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Malaysia’s Arab Spring?

Analysis: Protesters to risk crackdowns in challenging corruption and race politics.

Eighty percent of the top 40-richest Malaysians are ethnically Chinese, according to a recent study in the newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau. Some of the community’s more famous celebrity exports include shoe designer-to-the-stars Jimmy Choo and latter-day James Bond film heroine Michelle Yeoh.

The sense that authoritarianism must keep class resentment in check has been written into the national narrative, Welsh said. “Now we’re seeing a new type of phenomenon in which the old narrative doesn’t cut it anymore.”

“People have seen authoritarian government as a lesser evil to ethnic riots,” Chin Huat said. “They feel that, well, this is a multi-ethnic country and we can’t afford real democracy and going out on the street. Even people who are very highly educated will say. The indoctrination is that strong.”

Bersih is, in part, a challenge to the us-versus-them mentality, Chin Huat said. “Now,” he said, “we are now burying that culture. People are talking about our commonality as Malaysians.”

In a departure from the Middle East analogy, few see the potential for all-out revolt from Bersih, which is still driven by the urban, middle class. Nor does Malaysia have much in common with the Egypt’s demographics. According to World Bank stats, Malaysia’s citizens receive a gross income per-capita of $7,760, classified as “upper middle.” That is roughly triple the figure in Egypt.

Still, there is high potential for low-grade chaos and repeat scenes from last year’s protest.

Bersih’s faithful are adamant in defying court orders to stay out of Merdeka Square. And though Bersih 2.0 proved embarrassing for police and officials on the international stage – Amnesty International called it a “brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters” – cops are already deployed en masse to control Bersih 3.0.

“It looks like a lot of people aren’t afraid anymore,” Welsh said. “When you tell someone who’s not afraid that they can’t protest, they’re just going to get more and more friends to come with them.”