Projek Dialog

The “Future” of Work

by Yvonne Tan

The future of work is full of precariats. What is a precariat? It is a portmanteau of the words “precarious” and “proletariat”. Terms like “precariat” have taken on more importance with the popularity of the “gig economy”. Back in 2021, NASDAQ listed Grab Holdings Ltd, a Singapore-headquartered company. Some celebrated this, while others lamented the “brain drain” of Malaysian talent. Squabbles like these overshadow a bigger issue: Grab food drivers hardly earn more than RM 5 per trip. They work an average of 12 hours a day only to get RM 2,200 a month.

The story of entrepreneurship has long overshadowed the story of the unfair labour conditions these entrepreneurs’ workers face. Proponents of the gig economy regularly rehash a number of justifications for why labour conditions do not need to be improved. These include supposedly competitive pay, job flexibility and flexible hours. 

However, massive strikes and protests led by workers of the gig economy in surrounding countries such as Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand have resulted in high-level mediations and changes in government labour policies. These movements were able to achieve this despite most workers never meeting or working with one another. They were able to enact spontaneous collective action while remaining leaderless.

Couriers for GoKilat, Gojek’s GoSend same-day delivery service, recently carried out back-to-back strikes to protest GoKilat’s new incentive scheme. The scheme proposed that couriers who once received IDR 10,000 (US$0.70) for five completed deliveries would now only receive IDR 5,000 (US$0.35).

After the estimated 100,000 drivers went on strike for three days, Lalamove couriers and Grab drivers also took up the cause, shining a light onto working conditions in Indonesia’s gig economy. These were not isolated cases. Protests and strikes against job suspensions, income reductions and demands for better health insurance have been carried out throughout Indonesia since 2015.

In Hong Kong, it all started with a Foodpanda delivery driver of South Asian descent. He had his account suddenly suspended and expressed his anger in an anonymous group chat of other drivers. The invite link quickly spread and has led to almost 1,500 members today. Now, these drivers were able to share their grievances on exploitative working conditions, racism and low wages. They could organise themselves to go on strike and formed links with local non-profits such as “Concern Group for Food Couriers’ Rights”. They even famously linked up with Boxson, a YouTuber who shares his life as a delivery driver. By November 18, negotiations between strike leaders, who were mostly South Asian workers, and Foodpanda management led to the fulfillment of some of the strike’s 15 demands.

Delivery services have taken on more importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, many workers also notably lent a hand in rescue efforts during the flash floods in Malaysia. They are now widely seen as “heroes”.

Another group of Malaysian heroes, medical staff, went on strike in July 2021. The Hartal Doktor Kontrak protest called into question the contract system, which said medical officers were not going to be absorbed as permanent staff after five years of service. Many Malaysians had a far more positive reaction to the doctor’s strike than they had to strikes by low-wage workers.

For instance, the J&T strikes in February 2021 were met with anger against the workers for apparently destroying customer packages and not delivering packages on time. The protest against J&T’s change in the commission system, which would reduce the wages for delivery workers, was largely overshadowed by netizens’ anger against worker attitudes. The media also began to spotlight how customers can make complaints against J&T to get their money back, rather than talk about the strike itself. Clearly, we do not treat all our “heroes” equally.

This is in stark contrast with an almost similar experience taking place in April 2021. An innocent chat between a Shopee Express courier and a customer revealed that the reason the package was late was that there were strikes. Shopee was going to cut the pay for each delivered package from IDR 2,000 (USD 0.14) to IDR 1,500 (USD 0.10). Screenshots of the conversation went viral, leading many Indonesian netizens to join the strike online with the hashtag #ShopeeTindasKurir. The online element of the strike was a great platform for Shopee couriers to share stories of their working conditions—stories that are hardly reported or known. 

Meanwhile, in Thailand, a mass boycott of Foodpanda under the hashtag #BanFoodPanda was underway. The delivery service had stated that they would terminate an employee for attending an anti-government protest. The boycott was so effective that Foodpanda allegedly lost almost 2 million users and 90,000 merchants. Although, Foodpanda has claimed the numbers were inflated.

