Unlike many activists, Thomas Fann had a late political awakening and was relatively a newbie to the activism scene when he participated in the BERSIH 2 rally in 2011. He went on to become one of the key figures in subsequent rallies and eventually became BERSIH chairperson from 2018 to 2023.

How did you get involved in activism? Was your family political?

The March 2008 political tsunami was an awakening for me in the sense that we can do something. From that point, I began to explore how to be involved in bringing about change in the country. So early in the year 2010, we started a voter registration drive where we set up counters at shopping centres every week for two years.

In two and a half years, we recorded over 25,000 new voters in Johor Bahru (JB). Because of that, I had a good understanding of electoral problems, voter registration issues, and was aware of the unfairness in the electoral system. The group was called Johor People Action Group (JPAG).

My family was far from political. Like a lot of families, we tried to stay away from politics or anything sensitive. But for me, any form of injustice was a personal thing that I always felt very strongly about and to speak up and raise the issues. I don’t see myself as an activist, it’s just the way I am. For example, in 2006, there was an issue of children sexual abuse in an orphanage. I broke that case, brought those people to justice and rescued the children. Electoral and political injustices were some of the big things I saw happening, thus I was thinking how to be involved to address the issues.

That’s quite a late political awakening as many activists tend to get their “baptism of fire” during their university days. How was your education background like?

There was an awakening but it wasn’t in any form of activism. It was a sense that my life needs to count for more than myself. When I was in the UK doing my studies, the movie Gandhi (directed by Richard Attenborough) came out in 1982. I saw it, got to know more about the life of Gandhi, and I was totally inspired and enthralled. I watched the movie multiple times, read his biography and really kind of searched for a deeper meaning. So Gandhi has always been one of the icons that I look up to. The real spark was in 2008 when I said okay, I want to be available to do something about this country.

Can you tell us about the first protest you joined?

My first ever protest was the BERSIH 2 rally in 2011 as a participant. In the following year for the BERSIH 3 rally in 2012, my friends and I who were not from Klang Valley decided to push for the protest to be held in Johor Bahru as well. I was then nominated to become the chairperson for that protest. We had no contact with BERSIH (central leadership) up to that point, but we modelled ourselves after the BERSIH protest and its Steering Committee. I was co-chairing with Mohd Salleh. We had two weeks to organise, and by Johor standards, it was immensely successful. We estimated around 8,000 people attended that protest and never before had people seen such a good turn out (in Johor). That was my first time in the limelight, doing a press conference in the build-up to the protest.

Five months later, I was asked to organise another protest, the Himpunan Hijau at Pengerang. Rather than fronting it, I stayed behind but helped the Pengerang people to organise the protest. Very challenging but it was very successful as well. In some way, I became the go-to person in the (peninsular) South for protests so there were other things that I organised in the South. From there, I got to know the BERSIH Steering Committee members and they invited me to join them in 2013.

Thomas speaking in a Bersih rally in Johor Bahru.

When you organised the first BERSIH protest in JB, it sounded like it was organic and autonomous. Did you have to seek permission from the BERSIH Steering Committee back then?

No. We highly regarded the BERSIH committee but we did not know them personally. When we decided to call for the protest (in JB), we were actually hoping someone else would lead it. At that time, we contacted a group called Friends of SUARAM in JB. They told us they made a decision with Maria Chin, who had come down to Johor, that they would not organise (a rally in JB) but that everyone should come to KL instead. (But) they said if we want to organise it ourselves, we can go ahead. We were reluctant but since there was no one else willing to take up the challenge, we decided to take it up. Because I was the one who talked the most, they pushed me forward as the main leader.

Do you see your decision to be involved in protests as more of a deliberate or a spur-of-the-moment decision?

I would say it was a conscious and deliberate decision. It wasn’t like I was reluctant, but I knew what it would cost me, my family and my business e.g. I had to make some major decisions in my life if I were to take this up, and I did. To stand in front is to be identified and targeted, and that did happen because the police and Special Branch were on me. I was called in for meetings with the police before and after the protest.

What were your roles in protests and how has it changed over time?

