How to estimate the number of people who attended the Bersih 2.0 street rally. Answer: between 25,000 to 30,000

How many people turned up for the Bersih 2.0’s Kuala Lumpur street rally on July 9, 2011? Police estimated between 5,000 to 6,000 people, whereas the media reported closer to 20,000 people. The event organizer of Bersih 2.0, however, estimated that around 50,000 people showed up for the street demonstrations. Some bloggers who were also involved in the street rally estimated an even higher number of 200,000 people. So which figure is correct?

But first: why is it important to know the number of people who showed up for the street rally? It is important because the number of attendees roughly measures the people’s support of Bersih 2.0 and, in turn, how many people oppose the government that strongly enough to vent their frustrations on the streets.

So, a figure of a couple of hundreds would be deemed a failure by the Bersih 2.0 organizers, whereas a turnout of one million people (as the opposition parties were hoping for) would be considered an effective blow by the opposition on the present government.

In getting the number of attendees, I wasn’t interested in rough guesses or skewed or emotional estimations. Fortunately, a more rigorous estimation approach was done by PoliTweet.org which is a non-partisan research firm that analyzes the online social interactions, mainly via Tweeter, between Malaysians and their politicians. Analyzing Tweeter traffic and what people were saying at that time, PoliTweet determined that there were five hot spots (or hubs) of large crowds during the rally in Kuala Lumpur.

PoliTweet's estimates that nearly 50,000 people in total attended the Bersih 2.0 street rally (photo from www.politweet.org)

PoliTweet then determined the total area of the streets in each of those hot spots and calculated the number of people who could “fit” into or occupy those areas. For example, the Puduraya hotspot has a total street area of 127,536 square feet, and taking one person per four square feet, the estimated number of people at Puduraya area was (127,536 / 4) or 31,884 people.

So, adding all the numbers for the five hotspots revealed that the total number of people at the Bersih 2.0 rally was nearly 50,000.

However, PoliTweet’s method assumes that, for each hotspot, people occupied the full or the whole area of the streets. For instance, PoliTweet assumed that the streets in the Puduraya hotspot was completely filled with people (taking into account of “free space” for each person – recall, one person for every four square feet).

So, this figure of 50,000 should be taken as the maximum number of people who could have attended the street rally, rather than the actual number of attendees. In other words, PoliTweet’s work puts a cap (or maximum) on the number of people who could potentially attend the street rally.

So, if 50,000 is the maximum number of people who could have attended, what is the actual attendance then? For that, I am going to make some very rough calculations based on a single photo! I like to stress this is merely an educational exercise rather than a journal publication-worthy work.

Look at the photo below which shows a crowd of people facing the security forces. This is somewhat a convenient photo to work with because it shows the full crowd which we can estimate their numbers. It is as if all the Bersih 2.0 people gathered at the same place at this particular hotspot to have their group photo taken.

Bersih 2.0: How many people here? Let us use mathematics to estimate ... (photo from fabm.wordpress.com)

To obtain the number of people in this crowd, I have to make some necessary assumptions. The assumptions are as follows.


One, the width of the entire road is 14.4 m. I got this figure by looking at the number of people in the front row of the crowd.  I estimate that 24 persons could comfortably stand (or sit) across the entire road width. Assuming further that each person occupies a space of 0.6 m, this means that the entire road width is (24 persons x 0.6 m) or 14.4 m. This road has four lanes, so each lane is (14.4 m / 4 lanes)  or about 3.6 m wide. This single lane width of 3.6 m is about right for major, heavy traffic urban roads in Malaysia.

Layout of the site. We need to determine the area of a single road lane and the average area occupied by a single person in the crowd. Dividing the former by the latter gives the number of people in a single lane.

Second, in a packed crowd, I assume every person would occupy an area of two square feet (or 0.19 square meter). One square feet would be too small. People would literally be standing shoulder-to-shoulder and breathing down the front person’s neck. Four square feet is the area of people walking in a packed crowd. So, two square feet per person is about right for a packed but static crowd.

Third, the person who took the above photo is assumed to be standing 20 m away from the first row of the crowd. This distance looks about right from the photo. This assumption is necessary because no camera focal length was given in the photo. Searching for the same photo from other websites proved fruitless. Information about the camera focal length is absent.