Strikes work, even in this region, even without unions. However, public support is a key element in ensuring the success of strikes. The public must want to better working conditions for gig workers. Workers can then use this solidarity as a bargaining tool. Thai, Hong Kong and Indonesian public support for strikes, as well as Malaysian support for Hartal Doktor Kontrak, illustrates this. The Hartal Doktor Kontrak strike resulted in parliament urgently debating the issue despite threats from directors of hospitals and state health departments on medical workers. At the time of writing, the Ministry of Health has promised that contracted doctors will be able to apply for specialist training under Hadiah Latihan Persekutuan.

Pundits and economists typically tout gig workers as the future of work. What about the future of demanding better working conditions? Workers should be able to organise in a decentralised and spontaneous manner even in the private sector. Critiquing elitist privilege must come hand in hand with uplifting lower classes. We must recognise that the problem is systematic economic insecurity.

Former Paralympic athlete Koh Lee Peng made headlines for selling tissue packets. She had been unable to secure jobs due to her disability. She mentioned that locals assumed she was part of a syndicate or that she was an illegal foreigner.

There is a deep classism against low-wage workers in Malaysia that needs to be addressed. Many locals associate low-wage workers with Southeast Asian or South Asian “foreigners”. The coinage of the term B40, to denote the lowest economic class, brings with it a fair share of critique against the upper-class T20. However, we do not use the term B40 in a way that invokes solidarity. There needs to be more advocacy for inter-class cooperation for the right to fair working conditions. 

Rethinking Malaysia’s Police Violence

by Yvonne Tan

Some of us grew up with cop films—either local or international—that portray a life of action and excitement hunting down bad guys and saving the world. Some of these films were jam-packed with action and martial arts while others exuded sex appeal. Maybe some of us grew up with stories of a lone, amateur detective like Sherlock Holmes, who makes up for the uselessness of the police force. However, our real experiences with cops tend to be completely different. Bureaucracy makes up a huge part of police work and the police vs. villains dichotomy does not seem as clear-cut.

Prisons and the police may seem like background government agencies that many of us hardly encounter, besides the occasional bribe typically dealing with driving rules. Or maybe if there is something seditious on social media, you may quickly encounter the hashtag #PDRM in the comments. 

But to others, the police force is a lot more prominent. One time, my friends and I got into a car and one immediately said: “Luckily we have one Chinese girl here, if not we will be stopped by the police”. Another time, we were actually stopped by the police and asked to hand over our MyKads, with torchlights flashed into our faces before being let go. A friend commented again that we were only let go because of me.

This stop-and-search process is probably the reality of many Malaysians and people living in Malaysia, especially with tightened pandemic restrictions. Many people often think about what we would have to do if we were “unlucky” enough to be stopped by the police. Solutions include calling in favours, trying to offer larger bribes and finding different ways to ensure they don’t get beat up. Probably the most famous instance of Malaysian police violence was Anwar Ibrahim’s black eye, and things have not changed since.

SUARAM reported a total of 456 deaths in police custody in the year 2020, including prisons and immigration centres. This year, there was a significant public outcry over the custodial deaths of A. Ganapathy, a cow milk trader, S. Sivabalan and a security guard, who died a mere hour after his arrest. But the custodial deaths did not stop and threats to the public were made. People were threatened for commenting on the issue and an example was made of Syed Saddiq. You can’t make this up.

One Two Jaga is one of the few films in Malaysia that placed corruption at the center of its subject, with story arcs of how poor wages in the police force led to corruption. The film critiqued the optimism of the police vs. villains dichotomy.

The people who have suffered most at the hands of the police are migrant workers. There is a clear understanding that not only do you have to be the right colour but also be socioeconomically well-off in order to keep the police off your tails. Our police force works the way it does because of our racism to others. Many Malaysians still believe that victims of the police deserve it, falling back on racial stereotypes as justification. The “logic” of illegal migrant workers and the Indian community’s supposed high tendency for crime has made it easy to dismiss police brutality because these people simply “deserve” it for breaking the law.

Rarely do we ever see them as victims of circumstance. They are instead seen as a social threat and exaggerated racial differences provide legitimacy to our criminal justice system. The police tend to be seen as operating in a faultless mechanism. If there are indeed faults, they would be blamed on maybe a few rotten eggs. This allows for the continuous justification of excessive police harassment and force. The truth is, the police force is an institution which can have competing interests against ours, and minorities are especially socially disadvantaged. 