For the BERSIH protest series, my first one was BERSIH 2 in 2011 as an ordinary participant. The following year, I was leading and organising BERSIH 3 in Johor Bahru. Then after that, I was part of the Steering Committee as the Southern Vice-Chair. Later on, I became the Treasurer and was involved in organising BERSIH 4 and 5. In both, I was the only Steering Committee member in the command centre, so I was behind the scenes in BERSIH 4 and 5 making any major decisions that had to be made. Our SOP in organising a major rally was we work on the assumption that all the Steering Committee members and those up in front on the stage can be taken in by the police, but the show has to go on and someone needs to make the hard decisions of whether to go on, to hold back, to push or whatever. So for (BERSIH) 4 and 5, I was involved in a very small team with three others [and we were] kind of coordinating the protest.

Can you explain about the command centre?

Prior to BERSIH 4 rally, I heard that one of the major things that stood out in previous rallies was the failure of communication at times. Messages were not getting through to different groups led by different Steering Committee members in different parts of the city. So the command centre (in BERSIH 4 and 5) was the communication and coordination centre to relay messages reliably to the different groups scattered throughout KL, with Dataran Merdeka as the focal point. Another resource person and I felt that this was critical, so we wanted to take command. In fact, BERSIH 4 and 5 was the first time BERSIH itself took command of the protests. Before that, we would sub it to Unit AMAL. To them, it was very organic to move about on the ground. BERSIH 4 and 5 were very controlled, centralised and coordinated because we had a command centre with walkie-talkies and other channels of communication, like foot soldiers that carried messages from point to point and staff that checked out troop movements from both sides. We called it a war room. For us, it was a war game but with peaceful intent.

For each point, there was a commander on the ground. Normally, it’s a person on a Hilux and they would have a walkie-talkie supplied by us. But we know anybody can listen in to walkie-talkies by tuning to the right channel, so we always have other means. We use codes instead of real names and we also use codes for different locations we want to move to. We have backup plans for really urgent secret messages by directly phone calling a number that nobody has. If that fails, we would have foot soldiers that run with the message to different points. We wanted to be able to coordinate the troops on the ground, so we had five ground commanders.

BERSIH 4 and 5 were very controlled, centralised and coordinated because we had a command centre with walkie-talkies and other channels of communication, like foot soldiers that carried messages from point to point and staff that checked out troop movements from both sides. We called it a war room. For us, it was a war game but with peaceful intent.

Walk us through the days leading up to a protest. What was it like in BERSIH 4?

For BERSIH 4, the challenge was that Maria, the Chairperson, wanted a 34 hours overnight protest. We had concerns and reservations because of the logistics involved, the risk of being attacked, and whether we would be able to stay for even more than two hours when we tell people it would be 34 hours. But Maria was really adamant and we didn’t resist her that strongly. If that’s what she wanted, then we (the committee) will plan accordingly. So in the process of planning for 34 hours of BERSIH 4, we had two scenarios that could happen. The more likely scenario was that the police would do what they did in BERSIH 1 until 3, which was to come against us with force, tear gas and water cannons to scatter us. The security team had different scenarios planned in our minds on what to do. My strategy was to be like water and to never go head on with the FRU. If they confront us, we will flow to another road. Because it was 34 hours, we cannot call it off after only one or two hours, so we agreed we will do the movement for six hours from one point to another in the city of KL. Once we reach the sixth hour, we will call it off and declare a success for the day (under scenario one).

The second scenario, which at that point was deemed unlikely, is that they will let us be and don’t kacau us for 34 hours. Believe it or not, the main concern was toilets. Where are people going to pee in the 34 hours? We had a team focused on logistics and they looked into every aspect, like renting mobile toilets and where to park them so that DBKL would not seize them and we lose all our deposits (on the rental). In the end, a church graciously allowed us to put it in their car park but it was not exactly near the Dataran. We were also worried about rubbish thrown by protesters, so we organised a crew for rubbish collection and recycling. All the rubbish was sorted out and the recycle truck would come. There was also another committee focusing on activities like making origami flowers, poetry reading, morning yoga and aerobics to keep people engaged and entertained for the 34 hours of the protest because if they get bored, they will leave. So we had many things going on and BERSIH 4 really felt like a celebration. Many groups organised their own activities without us even needing to know about it. It was wonderful. People just took the initiative to organise things, determined to stay until midnight of 30th August 2015.

