Perception is what counts in politics. And the perception that has already set in among the discerning public, not only discerning students, is that Umno hired the thugs.
Barisan Nasional has probably just lost the votes of university students who are bright, perceptive and can think for themselves.
These students would have been reviled by the recent attack on the student protesters camped out at Dataran Merdeka by a gang of 50 thugs. They would have seen this as a shameful act of violence against their fellow students, who were helpless and defenceless.
They would have seen this as an act to frighten the students into ending their protest calling for PTPTN (National Higher Education Fund Corporation) loans to be written off.
Those who are bright and up to speed about politics in this country would automatically assume that this is the work of forces bigger than the thugs. For why should thugs randomly attack the students and beat some of them up, including women? What would be their motive for doing so?
The assumption would most likely be that the forces behind the attack are members of the ruling party – for who, more than anyone else, would want to see the protest end sooner?
That being so, it’s bad news for BN. Rightly or wrongly, the first suspicion would be that BN – or, more specifically, Umno – is behind this.
Even if it’s not the case in reality, it doesn’t matter. Perception is what counts in politics. And the perception that has already set in among the discerning public, not only discerning students, is that Umno hired the thugs.
This was the perception too when thugs also violently disrupted a Solidariti Mahasiswa talk in Klang last February.
So rampant have violent disruptions of political events been of late – particularly those that are deemed adversarial to the ruling party – that it has become common belief that Umno is responsible for them.
It has come to be seen as a modus operandi for intimidating opponents. Increasingly, with each new violent disruption, the image of Umno and BN has suffered. The perception is that the ruling party knows no other way than intimidation to deal with challenges to its authority and policies. Instead of adhering to democratic principles, it employs anti-democratic means.
This perception is supported by the fact that Umno has resorted to threats and violence a few times before in the past.
Umno Youth members threatened to burn down the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in 2000 unless the Chinese Malaysian Election Appeals Committee (Suqiu) retracted its 17-point appeal for improvements in some national policies.
Umno Youth members stormed an Asia-Pacific Coalition for East Timor II conference in Kuala Lumpur in 1996, broke down the doors of the conference halls, threw chairs and verbally and physically abused the participants.
In 2006, a forum on Article 11 of the Federal Constitution held in Penang was made to end abruptly by the vehement protest of a group of Umno Youth members at the forum venue. The police intervened by telling the forum organisers to cut short the forum.
Nothing from police probes
Last August, Umno senator Ezam Mohd Nor threatened to burn down the offices of Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider for what he said was their false reporting against Islam. This was, to say the least, a most unbecoming utterance from a senator.
Last January, the ceramah in Shah Alam organised by Anything But Umno (ABU) and Hindraf was gate-crashed by a gang of thugs who rode their motorcycles into the hall, threw leaflets and bottles around and verbally abused the audience.
In Penang last February, a group identified as Umno Youth and Perkasa members attacked anti-Lynas protesters at Speakers’ Corner, resulting in injury to two journalists. Even Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who spoke at the event, was harassed.
The police who were present reportedly looked on and did nothing. Later, Penang Chief Police Officer Ayub Yaakob blamed the organisers for not informing the police about their event.
Must one have prepared the police beforehand before the latter can perform their duty of restoring order when a fracas breaks out? If they have not been duly informed, do they just pretend they are not there?
What KPI should the police get for this, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak?
To be sure, the police have so far not been seen to be impartial in handling the various attacks. Their investigations after the fact have often led to nothing. No one has yet been charged in court, although in the Shah Alam incident, the attack was serious enough to cause a man to be hospitalised.
Even when there is video evidence to support the claim of violent action, the police have been known to say that nothing violent was committed.
In this current case of the attack at Dataran Merdeka, the students claim that the police stood and watched while the attack was going on. To this, the police counter-claim that they responded by sending 10 personnel to the scene within five to six minutes.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohmad Salleh says two plainclothes policemen were already at the scene when the attack started at 2.40am. So why didn’t these two plunge straight into breaking it up?
Only one attacker was arrested out of the 50 or so. This is poor pickings by any standard.
What was Mohmad’s excuse? “It was early in the morning and we could not differentiate the attackers from those already there.” One might well interpret from that statement that the attackers must have just been standing around with their arms folded. Or perhaps the cops were sleeping on the job.
Are we to believe the claim made by the Government body Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit) that the crime rate has gone down when our police have shown their level of efficiency in this case?
Are we to believe Pemandu’s declaration that Malaysia is now the safest and most peaceful country in Malaysia when innocent, defenceless students can be attacked by hired thugs?
Power of passive resistance
Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin showed a lack of emotional quotient when he tweeted: “No one asked (the students) to camp out at Dataran Merdeka. When something happens, don’t go asking for sympathy.” He had to later give the pathetic excuse that he wrote it like that to keep within the 140-character limit.
If there is something exemplary to be remarked upon here, it is the students’ composure when they were being attacked.
In not physically retaliating against their attackers, they demonstrated the power of passive resistance. No wonder they have won much public sympathy since. And no doubt they have won the admiration of their peers as well.
The students may well prove to be a substantial thorn in BN’s side, that will haunt the coalition at the upcoming general election, but that’s what you get when students you have been oppressing for four decades are stirred and finally stand up to reclaim their rights.
A friend of mine often says that change will come when students start to take to the streets. This has now happened, and I hope he’s right.
Kee Thuan Chye is the author of No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, now available in major bookstores.