Take for example Malaysia’s remand system, which allows the police to apply to the Magistrate to detain anybody for longer than 24 hours for further investigation. The Magistrate can also order the police to do the same. After 24 hours, your detention period can be extended up to 14 days. At the end of the detention period, the police should release you or bring you before the Court to be charged. In theory, your relatives and lawyer should have details of your arrest and remand. However, chain remand has been a common practice, allowing for detention without trial under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2021 (SOSMA) and POCA despite no charges being brought against a person. 

The social aspects of the issue are further worsened by ministers attributing social ills to migrants. For instance, migrants were blamed for spreading Covid-19 due to “poor hygiene” and were even painted as looters during the floods, despite many of them playing an active part in rescuing locals.

Crime is often used as a way for us to air our racial and class biases. The talking points and dog-whistles parroted by political elites who posture as “law and order” allow for such sentiments to become systemic. The official designation and criminalization of PATI (the term used to denote illegal migrants) and the introduction of the word K*ling into the Dewan Bahasa are just two examples of this.

There have been proposals to “prevent corruption” by making police wear bodycams or forming independent bodies to oversee the PDRM. These initiatives have been put under the purview of the Home Ministry. However, we need to challenge the root cause of the issue: the rationalisation that people deserve to have violence enacted on them in the name of crime control. Malaysia’s police violence is rooted in the racial and class prejudice that permeates not only our political systems but also our criminal justice system.

The Post-Wawasan Malaysia We Got

by Yvonne Tan We end the year 2021 in Malaysia with disastrous flash floods amidst a pandemic and rising food prices. All this came on the heels of yet another cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri. This is the year where things are put into odd perspective – ministers pose for press conferences to save flash flood victims while drawing criticism from former prime minister Najib Razak, looking to make his inevitable political comeback. This juxtaposition of events invokes questions of continued political apathy over climate change and how the people’s suffering is nothing more than political fodder. As flash flood levels continue to rise and affect more victims, pictures of fireworks and cake cutting from UMNO party meetings emerged while they decided when the next election should be held and ensured continual support for Ismail Sabri. Hashtags such as #KitaJagaKita, #BenderaPutih and #KerajaanPembunuh that became popular during the pandemic have taken on another layer of meaning as most of the community rescue efforts were carried out by volunteer citizens and foreigners as the government was slow to respond. We witnessed double standards too, when rich celebrities who hosted extravagant wedding celebrations were given almost the same amount of fines as those given to a roadside burger stall owner. In yet another absurd publicity move, said celebrity offered to pay the fines of the burger stall owner due to criticisms of the disproportionate fines. Adding to the absurdity, the Minister of Health, who was at the government’s “100 Hari Aspirasi Keluarga Malaysia” event where thousands were in attendance, was only charged a small fine of RM 1,000 for breaking SOPs. Policemen were caught dancing under disco lights and singing karaoke with women at a police station while deaths in police custody continued to happen. Threats against the general public for questioning such custodial deaths were made. Press conferences were called to brush off pleas on social media to find missing relatives due to the flash floods, while politicians tried to paint flood victims as looters when they have gone days without food and help. Even the corporations affected had to put out a statement that such acts of desperation were understandable. Politicians under trial for their role in the 1MDB scandal managed to plea for their passports to travel overseas for a range of reasons, from medical to family circumstances, while it was revealed that the Prime Minister’s official residence had spent RM 30 million in renovations. We also learned recently in a parliamentary reply that a total of 30,679 tip-offs were received by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) between 2015 and September 2021. The problem of kleptocratic politicians and their lack of care in governing the nation always looms before the general elections, but there was always a deeply ingrained fear as a nation that race riots and conflicts would erupt and result in instability. The May 13 riots have been imprinted into our collective cultural memories and emerge like an ominous warning during every general election and mass protest. Our politics have been ever preoccupied with how to capture public approval via ethnic categories. Some try to tie race and religion to parties. Some try to emphasize developmental nationalism and dissolve racial categories. But with everything that has happened, maybe this is the year we redefine our ethnic categories with social inequality violently stamped in our minds. This is the year we learned about the extent of corruption and the lack of responsibility and humanity of the powers that be. The anticipation of and subsequent disappointment in Wawasan 2020 serves as a symbol of faded trust in our political institutions and the future. Many on social media pointed out that since the coronavirus pandemic, Malaysians have already essentially been governing ourselves regardless of race and religion to make up for institutional incompetency. During the postwar period of Malaysia, many had already begun to imagine our identities in a multiethnic context. Arrifin Omar pointed out that Burhanuddin distinguished between bangsa, to describe the Malay community, and kebangsaan, as an interpretation of “Malayness”, to mean that non-Malays could be a part of kebangsaan Melayu without being bangsa Melayu. PKMM advocated for “bangsa Melayu” or “Melayu Raya” to represent nationality while retaining separate ethnic categories. UMNO, of course, rejected both of these but kept the door open for non-Malays to “masuk Melayu” through religious and cultural conversion before later adopting the idea of “Bangsa Malaysia”. Others adopted the concept of “bangsa Malayan”.  Just as these groups imagined a Malaysia on the brink of its formation that was fair and equal, we too can do so once again to bring about a change that has been far overdue. David Graeber believed that there were two kinds of imaginations: the first was “imaginative identification”, which is the ability to imagine another’s point of view to compromise and work together towards common goals. The second was “immanent imagination”, which is the capacity to imagine and bring about new social and political ways of being as we collectively decide what we want to do with our lives.  Back when I was in school, we were asked to imagine a Wawasan 2020 during art class which was premised on the fact that Malaysia would be a developed country. Let us imagine what Malaysia’s sociopolitical landscape could be once again. Maybe we will have a Malaysia where police reform has ensured that Malaysian Indians don’t get stopped and searched randomly. Maybe it is a Malaysia where politicians could be recalled anytime they were not serving the needs of the public. Maybe there would be an end to GLCs running public transportation services which were instead owned by worker cooperatives. Maybe we would be able to celebrate and identify our national culture as a hybrid of many, including the foreign workers who helped build our nation.  More than ever, we have learnt that the government has failed us. But also, more than ever, we have learnt that we have the power to govern ourselves and chart our future.