In the end, it was a peaceful protest. The police truly abandoned us and left us alone. There was very little police presence except near the Dataran because their goal was to protect the grass there. Must be some very special form of grass till they barricaded it and kept us away from it!

Thomas during a pit stop to promote Bersih 4 rally

Though it was peaceful, there were some incidents and at least three major ones come to mind. One was the poisoning of our participants. Somebody put some box drinks by the road at Jalan TAR and put a message: “Please help yourself. BERSIH 4.” About 15 participants who drank it became ill, vomited and had to be sent to the hospital. We made a police report but they just brushed it aside. Next, there was a loud bang near the fountain on the finale night around 7.00 pm. Someone had let go of a little bomb expecting to create panic and disperse the crowd, but the crowd was so disciplined that they did not panic and just surrounded the person. Our security team made a citizen’s arrest and escorted him to IPD Dang Wangi. When we reached there, lo and behold, all the police knew him, welcomed him and gave him a cigarette. He was one of them. Another one was that a car was burned. One of the protestors was a volunteer medic. He parked his car near Bank Negara and it was completely burnt. It was clear that the car belonged to a protester as he had his medic vest hanging in it, so it was deliberate arson.

So we had many things going on and BERSIH 4 really felt like a celebration. Many groups organised their own activities without us even needing to know about it. It was wonderful. People just took the initiative to organise things, determined to stay until midnight of 30th August 2015. In the end, it was a peaceful protest. The police truly abandoned us and left us alone.

Speaking of burned cars, there was an incident in BERSIH 3 where a car got turned over. Do you know what happened?

There are different versions of the story. What we know is that a police car entered the crowd. There was no reason for the car to be there. There were some protesters who attacked the moving car until it stopped and then overturned the car with the police inside. At the same time, there were also other protesters who were trying to stop this and helped to rescue the police from the car. We don’t have the evidence so it’s difficult (to say what really happened), but we believe this is one of those planted provocateurs to portray BERSIH protests as violent, chaotic and anti-establishment. The media covered that incident very well and the narrative that came out was that this is the evidence of the violence that occurred in a BERSIH protest. As an organiser, I can say our intent from beginning to end was to hold a peaceful protest as is within our constitutional rights. We always made sure our security team maintained peace and ensured that no incident happened during a protest, so the incident was totally against what we believe in. Every protest, we put forth the message that it is a peaceful protest and we must ensure discipline, and the vast majority of people who come to BERSIH protests are peaceful and very disciplined. BERSIH 4 proved that.

Coming back to BERSIH 4. Can you walk us through what you yourself do on that day?

For the command centre, we would always rent a hotel room. Not necessarily near to the site, but within the communication radius of the commanders on the ground. We don’t just rent one hotel room, we normally rent several to throw off the authorities. On the day of the protest itself, we would decide which room to go to and we would go incognito. So we go there, lock ourselves in the room, communicate with the commanders on the ground and get updates on the situation. For BERSIH 4, it was a hotel near Dataran. Because it was peaceful, we were more free and there was less work for us. We just had to coordinate a few things, do citizen’s arrest and deal with problems that arose.

BERSIH 5 was a totally different cup of tea. It wasn’t as big as BERSIH 4 because it wasn’t as long – it was intended to be only about four hours like the other protests. But the police changed tactics and decided to totally block us from moving. Dataran Merdeka was always the venue, but a decision was made by the Steering Committee then to start the protest from the Maybank in Bangsar, then march down to Muzium Negara and Masjid Negara, then go down to Dataran. As the command team, we knew that was very problematic because there was only one route heading there and it could be blocked, so we had to come up with contingency plans.

