THE public is much relieved that the race-motivated red-shirts rally did not take place largely due to firm police action in discouraging the organisers and warning them that they would face the consequences if they proceeded to march on Petaling Street. There must have been other behind-the-scene pressures from the top to make the organisers realise that the rally was not good for the country as it would strain race relations and cause the already weak economic and market sentiments to deteriorate. It would raise questions among investors and the international community on whether Malaysia was heading towards being a failed state.
We thank God that common sense prevailed on all sides.
Although there are genuine concerns that street rallies are a source of tension – and a public nuisance at times – yet there must be tolerance for peaceful assemblies so that we do not ban them altogether and thereby kill off the vibrancy of our democracy. As we all know, part of the checks and balances that make democracy a strong defender of the people’s interests is the freedom of citizens and civil society groups to exercise their constitutional rights of assembly and free speech to bring up the cause they are fighting for into the public arena. The idea is to use people power to catch the attention of our legislators in Parliament and the government ministers and agencies to make them see that there is a problem in the country which needs action.
The organisers also hope that by getting a big attendance, they can get international support for their cause and thereby bring pressure on the government to introduce the reforms. These are legitimate tactics that are common in all countries.
Nobody wants to see chaos and fear on the streets when a rally takes place. On the other hand, it is certainly true that despite assurances from the organisers that their street rally would be peaceful, there is no guarantee it will not be hijacked by undesirable characters to cause trouble so as to instigate a riot and a wider conflict, causing damage to life and property. This is a risk which, unfortunately, we have to take every time a rally is allowed. But as in other democracies, it is a risk worth taking to uphold the values we stand for.
The alternative of stopping all forms of popular dissent is even more harmful for the country.
When peaceful protests are criminalised, the extremists will step in to organise illegal resistance movements with the objective of toppling the Government and bringing about a radical regime change.
In the context of a Muslim-majority country, Malaysia must not give an excuse for the religious extremists to step into the reform movement with the promise that they can bring change. They have a different agenda of turning the country into an Islamic theocracy.
We have seen how other Muslim countries in the Middle East are suffering because, by not allowing any dissent, their rulers have allowed the extremists to win popular support for jihadists.
The extremist approach for change is through the sword and bullets. The democratic way of holding street protests to demand reforms relies on mobilising public opinion for peaceful change.
Malaysia should therefore continue to allow street protests and rallies in the open because they are a safer way of expressing public opinion than for the reformers to resort to underground movements to carry on their struggle.
The path of democracy is not paved in gold. On the contrary, there are potholes and fissures that can make us trip. But for all its faults and frustrations, democracy is still the best option because it gives us the opportunity to hold our Government accountable to the people. The measure of our success as a democracy is how well we manage those who want to express their dissent in the open.
The police must ensure that those who want to organise public rallies start out with a clean intention. The rally must not be provocatively racial with the intention to intimidate another community. When permission is given for a rally, the organisers must take all steps necessary to control the behaviour of their supporters. The police must stand ready and walk together with the crowd, as is done in Western democracies, to facilitate a peaceful rally but with a contingency plan to deal with provocateurs when they go over the limit.
If force becomes unavoidable to control a dangerous situation, the public will understand why the police has to act. In cases where there is evidence of police misusing its power, the Government must address the public complaint by holding an enquiry as to what went wrong.
If all these requirements are complied with, public rallies should not be a source of concern for our internal peace and stability.
The public will thank the police for making democracy a living concept in our political life.