Here we go again? The Timah Controversy

by Yvonne Tan

Every so often, parliament will heatedly discuss an “issue” that seems to be somewhat petty, typically within the scope of race and religion and begging the question of whether we have more pressing to discuss. The Timah whiskey controversy is one such example, joining the ranks of Malaysia’s censorship of Beauty and the Beast due to the film’s LGBT character and permanently banning Beyonce. 

Free Malaysia Today put out a highly popular list of previous “controversies.” There was the issue of A&W not being allowed to use the words “bee” or “dog” in their names, due to a rule in 2012 by JAKIM and DBKL. The rule was related to a billboard depicting a wombat, which had to be removed as the creature was mistaken for a pig. There are also a number of controversies related to when food outlets had to rename “hot dogs” (to sometimes laughable food names) or else JAKIM would not provide halal certification. 

What these controversies have in common is that they feel like “non-issues” that are blown out of proportion. They hardly affect anyone’s daily life, and yet they are debated in parliament and plastered all over our media. They skirt around the issue of race and religion but are not obvious disputes such as the anti-ICERD rally, refusing to recognise UEC certification, the Allah controversy or the pendatang rhetoric. Hence, these sorts of “non-issues” typically garner ridicule from the public or amp up worries that our politicians have turned our nation into a laughing stock by putting their time into such issues. 

The Timah controversy revolves around DBKL banning alcohol in Chinese medicine halls and sundry shops. Tangga Batu MP Rusnah Aluai compared the consumption of Timah whiskey to “drinking Malay women”, as the name alludes to Kakak Timah, Mak Timah and Mak Cik Timah. This comparison was made during the debate session on the Trade Descriptions Bill (Amendment) 2021 on 28 October. Ten days before this, the PAS Dewan Ulama (DUPP) expressed concern about the use of the name “Timah” as a whisky brand, saying the name was derived from “Fatimah”. They also claimed the logo had an image of a religious man in a beard and kopiah, calling for the stop of all promotion and sale of liquor to the public. 

Timah was allowed to keep its name. Some claim this controversy was to win the support of different factions. Others spent their time obsessing over the semantics of “Timah” in Malay. As much as this may seem like a “non-issue”, the saga does reveal that there are still strong racial and religious anxieties that can be triggered by something as nondescript as a bottle of whiskey. 