The compromise we reached was that we allowed people to meet at different meeting points, like Masjid Negara, Jalan TAR, Chinatown and Masjid India. They gathered there and waited for the main column to come down, but they never moved. So we were locked up in the hotel, just four of us with walkie-talkies all around getting reports that this time, it was really a lockdown and they could not move. Not even the group at Jalan TAR and Masjid India could come together. I wanted to go down and negotiate with the police to let us gather for a while, but they were not open to negotiations at all.

In BERSIH 4, only minimal negotiation was needed. We just told them our plan that we intend to stay until midnight of 30th August. Because the next day was Merdeka and there was a celebration on the padang, we told them we would clear by then and we would not interrupt the celebration. But for BERSIH 5, they did not want to negotiate and they just wanted to block us, so we had to find another path to victory. Victory means to gather together in large numbers in one place. We had a few options, and plan B was to direct some of the columns to go near the Parliament. Very iconic location, but the risk was too high because it involves crossing a bridge from Muzium Negara to Perdana Botanical Garden. If they block us there, we cannot go anywhere. So we decided not to do that.

Looking at the map, the scenario and the gathering of people, I made a decision that we should gather at KLCC instead, but I could not communicate (the information) openly because the police would then block the roads heading there. So we didn’t relay the new order through walkie-talkie, we instead phone called the commanders on the ground and used our code names like Tango One, which was me. I said, “My name is Tango One, I am giving you a new order. You are not to tell your other commanders or anyone led by you. Just turn around your Hilux and start leading people away from Dataran, and move towards KLCC. Bersolat di KLCC.” When talking to the five commanders, I used “KLCC” because I wanted to be very clear. “Bersolat” was a code which meant by 1 o’clock. The order went out just before 12.00 pm, but it took them some time to mobilise and they still didn’t start moving by 1.00 pm. By then, they needed time to solat so I said solat now where you are and after that, call me. Just before 1.30 pm, they were ready and started moving. As they were moving, I would get updates on where they are on the map. The police were not chasing them because they thought we had already given up and were leaving. When they were more than halfway there, only then I gave the open order to everyone on Twitter and elsewhere that we are heading to the new gathering venue. The Bangsar group took the LRT and went straight to KLCC, bypassing the police. So that’s how BERSIH 5 ended up in KLCC under the Twin Towers.

We had to have a victory that day. We cannot let the police block us from our fundamental rights. One of the mainstream media who was very anti-BERSIH and normally wouldn’t report us positively, because it’s owned by a government party, carried a small report with a title of something like “BERSIH 5 rally organiser out-foxed the police and Red Shirts by switching their final assembly venue from Dataran Merdeka to Petronas Twin Towers in KL”. That’s exactly what happened, we outfoxed the police. I had a lot of fun that day.

The media headline mentioned by Thomas on Bersih 5 organiser ‘outfoxed’ the authorities

Looking at the decision-making process, did you decide to go to KLCC to end it on a high note?

Yes. In organising any protest, you always want to end on a high note in a very iconic location. So in all my protests, even from the very first one in JB, I always planned many options. Plan A is of course what we advertise, but knowing the authorities would try to block us, we would have backup plans. Each subsequent one would be harder and harder for the authorities to manage.

In protests, sometimes there is little time for discussions and the organiser has to make a decision on the spot. Only one person or a small group can make the decision because you have to be very quick. In your case, you made the call to march to KLCC. How do you make other people agree to your decisions?

When it comes to organising a major protest, there can only be one command centre and one commander to make a decision. There is no committee in a major protest, the Steering Committee were on the ground (as protest participants). Maria was arrested the day before BERSIH 5 so she wasn’t present, but had she been on the ground that day as Chairperson, I would still be the one giving orders because the power was vested in the commander. That was understood and agreed upon. I remember in the last meeting before BERSIH 4, I needed some clearance from the Steering Committee on one of the major decisions I might have to make on that day: if there were casualties, when do I stop the protest? How many people must die before I call it off? Because it was a 34 hour protest and it could get very violent judging from past protests up to that point, I didn’t want to be in the position where I had to make that decision alone. So I just laid it out on the table. I think nobody answered because they were stunned that it could be a reality and it could happen. But since nobody said anything, I said that for me, I’m not prepared to sacrifice anyone. If someone gets hurt and dies as a result, that would be the point that I would call it off. I would be happy to sacrifice myself but as a commander, I’m not prepared to push the protestors to a situation where they are endangered and hurt. So it had to be one person making the calls (in a major protest), and in both BERSIH 4 and 5, I was that person.

