An emotional atmosphere reigned at the forum to discuss the aftermath of the Bersih protests and the packed audience was more keen to be heard than to hear what the others had to say.
THE best-selling Malay daily Sinar Harian was not boasting when describing the political forum that it hosted earlier this week as having received “sambutan luar biasa”.
It drew an extraordinary response, every seat in the hall was taken, and why not?
Two of the most controversial faces in recent weeks – Election Commission (EC) deputy chairman Datuk Wan Ahmad Wan Omar and Bersih chairman Datuk S. Ambiga – were up there on stage.
Wan Ahmad looked a little tense. He was taking a big step in facing a live and what he knew would be a hostile crowd.
Ambiga, on the other hand, no longer had that harassed look she wore in the run-up to the Bersih protest.
It was a very polarised crowd and almost everyone at the “What next, after July 9” forum had taken political positions from which they had little intention of budging.
Perhaps the only person on the stage who was truly above it all was UKM’s top intellectual Prof Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who looked bemused as the crowd competed to ask questions, booed at points they disagreed with and shouted out comments.
The sound and fury from the Bersih issue has yet to settle.
The forum was ostensibly for some of the primary figures in the Bersih controversy to say their piece in the aftermath.
Karangkraf, the company that publishes Sinar Harian, has held a number of political forums in the past but none has seen this kind of intensity.
As the moderator and IDEAS think-tank head Wan Saiful Wan Jan said a day after: “It was an emotional atmosphere. I think the people were not really there to listen.”
His sense as he looked down from the stage was that the people out there had been waiting for something like this the last two or three decades.
This was an opportunity for them to vent their pent-up feelings about electoral reform.
Everyone wanted to be heard rather than hear what the others had to say.
For those on the Bersih/Pakatan Rakyat side, everything that came out of Wan Ahmad’s mouth was wrong and pro-Barisan Nasional.
Those on the Barisan side thought that everything Ambiga said had a political agenda that favoured Pakatan’s quest for power.
“It was quite impossible for one side to convince the other. An issue like electoral reform will always be political but it has been made very partisan. But we have started the conversation that the public has been waiting for,” said Wan Saiful.
Ambiga had to face some tough questions about having gone against the King’s advice and also on the perception that Pakatan parties had hijacked her agenda and emerged as the champions after the street march.
She stressed that Bersih had invited political parties from both sides of the divide but only Pakatan parties responded.
She repeated her argument that they were forced to the streets because they could not have the stadium of their choice.
It was a feeble excuse to her critics who think that the organisers did not use the Shah Alam stadium because Pakatan did not want street protests in their own backyard.
They felt that she was as good as her friends in Pakatan in the game of politics.
She reiterated the eight demands of Bersih, and it took Prof Shamsul to intervene and point out that of the remaining eight demands, four were beyond the purview of electoral reform and could only be effected through social and systemic changes.
Wan Ahmad did not have anything new to add beyond what he had been saying to date and, that was the EC did not have the powers to change the law and that laws should be made in Parliament, not on the streets.
The audience had expected more and it was tough going for him.
He was defensive and at times, rather dismissive of some of the questions directed at him – not a smart thing to do in the face of hostility.
For instance, he said to one questioner: “You are asking a technical question. I deal in policies, those issues are handled by my clerical staff.”
But the surprise upshot of the evening belonged to an unlikely figure from Umno – Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah.
The moderator invited him to say something “within five minutes” and Saifuddin made good use of the time.
Saifuddin said political players were still grappling with the new political reality, which is hinged on three key factors.
First, the social media which has become integral to people’s lives, from economics to politics.
Second, the growing cohort of young and educated people who are vocal, unconventional and want to see a better society.
They will be the driving force of the new reality.
Third, the new reality sees democracy as an expanded idea that goes beyond elections and Parliament to society having more say in decision-making.
At one time, the political reality belonged to only one political circle, but there is now a concurrent political circle and this is where the new reality is happening.
“All of us should take part in this journey to a more mature democracy by not putting the party first but by putting the nation first,” he said.
It was quite ironic that the Umno figure was the one who won applause from both sides of the divide.
Saifuddin’s unconventional stand on such contemporary issues has gained him admirers but he has also earned flak from his own party who thinks he is pandering to populist pressure.
Saifuddin has since likened the intensity of many young voters about current issues to that of a speeding train.
“You have to know how to respond if you want to be the one driving the train, otherwise you will be a passenger. And if you are late in responding, you may be left behind on the platform,” he said.
The worst case scenario is of course to be run over by the train. But, as one of his colleagues pointed, some people still cannot see the train coming.