Why do we need to know the camera focal length? We need this information to determine the distance between the first and last row in the crowd. I would use simple geometry to determine this distance.

Using geometry to determine X1, the distance between an object and the camera (figure from www.codeproject.com)

We are trying to determine X1, the distance between an object (the front row of the crowd, in this case) and the camera. To determine X1, we use: X1 = (X2/Y2) x Y1.

The average height of a Malaysian man is 1.65 m. This height is Y1. And from the photo, I measured that the height of several men in the front row of the crowd measured at an average of 1.6 cm or 0.16 m. This height is Y2. Previously, I mentioned that I had to assume that the photographer was standing 20 m away from the crowd. This assumed distance is X1. Hence, the focal length, X2, is (X1/Y1 x Y2) or (20/1.65 x 0.16) to give 194 cm.

Measured height of a man in the front row of the crowd (zoomed image)

Now, let’s look at the last row in the crowd. The last row looks quite blurry from the photo, but I managed to measure that the average height of the men in the last row as 0.4 cm or 0.004 m. This is Y2. Again, I am going to take the actual average height of the men in the last row as 1.65 m. This is Y1. Taking the previously calculated X2 value as 0.194 m, X1 is (X2/Y2 x Y1) or (0.194/0.004 x 1.65) to give 80 m.

Measured height of a man in the last row (zoomed image)

Consequently, the distance between the first and last row of the crowd is (80 – 20) or 60 m. Taking the road as a rectangular, the total area occupied by the crowd on the road is (60 m long x 14.4 m wide) or 864 square meter. Since this is a four-lane street, each lane has an area of (864/4) or 216 square meter.

The number of people occupying a single road lane is thus (216 square meter / 0.19 square meter per person) to give 1,137 persons.

Looking at the photo, it appeared the crowd was occupying about five lanes (note the “spillover” of people from the four lanes into the next lane on the right of the photo).

Thus, the estimated total number of people in this crowd is (1,137 persons per lane x 5 lanes) or 5,685 persons. So, perhaps the police are correct that between 5,000 to 6,000 people attended the street rally. However, this figure is only valid for one hotspot.

Recall that PoliTweet determined that there were five hotspots at the capital that day. So, assuming this crowd number is representative of the crowds in the other hot spots, I estimate that the total number of people who attended the Bersih 2.0 rally was (5,685 persons per hotspot x 5 hotspots) to give 28,425 persons.

This figure is nearly 30,000, a figure closer to that estimated by the media.

Interestingly, Syed Akbar Ali, a well-known book author and newspaper columnist, received information that no less than 3,000 police undercover officers were placed among the crowd. If this is true, the actual figure of the total number genuine protesters who turned up for the rally is reduced to 25,425, which is about one-half of the figure estimated by Bersih 2.0 organizers and about five times more than that given by the police.

So, my final answer is this: Between 25,000 to 30,000 people attended the Bersih 2.0 street rally on July 9, 2011.

And is this figure a significant number of people? I believe Bersih 2.0 is a stalemate between the opposition and the government. This figure of 25,000 to 30,000 is too few a number for a critical mass for a government overhaul and too large a number for the government to say to the opposition parties, “Crowd? What crowd?”

Further readings:

  1. Malaysia Military Power – A blog of another way to estimate the crowd numbers.
  2. From a Malaysian in UK on Bersih – An interesting and more rationale view on Bersih 2.0.



Bersih 2.0: So, where were you on July 9, 2011?

Where were you on July 9, 2011 when Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, was in locked down due to Bersih 2.0 street demonstrations?

Bersih 2.0: Face off between the people of Bersih 2.0 and the security forces in the streets of Kuala Lumpur on July 9, 2011 (photo from fabm.wordpress.com)

Were you at the streets, along with the 5,000, 10,000 or 50,000 people (figures differ according to whom you ask)? Or did you try to go, only to be turned back by the police at one of the ubiquitous road blocks? Or perhaps you were like me and my family, who opted to stay at home and to venture out only to areas around our neighborhood?

Bersih, a coalition of 62 NGOs, is known as “The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections”. As their name suggests, this coalition is fighting for cleaner and fairer electoral system in Malaysia. So, with a name and goal like that, it is easy to gain sympathy by the foreign media and by the uninitiated. News headlines like “Government Bans Street Rally for Clean and Fair Elections” immediately puts any government in a bad light.

As Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, said, “Who doesn’t want clean elections?”

Bersih 2.0’s recent fracas made me pick up “Small Acts of Resistance”, a book by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. This book is a collection of stories around the world about individuals, groups of people, and citizens fighting for change in their countries. As authors, Crawshaw and Jackson, admit “Small Acts of Resistance” is a bit of a misnomer. Some of these acts of resistance may be carried out by one or a few individuals, but their acts have resulted in large and cascading repercussions, some powerful enough to topple governments and dictators.

“Small acts of resistance,” by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson, tells of the courage of normal people fighting for change in their countries

Consider some of the following “small” acts of resistance in some countries.

Resistance in Poland

In February 5, 1982, the Polish people in the town of Swidnik decided to boycott watching their TVs because they grew tired of the lies and government propaganda often propagated through their TV sets. But this wasn’t your normal turn-off-your-TV boycott. Some the town folks went for a walkabout on the streets, bringing along their TVs in strollers and wheelbarrows. Some turned the TV so that the screens faced outward towards the window, sending a message that their TVs were broadcasting fictional messages to no one. Additionally, to show support for the banned Solidarity movement, the people in Warsaw, capital city of Poland, flashed their house and apartment lights on and off at pre-determined times of the day. As some witnesses report, the whole city of Warsaw would lite up like Christmas trees, much to the fury of the government.

Resistance in Uruguay

The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985 was very much hated (and feared) by the people. One of the consequences was the Uruguayans’ lack of passion in singing their national anthem. It can be hard to show nationalistic passion when one’s country is ruled by a corrupt and violent military junta. However, to indirectly show support and unity against the junta, Uruguayan football fans would first sing their national anthem with indifference before the start of any football match. However, when the anthem declares “Tiranos temblad!” (or “May tyrants tremble!”), the Uruguayan football fans would shout in unison, “Tiranos temblad!” and waved their flags. After that brief and emotive roar, the fans would resume back to their disinterest tone until the end of the long anthem.

Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America football cup. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Uruguay football fans showed their united hatred for their ruling military junta by singing the country’s national anthem, prior to football games, in a “special” way. (photo by Getty Images)

Resistance in Peru

In May 2000, the people of Peru performed a curious flag washing activity. They would gather every Friday from noon to three in the afternoon in front of Plaza Mayor in Lima (Peru’s capital city) and wash Peru’s red-and-white flag. This weekly flag washing activity was a message that Peru’s flag had become soiled due to the corrupt President Fujimori, who, in 2009, was eventually jailed for 25 years for numerous killings under his rule.

Peruvians performing their weekly flag washing as a sign of protest of the corrupt and brutal President Fujimori (photo from img.timeinc.net)

Resistance in Iran

Taxi drivers in Iran show their disdain for the current Islamic Iranian government by refusing to pick up mullahs (male religious leaders or teachers). So, if you a turbaned man of God in Iran, one thing is for sure: forget about getting a cab ride in Tehran – because they hate you.

Resistance in Myanmar

In Myanmar (Burma), the military junta directed that the citizens dress conservatively during the country’s annual water festival in 2009. Some youths, however, thought differently as defiance against the hated junta. The result? See for yourself below.

“Dress conservatively,” the military junta of Myanmar directs the people. Some Myanmarese youths, however, thought otherwise (photo from www.smallactsofresistance.com)

More resistance in Myanmar

In Myanmar, the one-kyat note remains banned even until today. The back of the note is  a drawing of the much revered General Aung San, the founder of the Burmese army. The note designer, however, deliberately soften the general’s face to look more like his daughter: Aung San Suu Kyi, the well known and much feared opposition voice in Myanmar. By the time the military junta discovered the similarities of appearance to Aung San Suu Kyi, it was too late. The one-kyat notes had already been printed and widely circulated, much to the secret pleasure of the Myanmar people and to much of the embarrassment of the ruling junta. The note, however, was eventually banned. It is no surprise then to learn that the Myanmar’s one-kyat note is also called the “democracy note” by some people.