Organising protests brings together people of different backgrounds, interests and even levels of radicalness. What is the process like for you guys to make decisions and resolve conflicts, especially in the meetings?

It wasn’t always unanimous. There were more radical members, even within the Steering Committee, who wanted a more radical outcome. A revolution, occupying until the regime falls, being more provocative towards the authority, but myself and a good number of us are totally not in that camp. Gandhi was my inspiration, so I was not prepared to knowingly put people in harm’s way. Also, BERSIH itself has always come forth as a group that stands for the right to peaceful assembly, for our constitutional rights and for seeing change within the existing law process. We were not revolutionaries and we were not Che Guevara, but there are people within the organisation who see themselves that way. It wasn’t unanimous. Not everybody in the committee wanted me to be the person in charge, especially for BERSIH 5. But there were some key members of the team who said they would not do the protest if I’m not the one leading it, so they had to reluctantly agree in a way.

How about the decision-making process at the Steering Committee level? Because conflicts in decision-making can easily disintegrate a movement, how did BERSIH navigate this?

For the Steering Committee, it was basically Maria making the calls. When I look at our protest and say, the Hong Kong one or the SSR (Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat) one, there is a fundamental difference: we are more controlled in decision-making and organising. There is no question about who’s in charge, who’s organising, how it should be organised, what are the demands, none. It is a BERSIH protest. It doesn’t matter if you are a Prime Minister, a future Prime Minister or an ex-Prime Minister. If you join the protest, you are just one of the troops and you follow orders.

Speaking of Prime Ministers, how has the entry of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and also the replacement of PAS with AMANAH affected the nature of the protest?

For the departure of PAS, it meant that we wouldn’t have the services of Unit AMAL. They did an excellent job at keeping the crowd safe and keeping the protest moving during the previous rallies, that’s my memory of Unit AMAL. After PAS left and AMANAH came up, they formed their own unit, which was ​​Unit ARiF. We of course worked with them but by BERSIH 4 and 5, we already made the decision that we (BERSIH) would be the one in command and not Unit ARiF or anyone else. Political parties that support the protest could send their own security team, but their commanders would take orders from us. So for the first time in BERSIH 4, we not only had our own command centre, we also had our own security team with our own vest and uniform. Not big numbers, but they were at the key areas of the stage protecting SC members. So that was a fundamental change where we took charge of the protest totally.

The involvement of Mahathir started in BERSIH 4 where he dropped by for both days of the rally. He sent a message saying he wants to be on the stage to address the crowd, so we had a quick Steering Committee meeting on WhatsApp. Some of us took a very clear stance of absolutely no. It was almost like a “if you allow him on the stage, then you are out of BERSIH” kind of situation. But by BERSIH 5, he was already part of Pakatan (Harapan) and he was one of those political party leaders coming to give support.

There is always this question that comes up on whether Mahathir hijacked BERSIH 5. He was one of the first to arrive at KLCC and because of that, he was on the Hilux giving speeches. It is said that BERSIH handed over the protest to Mahathir. I read and know it very differently. When we first gave the open order to gather at KLCC, Mahathir, Guan Eng and the rest arrived earlier than us because our crowd had to move from other parts of KL. It’s not that we gave them special preferences. My counter argument to the idea that Mahathir hijacked BERSIH is that BERSIH hijacked Mahathir. The fact that he put on our yellow t-shirt, spoke some of our demands and agenda, and went out to the streets, something that he was against for so many years, means that to some extent, he came to see our point of view.

Thomas was appointed into the Electoral Reform Committee chaired by former Election Commission chief Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman.

There are views that say BERSIH 4 and 5 were “less Malay and more Chinese” after the PAS departure. Do you agree with that assessment or would you say the Mahathir factor sort of balanced it out?

