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The Globe as you know it is changing.

Since 2007, Southeast Asia Globe has been a space for some of the region’s best writers and photographers to take our readers behind the headlines into the stories that shape people’s lives. Every month, you could expect to pick up our latest print edition and find high-quality journalism, analysis and artwork waiting on every page. And since 2007, we’ve fought to uphold our promise of quality and independence to you, our readers.

But, like we said, the world is changing. Print publications just aren’t reaching the audiences they need to fulfil their promise of informing, educating and entertaining the public. Advertisers continue to invest in digital platforms while printing costs creep ever higher. Print may not be dead, but it’s fighting for its life. And we’re tired of waiting by a sickbed for its condition to improve. We want to be present at the birth of something new.

That’s why Southeast Asia Globe is relaunching as a member-driven platform featuring daily long-form features combining world-class journalism with enthralling art design and data-centered tech. Through our core pillars – Power, Money, Life and Earth – we are focusing in on the central issues that our readers have always engaged with most, with the same in-depth coverage of politics, business, social affairs and the environment that you’ve come to expect since 2007.

But leaving print behind us doesn’t just save our backs from lugging stacks of magazines across Southeast Asia. It opens up a global readership who don’t just want to read the news, but have a say in the stories that we tell and the way that we tell them. We’re not asking you to take out another magazine subscription – our stories are open to all. What we’re offering our members is a space where they can pitch and vote on the stories that they think deserve to be told. We want to inspire an engaged and active community of members who vote for, comment on and contribute to the stories that matter most to them. We want to work with our members to curate the way they engage with the news – not just as readers, but as an active extension of our editorial team.

That’s how we’re changing to bring you great stories. Here’s how we’re not.

We’re independent. Always have been, always will be. We’re not owned by any corporation or aligned with any state. We choose the stories that we tell, and the way that we tell them.

We’re creative. We’re not interested in churning out breaking news stories on the hour, every hour. We believe that the best stories are the ones that come alive on the page, digging deeper into the issues that shape Southeast Asia – and bringing you along for the ride. From our dedicated designers to our new software development team, our commitment is to constantly challenge ourselves to find new ways of reaching out to our readers.

We’re open. Challenging governments, NGOs and businesses to be transparent with the public means nothing if we keep our own readers in the dark. That’s why we will be completely open about why we tell the stories that we tell – and how we pay for them. Work with us to build something that endures where many media fail, and decide with us exactly where that money is going.

Above all, we’re optimistic. And yeah, we know what you’re thinking. Faced with impending climate collapse, the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments across the world, widening wealth and income inequality and deepening divisions rooted in race or gender or creed, it’s hard not to open the papers and feel the weight of the world pressing down. But we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe that when people work together, they can make their little corner of the world a more just, open and equal place.

And that’s why we can’t do this without you. We believe that across the globe is a community of people who care deeply about social justice, environmental action and press freedom – and who will join in to help make those ideals a reality. We’re not just holding our hand out – we need your voice to play a vital role in building Southeast Asia Globe into a leading space for progressive causes in the region. Tell us what stories the mainstream media is missing. Share with us the causes that matter most to you, and how we can champion those causes not just across Southeast Asia, but the world.

Our vision is clear. By 2025, we want to be recognised for building a great space for outstanding journalists from across the region to explore new ways of telling Southeast Asia’s most vital stories. Let’s bring together a community of engaged and loyal members who want to help reshape the media rather than just read it. And we want to reach a point where our readers, not advertisers, are the ones working to support our shared vision of an inclusive media.

We can’t do this without you. Let’s get together and build something that we all believe in.

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Bersih and the battle to unseat Najib Razak

By: David Hutt - Posted on: November 8, 2016 | Current Affairs

For the past decade, Malaysian protest movement Bersih has been demanding sweeping political change. But Prime Minister Najib Razak is unlikely to feel threatened as long as the country’s opposition remains weak and fragmented

A Malaysian protester wears a headband which reads: "Bersih", or "Clean" in Malay, during a banned opposition rally demanding changes to the electoral system in Kuala Lumpur November 10, 2007.
A Malaysian protester wears a headband which reads: “Bersih”, or “Clean” in Malay, during a banned opposition rally demanding changes to the electoral system in Kuala Lumpur November 10, 2007. Photo: REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Who is ‘Malaysian Official 1’? The question has been on the minds of many in Malaysia since July, when a lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice over the 1MDB scandal referenced the individual 36 times, accusing him or her of receiving $731m in misappropriated funds, though returning $620m of it.

In September, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, strategic communications director of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN)coalition, told the BBC that, of course, ‘Malaysian Official 1’ was none other than Prime Minister Najib Razak. But, Abdul said, Najib was not referred to by name because he was not part of the investigation.

The admission surprised few Malaysians, and certainly not the organisers of Bersih, a coalition of 94 civil society organisations that have been making noise about Najib’s alleged role in the 1MDB scandal for years and demanding electoral change since the group’s first rally in November 2007.

Bersih, which translates to ‘clean’, is short for Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections). It is often called Bersih 2.0, since it was relaunched in 2010 to make it  entirely an non-governmental organisation, though it retains close ties with opposition parties.

An estimated 100,000 people took part in its first rally, while estimates ranged between 6,000 and 50,000 for its second, in July 2011. An August 2015 rally saw almost 200,000 people descend on Kuala Lumpur to protest for change, despite the government branding it an illegal organisation. 

