; the observed decline in state repression towards public demonstrations since BERSIH’s 2015 rally, and the relevance of BERSIH in the present context where the Pakatan Harapan administration had less-than-stellar performance. The webinar attracted 80 participants.

Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, moderated the webinar. 

Read the related ISEAS Perspective here.

Over 80 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)