Up to BERSIH 3, Malay participants were the majority but after that in BERSIH 4, they were in the minority. Not completely non-existence, but my guesstimate is probably around 20%. But the size of BERSIH 4 itself is huge and we estimated about 400,000 turnouts over the two days. So it was a concern, but it didn’t mean that the absolute number of Malays had reduced. It just means that more non-Malays came out.

For BERSIH 5, the percentage of Malays was a bit higher at about 40% because of BERSATU and others joining in. Political parties always tend to look at it from a racial lens but we don’t want to fall into that trap. To me, BERSIH is one of the very few platforms where there is diversity and we see support coming from all ethnic groups. It is definitely not true that it is a non-Malay movement. It is a Malaysian movement.

One thing about BERSIH 5 that is very different from the other protests is that it was preceded with a BERSIH convoy. A very important part that is easy to forget because people just focus on the November 19 one-day event.

For one and a half months from October 1 to November 19, we had weekly car convoys throughout the country from town to town, village to village, North to South, East to West, Sabah and Sarawak. In the Peninsular, we all converged in KL. Sabah converged in Kota Kinabalu and Sarawak converged in Kuching. The convoy generated a lot of news thanks to the Red Shirts who attacked us non-stop, but it was also the first time BERSIH went outside of the Klang Valley in a real way. We went to villages and spread our messages through flyers and pamphlets. It really touched base with people who normally don’t know about us or join our rallies. When we were organising the BERSIH 5 rally, Mahathir had just [left UMNO]. They formed a group called GKCM (Gabungan Ketua Cawangan Malaysia), which consisted of people who left UMNO because they were unhappy with Najib and 1MDB. The group joined as part of the sector organising committees nationwide for the BERSIH convoy and it was the first time UMNO people were sitting down with DAP, PKR and AMANAH in committees talking together. So BERSIH did not only play a part in giving birth to Pakatan Rakyat, but also to the later stage of Pakatan Harapan. This group then of course became BERSATU after the rally.

To me, BERSIH is one of the very few platforms where there is diversity and we see support coming from all ethnic groups. It is definitely not true that it is a non-Malay movement. It is a Malaysian movement.

On BERSIH’s sustainability, what resources do you or your organisation have that were useful for your activism?

During the time when we were holding protests up to 2018, the public in general was the main funder and supporter for our activities and operations. Every protest was an opportunity to put forth a call for donations. We would normally itemise how much it would cost to organise a particular protest and it would always surpass what we asked for. BERSIH 4 was the most outstanding one. We asked for over RM200,000, but we netted RM2.6 million after minusing all costs and expenses. That was the protest against the RM2.6 billion that Najib took into his personal account. People were so angry and outraged that part of their protest involved throwing money at BERSIH. There was no big funder and the vast majority of donors, about 30,000 of them, donated RM10 each. Our bank statement for the month of August 2015 was so thick, it was sent to us in a box by courier. By then, it was very sensitive for BERSIH to receive any form of foreign grants because Jamal Yunus and the right-wing had accused us of being funded by George Soros, the CIA and all kinds of things. So at that time, it was the public who supported us.

After the change of government in 2018, it became a lot more difficult to raise funds from the public. We recognise that probably 90% of those who turned up to our protests came for one purpose, which was to change the government. So when that was achieved, they didn’t see a need for BERSIH anymore. Very few of them even read our demands that what we wanted was actually institutional reforms. It’s more challenging now so we are looking for new avenues and new sources of funding. We have been fortunate in the last few years that some foreign funders are happy to support our continuing work in democratising Malaysia and to fund some of the projects that we did.

Whose support and involvement was most crucial in the organisation of the protests?

The other CSOs that are part of our endorsing NGOs are critical. They played very important roles in all the protests. Certain political parties, especially the opposition parties at that time, were critical in mobilisation as well. They were very active and responsive. Whenever we put up a call for a protest, they would organise their own ceramah, mobilisation, funding, printing of t-shirts and things like that. A lot came through that so their support has to be acknowledged.