Being Malaysian does mean that racialised experiences and religious anxieties are our everyday political landscape. MacLeod (2016) coined the concept “fragmented essentialisms” for how different fragments of ethnoreligious identities from the colonial past continue to be exploited for contemporary political means. Politicians might claim to speak on the group’s behalf by stressing specific aspects of identity and history, emphasizing their differences to other groups. [1]

No matter how inconsequential the controversy may seem, the talking points that they used have been effective at perpetuating racial stereotypes in Malaysia and helping the originators of the controversy achieve different political goals. The rhetoric placed a strong emphasis on the notion of a “nation under threat”, justifying the absurdity of turning the name of a whiskey brand into a battleground of anxieties. The controversy also points to the increased influence of PAS’ religious intolerance as well as the lack of solidarity from the MPs from Amanah and PKR that support PAS.

Nur Sajat, who had been manhunted before seeking asylum in Australia, said in a video interview that her trans identity has been regularly turned into political and religious kerfuffle to distract from real issues. Her case is also seen as absurd given the police’s commitment to extraditing her but corrupt politicians. In House of Glass, Sou Chou Yao says that “elections are often defined around sensitive political issues, and where sensitive issues lie, there is an opportunity for essentialisation. Elections represent a battleground where these categories are periodically reformed and reshaped.” [2]

The ethnoreligious essentialism displayed throughout this controversy points to our politicians’ drive to define an “ideal” yet exclusive type of community. With that said, their efforts are met with continual rejection from a new kind of community that chooses to voice their political opinions via memes and other social media outlets. Although it may feel as though the political landscape in Malaysia is continuously dominated by the tug and pull of racial and religious issues, let us remind ourselves that they do not speak for all of us.


[1] MacLeod, Alexander. “Race and nation in 21st century Malaysia: the production of racialised electoral politics in the Malaysian media.” PhD diss., Newcastle University, 2017.

[2] Yao, Sou Chou, House of Glass, (ISEAS: Singapore, 2017), p. 14.

Viralising the Climate Emergency is working?

by Yvonne Tan


In April 2021 a viral Google satellite image of a heavily deforested land located next to the Kuantan District Forest Department prompted the Pahang Forestry Department to hold a press conference to clarify the ownership of the land pictured. The Pahang Forestry Department Director Datuk Mohd. Hizamri Mohd. Yassin stated that the land was privately owned outside the Bukit Galing Forest Reserve and explained that mining activities have been put to a stop twice in 2016 and 2017. 

Later in June, Malaysiakini reports on a company with links to the Pahang royal family plans to mine iron from the degazetted Som Forest reserve at Kuala Tembeling on top of a previous royalty-linked mining project near Tasik Chini in Pekan. Days later, several questioned this move on Tengku Hassanal Ibrahim Alam Shah’s Instagram video post of himself doing push-ups with the hashtag #pushUp4environment. Soon after this, he proposes mining activities to be stopped, ordered the former mining areas be reforested and for the expansion of the Tasik Chini forest reserve. This was also in conjunction with a Facebook post going viral which claimed a new mining site was allowed to open near Tasik Chini after March 2019. The State Land and Mines director’s office had to release a statement that no new mining leases nor exploration licenses have been issued since then.

Aside from Pahang, on 12 August the Selangor government had completed the legal process for the degazettement of Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve for mixed commercial development despite many online petitions and signatures objecting to the proposal since January.  A week later, the Selangor state government decided to postpone the degazettement despite 54% of the 931.17 h.a. had already been degazetted and following more criticism decided to re-gazette Kuala Langat forest reserve.

The coalition “Pertahankan Hutan Simpan Kuala Langat Utara (PHSKLU)” [] encouraged sending pressure emails to the Selangor MB and protest on social media using the hashtags #HutanPergiMana #SelamatkanHSKLU #SaveKLNFR #RevokeTheDegazettement. Take for example, @iqtodabal’s Instagram reels where he spoke about the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve and those who would profit from their degazettement garnered over 59,000 views while a similar video on Tasik Chini got over 244,000 views at the time of writing. It is hard to pinpoint to a particular reason why both state governments have suddenly decided to listen to public outcry and the reality could be a mix of pressure from Orang Asli, NGOs and CSOs, media attention and social media outrage. PHSKLU in their latest press statement attributed media as one of the major contributing factors on the reversal of degazettement: “We also recognise the important role played by the local media in their extensive coverage of the issue over the past 18 months, including more than 200 articles and interviews in various languages”.

