Just when prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was basking in glory after the usual praises poured on him at the end of the ruling UMNO's general assembly, he was jolted by a mammoth opposition-backed rally in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on November 10. That tens of thousands of protesters heeded the silent invitation to join the rally calling for major reforms in the way elections are conducted, after countless threats and warnings from the prime minister and police chiefs, sends a signal that the people's resentment of the UMNO is even more than it was thought to be.
A few weeks before, it had seemed that Abdullah's government was finally carrying out reforms which he had implicitly promised when he took over from Mahathir Mohammad four years ago. In October, an opposition activist who had been detained under the dreaded Internal Security Act (ISA), after the crackdown by Mahathir in 1998, won a suit against the government for wrongful detention and torture. A few days later an NGO activist, who was prosecuted for exposing the authorities' mistreatment of Bangladeshi migrant workers, won a libel suit against a pro-government newspaper for malicious articles against her. About a week later, a former aide of Anwar Ibrahim's who became one of the victims of Mahathir's anti-Anwar campaign during the reformasi period, had his conviction for perjury (a common charge against aides of Anwar Ibrahim who testified in his trials) quashed.
Then, on November 10, the biggest anti-government rally took place, only a day after UMNO's glitzy conclusion to its general assembly amid a presidential address laced with warnings and threats. Hours earlier, thousands of police had imposed what was practically a curfew in the capital, closing almost all major entry points to the city and causing hundreds of thousands to be stranded in some of the worst traffic jams the city has ever seen.
The police action brought back memories of the unceremonial dismissal of then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, when weekend after weekend thousands of anti-government protesters would gather in the city's streets to defy police arrest and brute force. This time the protesters – this time easily numbering anything between 40,000 to 60,000, more if one takes into account the thousands who were prevented from crossing the border – had only wanted an hour to march to the palace to hand over a memorandum calling on the king to endorse calls for electoral reforms.
It is safe to say that no Malaysians, not those who joined the rally nor the opposition leaders, have any doubt about the futility of making such a petition to the king, or for that matter to any of the nine sultans the country maintains. At the height of the country's political crisis, when the courts were used openly by Mahathir, there was not a whimper of concern from Malaysia's constitutional monarchs, who have adhered strictly to their ceremonial status. Even when their own status of legal immunity was stripped during the constitutional crisis of 1993, these rulers were quick to put their signatures to the amended bill, which concluded a powerful campaign in the government media to humiliate them by revelations of their crimes and misdemeanours. With that recent history over them – as well as other histories of their predecessors who surrendered their powers under pressure from then colonialist British – to think that they would now act on something that remotely touches their interest is laughable. Little wonder that some cynics have argued that the rally on November 10 was a waste of energy.
Yet the truth is that petitioning the king was not the only reason, nay, it is not at all the reason for the people to come out in droves. The real reason, and this became apparent by the sheer number of young people who turned out, was to send a signal to Abdullah's government, and the UMNO party, which had just concluded its rhetorical congress, that they are not afraid of the threats to arrest them, and were there to assert their right to peaceful assembly, a taboo phrase in the government media. The fact that the rally organiser, Bersih (“clean”), a loose coalition of sixty NGOs as well as political parties, was comprised of a plethora of voices that represents all ideologies and races, was also appealing to most people, many of whom will not bother to vote in any case.
The aftershock was plain to see: government leaders, through the tightly controlled media, immediately went into denial mode about the strength of the protest, only to be caught out by the internet, which exposed the claim that the rally had failed. Satellite television channels such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC also gave UMNO leaders a taste of their own medicine, by headlining news of police high-handedness in their hourly bulletins and questioning Malaysia's brand of ‘democracy', much to the annoyance of UMNO officials.
What has the rally achieved? Besides winning the numbers game, the successful turnout reinforces the leadership role of the Islamic Party (PAS), which will be useful in the unlikely event that opposition parties unite again, even for electoral purposes. Two other opposition parties and the NGOs that make up the Bersih coalition have no choice but to accept that the rally would have failed without PAS's backing. It also silenced, at least for the time being, calls by some secular (read anti-Islamic) elements within the opposition camp to isolate PAS over its Islamic ideology. In addition, Anwar Ibrahim has been helped to look better. Even if it was true that his political ability was in doubt, the huge protest seems a slap to his former colleagues in UMNO who had tried to portray him as a spent force.
The government is taking pains to tell the public that the Bersih rally was a ploy by opposition parties to create a “smokescreen” in preparation for their defeat in the impending general elections. With a firm grip on the public media and election rules, the opposition's defeat is a foregone conclusion. While challenging Anwar to be “man enough” to fight his battle in elections and not on the streets, Abdullah's government is not even prepared to give him the opportunity to contest, fearing his return to parliament. This scenario, perhaps more so than many others, is one that Abdullah wants to avoid, hence the rush to call elections before April 2008, when Anwar's legal ban on political activity ends.
The protest on November 10 was a “smokescreen” tactic by the opposition in preparation for yet another defeat in the elections – a smokescreen which most Malaysians have no trouble believing, especially when the ruling parties' dirty tactics are legendary in everyelections.
But smokescreens are not only an opposition game. The government too has been planning many such tactics as the country experiences one of its worst economic and social upheavals. Sharp price-increases as well as rising economic difficulties of lower-middle-class income-earners are issues set to dominate the coming elections. Countering this, the government embarked on a few grand ceremonies, announcing “growth corridors”, in order to attract foreign investors. However nice it sounds, it has attracted criticisms for its repercussions in the long run, not least from Abdullah's predecessor-turned-critic, Mahathir. Crime, something which Malaysia was not known for just a decade ago, is soaring. Defying its own police statistics, the UMNO-led government has blamed these on the millions of foreign workers, who mostly do jobs shunned by the locals. Pandering to xenophobic voices within UMNO, Abdullah announced a ‘zero tolerance' on migrant workers, only to expose his ignorance to how the country's economy runs.
In the mean time, the scoreboard shows the score opposition 1: government 0. How long this is going to remain so is irrelevant, even if general elections are held, contested, and won again by the ruling coalition. For now, the opposition has proven its political weight without the need to participate in sham elections.