What would probably have been a long peaceful march by 100,000 Malaysians of all races, dressed in royal yellow T-shirts, towards the palace to hand over a memorandum seeking wide-ranging electoral reforms, will in all likelihood now be a rally taking place inside a stadium.
This compromise was reached after a momentous meeting between Malaysian King Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin and three leaders of the non-government organisation (NGO) coalition: Front person Ambiga Sreenevasan, steering committee member Zaid Kamaruddin and national laureate A Samad Said. The aged and highly-respected A Samad Said is being investigated under the Sedition Act and the Police Act related to unlawful assembly. His offence was a recent recital of a poem at a Bersih 2.0 event.
But, whether the stadium rally happens peacefully will depend on how the Malaysian police choose to handle the issue over the next few days. An application for the demonstration will still be required of Bersih. It is also vital that Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose suggestion it was initially to move the rally to a stadium, shows some national leadership and gets the Home Ministry and the police to simmer down as well.
If the Home Ministry continues to feel that the compromise is a victory for the government, then one may expect more flexing of muscles from the beleaguered and agitated police force. In the weeks prior to the march, the Home Ministry and the police had been taking messy Draconian measures to intimidate the public and discourage supporters of Bersih 2.0. These included roadblocks, arrests of members of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia on the ludicrous suspicion of trying to revive communism in the country, the detention of people wearing yellow shirts and the holding and questioning of opposition leaders and activists.
For now, calls for the release of detainees have gone unheeded, and the police have been causing huge rush-hour traffic jams outside KL with roadblocks at entrances and exits to major highways. This is highly reminiscent of the days before the first Bersih rally in November 2007 and the Hindraf Hindu rights march in December that same year.
As with these earlier cases, the rally planned for Saturday was also banned, along with Bersih 2.0 itself, by the highly unpopular Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is the Prime Minister’s cousin.
The drama of recent weeks, ending with compromises on both sides, has, to an extent, overshadowed the key issue – and this is what has left many Malaysians unhappy about the compromise stadium rally. Once the impetus of the march has died down, there is little that suggests the Prime Minister will be more willing to negotiate with Bersih 2.0 than before the intervention of the King. Electoral reforms may not take place at all.
Indeed, it is the King’s intervention that carries great significance. Whether it was the Prime Minister or not who had asked for him to intervene last Sunday, the fact remains that Mr Najib has failed over the past three years to build up his standing as a national leader, despite his various reform initiatives and One Malaysia slogan.
His refusal to act against right-wingers in his party for apparent sedition has undermined what was a weak reputation to start with. By failing to use the law in a clearly fair manner and through the continuation of dubious electoral practices, he bears responsibility for heightening the public’s need to respond against the downward trend in governance.
In the end, only the institution of the King could act as mediator between the two sides.
Through his intervention and decision to meet Bersih leaders, the King basically neutralised the Home Ministry’s ban on Bersih. It is now up to the government to act in accordance with the unique stand taken by the King, or run the risk of being disrespectful to the only office left in the country which commands nationwide esteem.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest books include The Right to Differ: A Biographical Sketch of Lim Kit Siang and In Lieu of Ideology: An Intellectual Biography of Goh Keng Swee.