The banned one-kyat note had been subversively modified so that General Aung San’s face features appeared softer and made to look more like his famous daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (photo from banknotes.com)

Resistance in the Philippines

In Philippines in 1986, thirty female computer technicians refused to comply when they were asked to omit election vote numbers favoring the opposition. They walked out of the counting hall for a “toilet and rest break” and never returned. After a hasty press conference, they went into hiding. This was the start of the very well known “People Power Revolution” against President Ferdinand Marcus who was subsequently ousted after 25 years in power and replaced by the people’s choice, Corazon Aquino.

People’s choice, Corazon Aquino, overthrows the brutal and corrupt President Ferdinard Marcos through People Power in 1986 (photo from img.timeinc.net)

Resiatance in Sudan

In 2002, the women of southern Sudan, tired after endless wars, decided to withhold sex from their partners. Comical it may first appear, this “sexual abandoning” was a powerful drive to force “their men” into working for peace and not for war – and the women’s’ efforts worked. In 2005, a peace agreement was signed between the warring north and south of Sudan. Recently, on July 9, 2011 (same date as Bersih’s rally), the south of Sudan achieved sovereignty and independence, and this country is now known as The Republic of South Sudan.

Resiatance in the Soviet Union

In August 20, 1991, over a hundred thousand people gathered in central Moscow to oppose the ruling Politburo overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader and General Secretary of the Politburo. Facing tanks and the army, these people must have feared for their lives. Although three people died, the coup lasted less than three days, defeated not by violence or by the might of another army but defeated by peaceful and normal protesters who were ready to risk their lives against bullets and tanks.

Resiatance in East Germany

In the summer and autumn of 1989 in Leipzig town, East Germany, the number of protesters participating in Monday weekly street marches grew larger by the week. In an attempt to quash these protest marches once and for all, the East German authorities gave a final warning that these marches would no longer be tolerated and be firmly dealt with, even with lethal violence. On October 9, 1989,  seventy thousand people defied government warnings of lethal violence and took to the streets. Reports said that earlier that day live ammunitions had already been distributed among the security forces, but instead of a historic bloodbath, nothing happened. The authorities caved in because they were shocked by the people’s lack of fear. No shots had been fired, and after a month, the East German regime collapsed and made way for Germany’s unification.

On October 9, 1989, 70,000 people defied government’s threats of lethal violence and marched in unison on the streets of Leipzig, East Germany. The East Germany regime later collapsed a month after this event. (photo from alannothnagle.files.wordpress.com)


There are many more such stories in the book “Small Acts of Resistance” – stories about individuals who would risk their lives to fight for change and to correct the many wrongs.

However, I noticed that stories in “Small Acts of Resistance” carry a common theme. They are stories about individuals and collective resistance against highly corrupt and oppressive authorities and governments, where voices of dissent by the people are barely, if at all, tolerated. People with opposing views are often severely punished, even by imprisonment or death.

Contrary to what Bersih and the opposition parties would lead you to believe, I don’t believe most Malaysians can stomach provocative and confrontational street rallies like that on July 9, 2011. Bersih suffers from an identity crisis. On one hand, Bersih says officially it is a non-political aligned movement. But on the other hand, Bersih aligns itself openly and closely with the opposition parties. Even Bersih’s leader, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, seek protection from the bodyguards of the opposition leaders during the July 9 street rally.

I also believe that Bersih had already made up its mind on its course of action regardless of what the government would or wouldn’t do. Despite the Election Commission of Malaysia willingness to talk with Bersih about their reform demands and even a granted audience with the King to state their grievances, Bersih stubbornly still went ahead with the street rally, seemingly to suggest that no one wants to listen to Bersih’s demands.

So, unless we suddenly have a government who is violently oppressive (like that in East Germany prior to 1990 and the military junta currently ruling Myanmar) and who is unwilling to listen and consider voices of dissent, street demonstrations, in my opinion, are the last option.

Challenge the government – passionately if you want – through discourse, negotiation, debate, writing, and constructive action. I like to believe we can still do all this in this country without having to resort to provocative and confrontational street rallies.

Malaysians, use your right to vote (photo from 1.bp.blogspot.com)

I don’t know about you, but as for me, I am going to use my precious right to vote in the coming national elections.

Updated (7 June 2019): Minor corrections to the article.