In Malaysia, the black flag movement challenges the government

Malaysians take part in a rare anti-government rally in Kuala Lumpur on July 31, 2021, despite a tough Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown in place restricting gatherings and public assemblies.
Malaysians take part in a rare anti-government rally in Kuala Lumpur on July 31, 2021, despite a tough Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown in place restricting gatherings and public assemblies. © Arif Kartono, AFP

As the country faces a rise in Covid-19 infections, there is mounting discontent in Malaysia with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. At the end of July, hundreds of young people took to the streets to demand his resignation in a rare display of civil dissent.


Black flags, black clothes, masks on the face and a word on everyone's lips: "Lawan," or "fight" in Malay. On July 31, a crowd of young people defied the two-month-old Covid-19 lockdown. With placards in hand, they took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

"We are fighting because, while people are suffering, this government is busy playing politics," Karmun Loh, a participant in the demonstration, told AFP. "This government (...) is paralyzing the economy and also destroying our democracy."

Muhyiddin Yassin "is a very bad prime minister," said Shaq Koyok, another protester. "He needs to resign."

During Saturday’s march, demonstrators were united in reproaching Yassin for using political maneuvers to maintain his position, rather than tackling the health crisis head-on. "The government is failing," several signs read.

"The country is currently experiencing a triple crisis: political, economic and health," Sophie Lemière, a political anthropologist at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, told FRANCE 24.

"The government is failing"

"Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed prime minister by the king, to everyone's surprise, in March 2020, a few days before the first lockdown," Lemière said. "Since his rise to the post, he has faced both strong hostility from opposition parties but also from some members of his group. Attempts to overthrow him have increased."

In January 2020, citing the health crisis, Yassin declared a state of emergency in the country. The move was a way of temporarily silencing his opponents and suspending parliamentary activity.

But with the country currently experiencing its largest outbreak of the virus since the spring of 2020 despite strict health regulations and successive lockdowns, discontent with the prime minister is only growing. In total, the country has recorded nearly 1.1 million cases, more than 8,900 deaths and is currently reporting more than 17,000 new cases daily.

Young people hit hard by the health crisis

Young people are being hit hard by the pandemic. "Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the situation was difficult for them," Lemière said. "The unemployment rate is high among young graduates and the few jobs available are often low-skilled."

With the pandemic, the situation has deteriorated further. "The majority of young people have lost their jobs. Students found themselves isolated and compelled to take their courses online," she said, noting "strong psychological distress".

In the protests, in addition to their political demands, some young people demanded a freeze on student loan repayments.

Several NGOs have flagged waves of suicides on university campuses, in a country where attempting to end one's life is still considered illegal. According to the newspaper "Free Malaysia Today," police recorded 468 suicides as of July 1, compared to 631 for all of 2020.

The black flags that flooded the streets on Saturday joined the white flags that have been hanging in the windows since the end of June to indicate when a family needs help, especially food.


The beginnings of a more structured movement?

While the demonstrations only gathered a total of 1,000 people according to organisers, 500 according to the police, they are not insignificant. "They have a strong symbolic value," Lemière insisted. "In Malaysia, the youth is not at all encouraged to get involved in politics. On the contrary. They are rather dissuaded from it. For example, political associations at the university are strictly forbidden."

"There is no doubt that if not for the pandemic, the demonstration would have been much larger," Lemière said. Before hitting the streets, the black flags first appeared on social media, in the form of emojis. The movement has grown online, especially on Twitter, under the hashtag #Lawan. 


"It will be interesting to see if we are at the beginning of a more structured youth movement," Lemière mused.

"The country is sinking into a political crisis"

Political tensions mounted again on August 2 when Malaysian MPs were prevented from sitting in parliament. A special session was supposed to have been held despite the state of emergency, but Yassin cancelled it at the last minute, invoking a case of Covid-19 in the building. The move immediately provoked the ire of the opposition, which denounced it as an excuse to avoid a vote that could bring down the government.

Several members of parliament, including two major rivals in Malaysian politics, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, joined in the protest to demand the prime minister's resignation. They were swiftly confronted by police shields.

"Even when people condemn him, he shamelessly resists and refuses to resign," Mohammad, a 96-year-old former prime minister, told reporters.

"The country continues to sink into a major political crisis," Lemière said. "The prime minister is clearly in an ejection seat. The question is how long he will be able to maneuver to stay in office."

Only elections would be able to ease tensions, but those have been postponed indefinitely because of the health crisis.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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