MOHD Ridwan Muhidin had never attended a rally before. The 33-year-old religious preacher from Klang decided with friends over WhatsApp messages at 10pm on the eve of the Himpun Rakyat Bersatu (Himpun16) rally that they were joining.
“I came for the sake of Malay solidarity. Whether or not you like a leader, you should not step on their pictures. These are our leaders, after all.
“I feel the Malays have been very tolerant so far. I just want a Malaysia that is peaceful and I don’t want to see a repeat of what happened during Bersih 4 where people stepped on our leaders’ faces.
“I don’t want us Malays stepping on pictures of their leaders either,” he said when met while walking from Jalan Conlay through Bukit Bintang to Padang Merbok in Kuala Lumpur.
Ridwan was wearing a red shirt but he had also brought another shirt of a different colour to put on after the rally.
“I am taking the bus back so I’ll change just to be safe,” he said.
He confessed to feeling both excited and afraid.
“There is such a mix of people so anything can happen. But I am comforted to see a huge police presence around,” he said shortly before a group marching from Jalan Conlay decided to make Petaling Street their last stop instead of heading on to Padang Merbok for the official programme.
On Aug 29 and Aug 30, Bersih held a 34-hour street rally along Jalan Tun Perak near Dataran Merdeka, where they called for free and fair elections and demanded that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak step down over the RM2.6bil political funding and 1MDB issues.
The crowd at Bersih 4 was predominantly Chinese, and when a video of two Chinese Bersih supporters stomping on pictures of Najib and PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang went viral, it got Malays, especially Umno supporters of the party president, upset and angry.
So they decided to strike back with a counter rally to show that the Government in power still has huge support and can draw a massive crowd.
That is how the Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu rally organised by the National Silat Federation (Pesaka) came into being. The organiser said it was supposed to be non-racial and draw people of all races to come together on Malaysia Day, Sept 16.
But from the start, it seemed to have taken on a Malay slant when Sg Besar Umno division chief Datuk Jamal Md Yunos declared that the rally was about “upholding the dignity of the Malays” and called it “Himpunan Kebangkitan Maruah Melayu”.
He said they would wear red and march through Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street, two key Chinese areas in Kuala Lumpur.
This naturally struck fear among the Chinese, coming so close after the Low Yat incident in July – a Malay guy was caught stealing a smartphone from a Chinese trader but the story quickly changed into one of how the Chinese traders were cheating the Malays and the incident erupted into an ugly racial issue.
It did not help the rally either when threatening graphic posters starting making the rounds on social media, promising a bloodbath for the Chinese who had attended the Bersih rally.
The police initially said no to the rally but later agreed to let it proceed after the organiser obtained permission to hold it at Padang Merbok and agreed that Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street would remain off limits.
Even so, traders on Petaling Street did not take any chances and closed for the day anyway.
And not all Malays were sold on the idea of a “Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu” rally.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who has become a fierce critic of Najib and who showed up at the Bersih 4 rally, said he didn’t understand the objective of the Himpun rally, adding that the Bersih rally was not racist as the other races had also participated.Former International Trade and Industry Minister and ex-Wanita Umno chief Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, deputy Umno president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, and vice-president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal (both of whom were dropped from the Cabinet recently) also thought it was a bad idea, especially if it took on racial overtones.
A week before the rally, a group of 16 Muslim individuals and organisations also issued a press statement saying that the Red Shirts did not represent the voice of all Malay Muslims and that any call towards racial strife should be dealt with swiftly.
Interestingly, even though pictures of their party president (Hadi) were stomped on during the Bersih rally, PAS also chose to stay away. They also did not take part in a tit-for-tat event during a Kota Baru Umno programme at which effigies of DAP leaders Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng were burnt in retaliation for the stomping.
Rally for one
Despite the rally being called a “Himpunan Rakyat” (People’s Rally), only Malays showed up. If there were non-Malays, they were too few to notice.
But Datuk Maideen Kadir Shah from the Pesaka committee (Dewan Perguruan Pesaka) insisted that the Chinese and Indians were there.
But if the majority who came are Malays, this means Malays really love the country, he said.
“Why did the other races not come forward and show their love for the country?” he asked, while admitting that “the negative messages some people” were sending out could have frightened the other races away.
For him, the rally was not an anti-Bersih rally. Its main objective, he said, was to see if the Malays were still united in wanting to defend peace, independence, and prosperity.
But the people who came had different objectives for showing up.
Ismail Allian from Sabah came because he wanted to “defend the country’s top Malay leader”, meaning the Prime Minister who has come under attack over the 1MDB and political funding issues.
Holding a placard with a picture of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the words “Tun Tolonglah Jangan Pecah-Belahkan Orang Melayu” (Tun, please do not divide the Malays), Ismail, 47, said someone “official” gave it to him to carry.
“I am not angry with Tun. I actually love and respect Tun. I was just told to carry this,” he said.