The RM 46 billion Penang South Reclamation (PSR) megaproject also got cancelled in early September due to public pressure. The proposed megaproject would include 3 islands the size of 4500 acres that would cause disruption to fishermen’s livelihoods, marine ecosystems and coastal habitats to not only Penang but also Perak where sand mining would take place. Although the Penang government may apply for judicial review against the Appeal Board under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), this move came hard-fought by Penang Fishermen’s Association (PenMutiara) who challenged the EIA assessment, environmental organisations, and social media campaigns with #PenangTolakTambak trending on Twitter in June. The volunteers of Penang Tolak Tambak, a coalition between PenMutiara and Penang Forum initiated the online campaign and Khoo Salma Naution, a member of Penang Forum stated “With the MCO, we can’t physically protest, so we’re trying to do things through social media. It’s really good to see a local environmental issue trending on Twitter, I don’t remember the last time that happened, especially since a lot of people will look at this as a Penang problem.”

There is clearly a pattern here. Although the cancellations of these projects that come after public pressure might seem like the government does listen, month after month might seem like the government does listen to demands of affected communities, the public, and environmental groups, it is not the case. Take for example,  Shakila Zen who has been vocal against degazetting the Kuala Langat Reserve received an anonymous letter threatening an acid attack against her with a replica of a severed hand. Meanwhile, the fishermen associations have appealed against the Department of Environment’s approval of the PSR project since 2019 while many voiced their concerns since the approval of the project in 2015. Not to mention, Penang Tolak Tambak were also closely associated with Save Portuguese Community Action Committee (SPAC) in Malacca, Koalisi Selamatkan Teluk Jakarta, Kumpulan Indah Tanjung Aru (KTIA) in Sabah and Persatuan Aktivist Sahabat Alam (KUASA) in Perak in collectively resisting against land reclamation culminating in a joint statement “Stop Stealing our Seas, joint statement by Malaysia-Indonesia groups against reclamation” which has garnered almost 129,000 signatures.

If anything, the continual outrage and viralising of problematic development projects that would adversely affect communities and climate change reveal there is a clear awareness that powers that be stood to benefit most from the destruction of our environment. As a developing country that saw the rapid restructuring of our economy for the proliferation of white elephant projects under the guise of national development that came with Wawasan 2020 that is now behind us, maybe there is a shift in a Malaysia that we would like. Criticising callous development at the expense of the environment has now become the norm. 

State governments have become private sector monopolies, where ownership and control have been legitimized via “decentralised” power made up of political elites. In the case of Pahang and Selangor, after public outcry, the state governments would quickly shift blame to the private companies to whom they have sold licenses to. However, there is persistent attention, both online and offline, on respective state management of the environment calling for more transparency and accountability. This does not discount the hard work of on-the-ground organisations and advocacy groups, but rather harking to the beginnings of maybe a wider climate movement in Malaysia, one which gives power to the communities most affected by climate change.

Bahasa Pasca-Reformasi

by Yvonne Tan

When the #Lawan black flags were raised from July 3 onwards along with the hashtags #BenderaHitam and #KerajaanGagal, I couldn’t help but see similarities the 2019 Indonesian Protests which also featured the black flag with the hashtag #ReformasiDiKorupsi which became the slogan of the movement along with #DewanPenghkianatRakyat, #SemuaBisaKena, and #MosiTidakPercaya. Plenty of comparisons have been made between Indonesia and Malaysia’s Reformasi movement in 1998 which saw the resignation of Suharto and challenged Mahathir’s administration. Without a doubt, the slogan and idea of Reformasi continue to remain salient in the protest language of both our nations, but this time around the protests hold a deep sense of distrust against the state’s ability to carry out meaningful reforms.  

1998 protests were some of the biggest student-led demonstrations the two countries have seen which primarily went against the corruption of the New Order and Mahathir regimes, encapsulated by the term “KKN” which stands for korupsi, kolusi and nepotisme. The 2019 Indonesian protests were the largest student movement since that of 1998 followed by larger nationwide 2020 Omnibus Bill Protests. One of the early petitions which garnered thousands of signatures was titled “Indonesia Bersih, Presiden Tolak Revisi UU KPK!” echoing Bersih’s yearly electoral reform movement.