Another Kuala Lumpur street rally is slated for 19 November, preceded by a seven-week tour of 246 cities and towns calling for Najib’s resignation and changes to the political system, which, the organisation contends, curtails democracy and gives the prime minister an excessive amount of power.

James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, says Bersih has achieved three important aims in its ten-year history: showing that mass demonstrations in urban areas can be successful; creating a large coalition of NGOs, “when previously they were working separately”; and attracting multi-racial crowds to earlier protests, “when previously rallies tended to [be] mono-racial”.

It became clear the only way for change was a regime change, and the only way for that was to get rid of the prime minister

John Funston, visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, adds another: the realisation that “without a levelling of the electoral playing field, democratic political change [is] impossible”.

In an interview with Southeast Asia Globe in May, Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah urged Malaysians to recognise “awareness is the first step towards reform and change”. She added: “Bersih to a large extent provides that hope for change and unites concerned Malaysians for a common cause.”

‘Hope’ might be the illustrative word in this sentence, since questions remain over whether Bersih – or civil society more generally – can bring about change in Malaysia. In a 2015 paper, “Challenging electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia”, academics Sandra Smeltzer and Daniel Pare wrote that there is “no direct link between citizens’ increased participation in embodied political activities in public spaces and the establishment of more liberal-oriented institutional structures”.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks at a 2015 Bersih rally
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks at a 2015 Bersih rally. Photo: Olivia Harris/Reuters

And, according to Chin, “a lot of the urban middle-class wanted to express their disaffection with the political system, and before Bersih, they had to go through one of the main political parties to do so. With Bersih, they had an alternative.” The problem, though, is that the only means of political change in Malaysia is through party politics, “because parliament has to change the laws”.

Most commentators would agree that such changes are unlikely under a government controlled by Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has been in power for as long as Malaysia has existed. But to improve governmental institutions and rid the country of corruption on the scale of 1MDB, Bersih contends, Najib must go.

Yet whichever way one views Malaysia’s current political scene, the inescapable fact remains that Najib and his UMNO government are in a stronger position than in past years. Or, rather, the political opposition is weaker than it has been in more than a decade.

At the 2008 elections, the BN coalition, led by UMNO, lost 58 seats while the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition gained 61. In the popular vote, the BN achieved only 300,000 more votes than the opposition. This was reversed five years later when the popular vote went to the PR for the first time in Malaysian history, though the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system allowed the BN to win 133 seats to the PR’s 89. Still, the election result was dire for Najib and UMNO, and for the last three years the prime minister has set about regaining supporters and destroying his opponents.

It began with purges of the ruling coalition. In June 2015, Najib fired his deputy prime minister and four other cabinet ministers. Also dismissed was Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now Najib’s fiercest critic. Today, the government is filled with Najib loyalists, many of whom have been rewarded with cushy cabinet positions.

Meanwhile, the opposition has been cleaved apart. In March 2014, the government announced that parliament would debate the introduction of hudud – strict Islamic criminal codes that allow for the use of controversial punishments such as whipping – in the northern state of Kelantan.

Many believe UMNO’s support for the hudud bill, which it had long opposed, was designed to divide the opposition. And it worked. The PR coalition collapsed in June 2015 when the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – an ardent supporter of hudud – severed ties with the coalition, reportedly after its coalition partner, the centre-left Democratic Action Party, opposed the bill. Months later, the PAS broke up when several politicians and activists left to form the National Trust Party (PAN), which rejoined the PR’s partners to establish a new coalition, Pakatan Harapan.

Add to this the jailing of opposition figurehead Anwar Ibrahim early last year and the death of PAS spiritual leader Haron Din in September, and a shaken, fragmented opposition remains. The impact was visible in June when UMNO won two parliamentary by-elections with sizeable margins; if PAS and PAN had remained united, they would have surpassed UMNO.

Looking ahead to the next general election, expected to take place in 2018, Funston predicts that votes for UMNO are unlikely to increase, but a weakened and divided opposition may hand victory to the government by default.

Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters during a 2007 Bersih rally.
Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters during a 2007 Bersih rally. Photo: Lay Sen Hing/DPA

Nevertheless, two years is a long time in Malaysian politics, and the Bersih rallies could provide a catalyst for bringing together disparate opposition parties on a common, anti-Najib platform. “Bersih has a huge task, but is needed more than ever,” says Funston.

Chin says the movement “received a boost” when last month the electoral commission, which is selected by the government, announced it will redraw electoral boundaries in 112 parliamentary seats, almost half of the national tally. Opposition politicians have labelled this gerrymandering; breaking up UMNO-controlled seats into smaller constituencies will give the party more MPs – a simple tactic for Najib to ensure victory at the next election.  “People can see just how blatant electoral manipulation is,” says Chin, who predicts the upcoming rallies will attract large numbers, including many first-time participants.

However, Bersih is not a revolutionary force, nor can it directly bring about change. Yet, says Chin, “it is very successful at highlighting the crooked election system in Malaysia”. This is more important than ever as Najib seeks to alter political institutions to retain his grip on power.

Bringing about change will demand more from Malaysia’s opposition parties in the coming years, and they will have to recapture the upward trajectory of the 2008 and 2013 elections. As Chin says, it became obvious after Bersih’s massive 2015 rally that “the only way for change was a regime change, and the only way for that was to get rid of the prime minister”