Although Umno denied being the organiser of the rally, Najib, who is the party president, said he had no objection if members went for it.
The striking red rally T-shirts were also sold at Umno headquarters, where buses of supporters stopped before making their way to Padang Merbok.
The president of organiser Pesaka is also an Umno leader. Tan Sri Ali Rustam Mohd Ali is a former Umno vice president and ex-Malacca Chief Minister.
So it was no surprise when Umno leaders like International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Ahmad Maslan and Mara chairman Tan Sri Annuar Musa and other division leaders attended the rally.
The rally adopted a 14-point resolution which included “the rakyat rejecting” a DAP type of chauvinism, Bersih street rallies 1 to 4, speeches where Islam is insulted, attempts to topple the elected government, foreign interference in the country’s affairs, and political slander of the country’s leader.
It also called for a return of the repealed Internal Security Act.
Speaking at the rally, Annuar said Najib had called him to express how touched he was by the show of support.
In a phone interview a day after the rally, Maideen denied the rally was called as a show of support for the embattled Prime Minister.
“Prime Ministers can change but we cannot change countries. What we are doing is national service,” he said.
For him, the rally was a “huge success” because 250,000 people showed up. The police estimate of the crowd size was about 50,000, however.
Other points of view
Others saw the rally quite differently.
They saw racist placards calling the Chinese “pigs” and asking for Chinese schools to be shut down and telling the Chinese to go back to China.
The protesters walking along Jalan Conlay broke through the police barricade three times so they could walk through Bukit Bintang although it was supposed to be off limits.
Some protesters were adamant and spent hours trying to force their way into Petaling Street but the police managed to hold them back.
The protesters also hurled racist abuse at non-Malays from the media who were there to cover the rally.
One of the protesters intent on getting into Petaling Street said he was hell-bent on getting in to “give a little lesson” to the Chinese.
Identifying himself as Pokdeng, he said: “The Chinese have to realise that this is Tanah Melayu (land of the Malays) so they have to behave themselves.”
As with most rallies, human rights commission Suhakam was on the ground to monitor the situation. It issued a press release a day after the rally expressing its regrets on how the “peaceful assembly turned non-peaceful when a group of participants pushed past the police restriction lines in an attempt to reach certain parts of Kuala Lumpur that the organisers and PDRM had initially agreed were prohibited”.
Suhakam chairman Tan Sri Hasmy Agam said the commission was “perturbed” by the “irresponsible and confrontational actions of several participants for inciting lawless and disorderly behaviour by flaunting racially charged placards and for uttering slogans that promoted racial or religious hatred in our multireligious and secular society”.
He said such behaviour cannot be condoned and must be appropriately dealt with, adding that the advocacy of racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should be prohibited by law.
“The right to peaceful assembly is not an excuse to perpetrate violence which will only make a mockery of the concept of peaceful assembly,” he said.
Yuzaidi Yusoff, chairman of the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF), was more scathing in his assessment.
As far as he is concerned, the rally achieved “nothing really”.
“For me personally, it has further cemented the notion that there are still many out there who place race above faith.
“Regardless of the teaching of Islam as enshrined in the Quran and the teachings of the Holy Prophet, for some, these can take a back seat when it comes to race supremacy. Our education system in teaching Islam to our children has to be revamped,” he said.
MPF had made it clear from the start that it was not for the rally. It was proven right, said Yuzaidi, because it led to racial slurs, incited people to go to Petaling Street even though the authorities told them not to, journalists regardless of race were verbally attacked, and leaders misinterpreted the sayings of the Prophet to justify their actions.
“People should speak up with conviction and let their voices be heard clearly, through the proper channels, to tell the-powers-that-be that their primary responsibility is to uphold justice and safety of all, and not just the majority or the loud ones”.
The Johor royal family has also expressed concern and is speaking out against racism on social media.
But for Pesaka’s Maideen, the only flaw with the rally was the ruckus in Petaling Street.
“I despise those who did that. Their actions tainted our rally. The police should not just lock them up but send them off to Pulau Jerejak (a restricted island in Penang where prisoners used to be held),” he said.
That group in Petaling Street was not Pesaka’s responsibility because they deviated from the agreed-upon route in the permit, he stressed. “So we leave it to the police to identify and act against them.”
Those protesters only left after Sg Besar’s Jamal arrived at around 7pm and got them to disperse.
For Megat Zulhazmi Megat Abdullah from Bukit Bintang Umno, the support was overwhelming with so many people coming out for the official rally.
“Bersih think they are the only ones who can mobilise people but we have shown we can too. If they want to do a Bersih 5, then we will do a Himpun 2.0.”
He said Malays were really disturbed and angry when they saw people at Bersih 4 performing funeral rites for Najib and stepping on his picture.
“We are making a point. We want Bersih to respect the results of the elections and not take to the streets to topple the elected government. So this rally is a rally to end all street rallies.”
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