If you were to give an approximate number, how much of the mobilisation was done by BERSIH and how much was done by other CSOs and political parties?

Political parties, maybe about 30%. For the large part of it, I wouldn’t even credit the BERSIH Steering Committee or CSOs. We just set the date, venue, time and demands. We did our part to ensure that we could gather on the day itself, but the mobilisation was done by the people on their own. They are the ones who were on the ground, urging their friends and organising buses from outstations to come to the protests. They never had to get permission from us and they never coordinated with us. That is one of the reasons why BERSIH is really a people’s movement. Because it was the people [who mobilised themselves]. We cannot say it’s because of the good organisational skills of the committee. I actually wouldn’t even say we are very good at organising, but we do read the mood correctly and we represent the mood of the people.

There are people who believe that BERSIH’s name and leadership somehow holds a magic button. If we just press it and call for a protest, 100,000 people would come simply because BERSIH called for it. I never believed in that. I always use the analogy that we are like people watching for waves by the beach. Because we are able to recognise a big wave coming, we put out the call to the other surfers. Let’s get your surfboard ready, we are going to surf together on this date and this time at this place. We are fortunate that we have been correct. The wave came, people rode on it and there was a big protest. But if the wave was not coming, there is nothing that BERSIH could’ve done to create a wave. Maybe there would be a small group that will come just because it’s BERSIH, but it would not be in the tens of thousands.

If we just press it and call for a protest, 100,000 people would come simply because BERSIH called for it. I never believed in that. I always use the analogy that we are like people watching for waves by the beach. Because we are able to recognise a big wave coming, we put out the call to the other surfers. Let’s get your surfboard ready, we are going to surf together on this date and this time at this place. We are fortunate that we have been correct.

Are there things that you would do differently if you were to look back?

The optics that we put up. We were seen as very tied with Pakatan Harapan and sometimes, it’s because our leaders share the same stage as their leaders in ceramahs and everything. I would have liked to keep it more separate. No doubt that they support our demands and our cause, and anyone is welcomed to support us. But I would’ve wished that much earlier on, our position as a non-partisan organisation would have been put forth more clearly.

What lessons do you wish to impart to future activists and mobilisers?

To truly be the third force. It is to ensure that civil society remains totally non-partisan and neutral. No matter how tempting it is, don’t allow our personal political leanings to surface. I know I fail at this sometimes, but I do try my best to suppress my personal preferences when it comes to speaking as BERSIH. So that is something that we have to be clear about. To be professional means the ability to separate the personal from the professional in the public.

If someone is thinking of organising a protest, what lessons would you impart in terms of preparation or strategy?

First of all, you have to know your reason and your cause very clearly. You have to make sure that you are on the side of what is right in terms of the law and the constitution. Once you get that firmly down, courage and moral authority will come from that. When we protest, though people see us as troublemakers, we actually take a lot of care to ensure we do not unduly inconvenience people. So it’s to win the public over by being on the right side of the law, and it’s so that the authorities you are protesting against lose the moral high ground. Always maintain a moral high ground.

In terms of mobilisation, a major protest will take time (to organize). The shortest BERSIH protest took three weeks from the moment we called for the protest until the day of the event. The longest one was BERSIH 5, which took about four months. That period leading up to the protest was used for mobilisation. You need networks and you need to have allies on your side. BERSIH has NGO networks, and some NGOs have their own membership that are very big. We worked closely with IKRAM and ABIM, for example. We would also coordinate with political parties that support our demands and cause. Normally, they would provide support beyond just coming to the protest by also offering assistance, so we would form a coordination committee with them. Activities that generate public interest like media, social media, on the ground ceramah and all these things are needed if you want to see a turn out of more than 10,000 people. If you just want an instant response this weekend or tomorrow, you can put a call up on social media and you may get a few hundred or a few thousand turnouts depending on the issue. Some issues need an immediate response and it’s not important to have the numbers, so there are all kinds of protests with different needs. But the big ones like BERSIH definitely take a lot of organising, coordination and allying. On the day itself, communication and coordination of the crowd are the most important things.