The Islamic flavour, the sheer numbers and single-minded purpose of protesters at the anti-Icerd rally means that the government cannot afford to ignore what the Malays want.
A 93-YEAR-OLD driving through the streets of Kuala Lumpur does not sound like a good idea. But Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad showed that he still has a steady pair of hands as he drove into the city centre on Saturday.
According to a staunch supporter, Firdaus Abdullah, the Prime Minister wanted to see for himself the aftermath of the biggest Malay-Muslim protest in history.
Dr Mahathir is famous for scolding the Malays, be it for not remembering the past, for not working hard and, more recently, for not being more critical of corruption.
But he must have been pleasantly surprised to find that those at the mammoth anti-Icerd (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) rally that ended an hour or so earlier had done a fantastic clean-up job and left the streets even cleaner than before they descended on the city centre.
Many have described the rally as a “class act” – the protesters were disciplined and did not resort to rude sloganeering or uncivic behaviour as was the norm in past mega rallies.
It was conduct that even Dr Mahathir, known for his exacting ways, could not find fault with and it has also silenced many critics out there.
It is hard to guess what is going through his mind in the wake of the biggest challenge to his New Malaysia government.
A lesser man would have panicked, but Dr Mahathir has been rather sanguine in his response to the whole thing.
Besides, he could hardly blame the other side for what had happened because the Icerd issue was what KRA chief strategist Amir Fareed Rahim called an “own goal”, resulting from a total miscalculation on the part of Pakatan Harapan.
It was the golden opportunity for the Opposition to prove that the majority of Malays – two-thirds, to be exact – are not with the Pakatan government.
And prove it they did on Dec 8 when their supporters turned the streets of downtown Kuala Lumpur into rivers of human beings.
“Identity politics, especially of race and religion, still has a strong appeal in Malaysia. The two major Malay opposition parties have shown that they can unite over such issues and mobilise their support base,” said Amir.
It was a purely Malay-Muslim protest that set off alarm bells in the Mahathir administration.
The Prime Minister will be under pressure from now on to consider the Malay factor when making government policies.
“Many Malays feel they cannot rely on the government to defend their priorities on Islam and Malay rights. If this goes on, it will affect the credibility of the government,” said an aide to a Bersatu politician.
A common remark on social media was that this is a wake-up call for the powers-that-be.
At the peak of the rally, Yin Shao Loong, a policy officer to the Economic Affairs Minister, had tweeted in response to those belittling the rally: “Make all the snide asides you want about this being a rally for racism or a cover for crooks. This mobilisation is a wake-up call. PH needs to get out to the Malay heartland with people and policies that will have a transformative impact.”
The Pakatan government is too consumed by the blame game which they believe can carry them through to a second term in Putrajaya.
Some say it is unfair to expect so much so soon of the new government which is floundering in unchartered waters.
“People talk of a honeymoon period, but when you are the government, there is no honeymoon. People who put their trust in you expect you to deliver right away,” said the above Bersatu aide.
A more subtle signal coming from Saturday’s rally is the overwhelming numbers of young Malays, especially those in their 20s and 30s.
It means the Opposition has support from the Malay youth cohort.
In short, the Malays/Muslims will have the biggest say over the future of Malaysia.
“The Pakatan government needs to tread carefully on Malay issues. Its Malay support base is too narrow, it needs to put serious attention and effort to win the Malay hearts and minds,” said Amir.
There is little doubt the rally sent jitters through the Pakatan side even as their supporters tried to discredit it.
The concern was not only about the size, but the way the protesters moved with a single-minded purpose. The rally was sending out the message that when Malays are united, anything is possible.
Pakatan leaders know the danger of mega protests, be it the Arab Spring or what is now happening in the streets of Paris.
Their own support for the Bersih rallies chipped away at the then government’s hold on power.
“The government is not in any real danger. But it will be a bumpy ride ahead if issues like the economy are not properly addressed,” said election expert Datuk Prof Dr Redzuan Othman.
The government has resembled a chariot being pulled by horses running in different directions.
A couple of horses seem to be running on broken legs, and that is why Dr Mahathir may have to respond to the wake-up call by reshuffling his Cabinet, among other things.
He needs to fix his chariot soon and replace some horses, because by May 2019, he will reach the mid-point of his two-year tenure, or what is known as the lame-duck phase as Prime Minister.
Unless, of course, he plans on staying on indefinitely.