Ariel Heryanto argued that “pembangunan/development” has deeply shaped the social history of modern Indonesia beginning with Suharto’s New Order. There same can be said with Mahathir officially dubbed as “Bapa Kemodenan” and despite debates about what “Mahathirism” means, at the heart of it, lied some weird sense of “Malay economic backwardness” and the concept of “Bangsa Malaysia” of which its nationalism would be rooted in heavy industrialization and privatization.  

On the other hand of preoccupation with socio-economic prosperity which took a turn with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Heryanto states that the Center for Development and Advancement of Language assisted the New Order government in ‘purifying society’s vocabulary and memory of political elements” where “demonstrasi” or “demo” has been officially replaced by the term “unjuk rasa”. In 1985, “buruh” and “Serikat Buruh” was officially replaced with “pekerja” and “Serikat Pekerja” citing its left-wing connotations which was later replaced by “karyawan” [1]. The same attempts at de-politicization happened in Malaysia with phasing out the student movement in higher education via the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 while typically dismissing political mobilisations as ethnic strife dividing the nation. 

With heavy state interventions, the recent social movements under the black flag and accompanying hashtags have built their own vocabularies to capture their struggle and demands and utilize social media channels. #ReformasidiKorupsi was marked by the involvement of many musicians as well such as Ananda Badudu (one half of folk duo Banda Neira) who was arrested for funding the protest movement and Efek Rumah Kaca’s 2008 song “Mosi Tidak Percaya” resurfaced to form the one of the protests’ anthems: “Ini mosi tidak percaya, jangan anggap kami tak berdaya / Ini mosi tidak percaya, kami tak mau lagi diperdaya”. While singing another band formed by political science students from Universiti Indonesia called .Feast released the song “Peradaban” which could land you in jail whenever it was sung in front of DPR. The ending of the song prompted people to “Lawan, Kawan” while other lines of the song went:

Beberapa orang menghakimi lagi
Walaupun diludahi jaman seribu kali
Beberapa orang memaafkan lagi
Walau sudah ditindas habis berkali-kali

The protest anthems echoed the cyclical oppression their country continues to be embroiled in despite the masses having offered repeated chances, and an eventual call for people to reclaim power. It was part of the “air of optimism clouded the students who were once again labeling themselves as the agents for change. Labour unions sang the songs of revolutions […] The nation was hopeful that the massive protests could finally end the unjust state-citizens social contract deeply rooted in Indonesia’s political practices.” [2]

Badan Eksekutif Mahasiswa Universitas Indonesia initially gathered under a much more forgiving title “Gerak Kolaboratif Kamisan: Tolak Capim KPK Bermasalah” on 5 September hosting consecutive events. They eventually called for protests ranging in titles from “Aksi #NyalakanTandaBahaya” and “Aksi Menolak Upaya Pelemahan Pemberantasan Korupsi” before culminating into the title “Aksi #Reformasi diKorupsi” and “Aksi Tuntaskan Reformsi” on 19 September 2019. What began as holding Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK) accountable via their leader election process as an independent state agency tasked with eradicating corruption quickly developed in the span of weeks. Mass protests throughout the nation under the 7 demands were carried out with the passing of a bill to weaken the role of KPK on 17 September. Corruption remains at the heart of the 2019 protests like in 1998, the tagline of “Reformasi” is invoked and the continuation of the struggle and rejection of New Order with the tagline “Aksi atau Orba” or “Orba paling baru”:

“Reformasi merupakan hal yang telah diperjuangkan oleh seluruh elemen masyarakat, termasuk mahasiswa. Sejatinya, reformasi merupakan cerminan bahwa mahasiswa memiliki kekuatan besar sebagai penyambung lidah rakyat. Hal tersebut ditunjukkan melalui rangkaian perjuangan dan aksi mahasiswa.

Namun, hari ini reformasi justru dicederai melalui undang-undang yang berbanding terbalik dengan cita-cita reformasi. Korupsi yang menjadi faktor kunci terciptanya reformasi justru dihidupkan kembali. Demokrasi diberangus dengan pasal-pasal di RKUHP, rakyat kecil ditindas melalui RUU Pertanahan, dan masih banyak lagi produk hukum yang bermasalah.

