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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 9 ― Umno and PAS yesterday covered the streets of Kuala Lumpur and the historic Dataran Merdeka in a sea of white to protest against Malaysia ever adopting an international agreement to stop racial discrimination in the country.
Here are some quick observations by Malay Mail on the rally, which was rebranded from a protest to a “thanksgiving” rally over the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government's decision not to ratify the United Nations' International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD):
1. The reliable card for political power?
Malay nationalist party Umno and Islamist party PAS continued yesterday their budding alliance with their largest get-together yet after the May 9 national polls, which saw both kept out of ruling power. Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang beamed as they held their hands up together.
The rally saw Umno and PAS pushing their bid for political power by rallying Malays to “unite” by using the predictable card of race and religion, with key themes including Malay supremacy and the “rights” of the Malays and Bumiputera.
Although ICERD is mainly about ending racial discrimination by ensuring everyone enjoys a wide range of basic freedoms while also allowing affirmative action policies if necessary, the rally portrayed the United Nations (UN) convention as an attack on Islam’s constitutional position as the religion of the federation.
(If one were to comb the ICERD however, religion is only mentioned once with “The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” being one of 19 examples of rights that the international convention aims to have everyone enjoy regardless of their race. Countries are also allowed to have reservations or ask to be exempted from following the ICERD completely after ratifying it.)
T-shirts on sale at the rally yesterday included slogans such as “Selamatkan Islam” or save Islam, and also the odd idea that the institution of rulers would be “eroded” by ICERD, while speeches were punctuated by PAS members or Islamic groups’ trademark cries of “Allahu akbar” (God is great).
If the message seems somewhat garbled and sometimes disconnected from the key topic of ICERD, that's because ICERD is merely a convenient and the latest vehicle for Umno and PAS to latch on.
Ahead of the rally, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Faisal Hazis had told Malay Mail that the anti-ICERD campaign showed a continued pattern of Umno playing up racial and religious politics even since before the 2018 election under former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and now Zahid.
He said: “Last time it was liberalism, human rights, gay and lesbian rights, now we see ICERD being used. This pattern continues, [but with] different issues used.”
2. What the numbers tell us
The organisers fixed a target of 500,000 participants and claimed that they actually achieved this figure, while the Kuala Lumpur police's official figures put the turnout at an estimated 55,000.
From Malay Mail's observation on the ground, the rally was dominated by those from outside the Klang Valley such as PAS strongholds of Kelantan and Terengganu. Most participants were PAS supporters, which showed PAS' ability to mobilise its members for mass gatherings.
Yes, the PAS-led Kelantan state government declared a state holiday just to allow its predominantly Malay residents to go all the way to Kuala Lumpur. Yes, some of the rally participants came by buses (which they claimed to have paid for out of their own pocket).
Yes, numbers are not everything. But PAS and Umno's insistence on going ahead with the rally is likely due to their wish to show that they still have appeal and signal to PH that the ruling coalition cannot discount their strength and political ambitions to win Putrajaya.
It would also be easy to dismiss the rally as a “racist” and “pro-discrimination” or “anti-equality” rally, but there is a risk of ignoring what the huge turnout might point to: that the discontent among the majority community of Malays ― including rural communities ― is real.
This discontent may be rooted in insecurities owing to financial challenges with income inequalities and with a debt-laden federal government forced to be more mindful of spending on handouts and assistance. But unfortunately, these feelings manifested or were channelled into an oversimplified message that the Malay-Muslim community was under threat.
3. This is how democracy looks like
Yesterday's rally was a fine example of democracy being alive and kicking in Malaysia.
The anti-ICERD camp was yesterday able to exercise their right to freedom of assembly despite having different views and differing vision of where the country should be headed, no matter how disagreeable their opinions were to others who supported ICERD as a means to end racial discrimination.
Yesterday was also testament again to how far the police and authorities have progressed from the Bersih 3.0 rally on April 28, 2012 ― where teargas featured prominently and when peaceful mass gatherings were quite the novelty ― to merely keeping a watchful eye for trouble and coordinating with rally organisers.
The police and authorities’ relatively progressive approach as compared to the 2012 rally was already shown in subsequent rallies even while under Barisan Nasional (BN) rule.
The PH administration could be said to be considerably more open towards peaceful assemblies, with the organiser's request to hold the rally at the Dataran Merdeka area not meeting any objections from authorities. This was in contrast to the BN administration-era, where authorities blocked rallies from being held there and even prosecuted those who allegedly breached the cordon around the square.
Yesterday's rally showed that Malaysians really can have a peaceful gathering to voice their views if they try hard enough and with the authorities' keen monitoring. Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki said Umno, PAS and the other organising groups altogether had 10,000 volunteers to ensure security.
Maybe some things don't exactly change for some major rallies: the enterprising food and merchandise street peddlers, those terribly loud vuvuzelas, and parents bringing their young children along (despite this being against the law) for causes they deem important.
A less consistent feature might be rally-goers picking up the rubbish themselves (which thankfully happened yesterday, perhaps aided in part by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's reminders to not litter the city and the organisers' own rally guide).
Yesterday, rally participants also surprisingly stopped smoking as requested by rally organisers.
Could this mean that street rallies of this nature ― where everyone gets to have their say for a few hours and go home peacefully ― are becoming (or have become) a Malaysian “culture”?
* Azril Annuar, Danial Dzulkifly, and Emmanuel Santa Maria Chin contributed to this piece.