Inilah saatnya seluruh elemen masyarakat terutama mahasiswa menyatakan sikap untuk mendesak pemerintah untuk segera menuntaskan reformasi, bukan justru memangkasnya! Mari, bersama kita lanjutkan perjuangan pada hari, tanggal: Selasa, 24 September 2019” 

On the other hand, the #Lawan movement began very differently with online protests, where netizens were encouraged to express dissent and their 3 demands via posting a picture of the black flag raised in their homes on social media. It eventually culminated in calls to protest physically via car drive-bys under the banner #KonvoiLawan and eventually a call to #KeluardanLawan gathering at Dataran Merdeka. With more police intimidation tactics used, “#LawanTetapLawan” would be used to signify doubling down on one’s beliefs, typically with a picture in front of IDP Dang Wangi. It was also adopted by Syed Saddiq after being charged with two counts of money laundering in a politically motivated move. The protest songs emphasized the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 situation and also the importance of their voice:


gagal bodoh bangsat
antara dua darjat
rakyat makin tenant
pembunuh dah melarat

suara bergema
minta jatuh segera
rasakanlah gempa
turun ke jalan raya

Rather than a larger system that has allowed corruption to thrive, Muhyiddin and his government are targeted as the “Koruptor” echoing the surge of the use of “Kleptocracy” and “Kleptokrat” for Najib and his administration’s role in 1MDB. With figureheads targeted as the problem, #KerajaanDerhaka was also adopted by the #Lawan movement after the Royal Palace issued a statement of disappointment that emergency ordinances had been revoked with His Majesty’s consent. With 3 demands, the #Lawan movement emphasizes the problem to be in in the government’s leadership unlike Indonesia’s demand for alternative political practices at large:

“Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat menegaskan bahawa Kerajaan Perikatan Nasional tidak ada kemampuan untuk menyelamatkan negara ini keluar daripada pandemik Covid-19 serta kesannya terhadap ekonomi, kehidupan dan nyawa rakyat. 

Sudah tiba masanya rakyat mempunyai pemimpin yang sedar diri, bertanggunawab dan rendah hati dalam memahami denyut nadi rakyat. Kita tidak perlukan pemimpin yang sentiasa memperlekeh derita rakyat dan membuat keputusan yang menyusahkan rakyat jelata.

Kini rakyat perlu menunjukkan di mana letak duduk martabat kita dalam negara ini. Kita tidak ingin bermusuh dengan sesiapa melainkan politikus yang gila kuasa dan mengendahkan kesusahan yang dialami oleh rakyat.”

The Indonesian protests recognize that Reformasi was never a short-term struggle but one that would take decades and consistently hold the government accountable for, a struggle that anyone could take up. However, Reformasi in Malaysia continues to be tied closely to the political figure of Anwar Ibrahim. The freeing of Anwar Ibrahim and his party PKR garnering electoral victory in 2018 stirred people to utilize the Reformasi slogan rather than during the #Lawan movement. This continuation of a larger struggle under this banner of “Reformasi” is not necessarily felt in Malaysia having to deal with the conundrums of voting Mahathir back into power and having witnessed political careerism during the pandemic from all camps. 

Although there are plenty of differences between both very dynamic and decentralized social movements that are impossible to capture in this short article, they are both mobilized primarily by youths without political party affiliations and a deep critique against the failures of the government to make any politically meaningful changes. Unlike 1998, where particular politicians have been attributed with contributing to the movement in a big way, this time there is no such optimism in that the people in power have any interest to do so. From scathing protest slogans surrounding DPR such as #DewanPenghkianatRakyat and “Dewan Tikus Berdasi” and while Malaysia dubs opposition politicians that switched parties to no end to form the ruling party called the “11 Pengkhianat” and “Penipu Nasional”. As we struggle to carve out the countries we would like to see and create new vocabularies, solidarities, and ways to resist, let them know they messed with the wrong generation, let the black flag fly across the region!


[1] Ariel Heryanto, “Ideological Baggage and Orientations of the Social Sciences in Indonesia” in Vedi R. Hadiz and Daniel Dhakidae (eds.) Social Science and Power in Indonesia, (Jakarta and Singapore: Equinox Publishing and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005).  

[2] Aldo Marchiano Kaligis, A Year After Reformasi Dikorupsi Movement, The Whiteboard Journal, 10 September 2020,