The message in the Dec 8 rally for no reason

The Dec 8 rally for no reason was a great success.

The rally organisers said so, adding they had met their “target”. And no less a luminary than the former prime minister, Najib Razak, who is facing a slew of criminal charges, said so.

It succeeded in bringing Umno and PAS closer together; it succeeded in bringing tens of thousands of Malay-Muslims onto the streets; it succeeded in boosting the sagging credibility of Umno; and it succeeded in shifting focus away from the high-profile corruption charges against Umno stalwarts plus the failures of the previous administration to the failures and inconsistencies of the Pakatan Harapan government.

Additionally, it succeeded in showing that Malaysia practices democracy; that the police can facilitate such gatherings instead of charging in with tear gas as in the past; that Malaysians can hold rallies peacefully without causing trouble; and that the PH government is keeping its word of allowing greater freedom.

The rally against the ratification of the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) also succeeded in ways that the organisers would not have considered.

It succeeded in telling the world that there are a bunch of people in Malaysia who support racial discrimination and that many of them are in Umno and PAS. It also succeeded in telling Malaysians that some politicians are still in the “Malaysia Lama” mode of riding on racial and religious politics.

Equally important, I feel, the rally showed everyone that some Malaysians can actually rally for no reason.

Let’s examine the situation.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, as we all know, had announced that Malaysia would ratify several UN treaties, including ICERD. Some Malay-Muslims, fearing they would lose the privileges they enjoyed if all Malaysians were to be treated equally, decided to hold a rally to protest the move.

PAS and Umno saw an opportunity to demonstrate to the Malays that they were still relevant and so joined the organisers – the political thing to do.

But, as the fears sparked by the opposition began to soak into an increasing number of Malays, Dr Mahathir, in a deft move, pulled the proverbial rug from under the organisers of the Dec 8 rally. He said the government would not ratify ICERD – also the political thing to do.

Wonderful, said PAS and Umno, of the government’s move to reverse its decision. Nevertheless, they continued, the rally would go on and it would be held to thank the government, to celebrate victory – again, the political thing to do.

So the rally was held. I must congratulate PAS, Umno and the other organisers for ensuring a peaceful, orderly rally. This, I believe, is largely due to the involvement of PAS. In my years of covering politics, I have grown to have a high regard for the organisational ability and discipline of the Islamist party.

I must also salute the police for respecting the rights of citizens to assemble peacefully, and even facilitating this rally.

But was it really a “thanksgiving” rally as the organisers said it would be?

I did not read any report or watch any video clip about any of the speakers at the rally actually thanking the PH government for reversing its decision on ICERD. In fact, they were talking about bringing it down in the next general election. Surely that’s a new way of saying thanks.

And they went on and on about the threat to Malay rights and Islam – a scenario projected onto the Malay mind by politicians out for power. The speakers, and some of the participants interviewed by the media, said the rally was to defend Malay rights and Islam.

I’m puzzled as to how rejecting ICERD equals defending Islam. ICERD calls for equality of treatment of human beings irrespective of race, of giving equal dignity to all.

My understanding of Islam is that it stands for the dignity of man and is against any form of racial discrimination. My understanding of Islam is that a Muslim is enjoined to help even a non-Muslim who is facing oppression get fair treatment.

So, would it be wrong to surmise that by rejecting ICERD in the name of Islam, those in PAS, Umno and the Muslim NGOs involved in the rally have given Islam a bad name?

Umno leaders and others also spoke of protecting the Malays. What was Umno doing all this while? It had been in power from Independence to May 9, 2018, and it had had all the power needed to improve the lives of all Malays. Is it the fault of the non-Malays that the previous Malay leadership failed in helping the rural Malay? Whose fault is it that programmes of the Barisan Nasional led by Umno created a coterie of wealthy Malays instead of ensuring a wider distribution of wealth among the Malays?

Is Islam really under threat? As far as I know all non-Muslims accept the special position of Islam in Malaysia and have no quarrel with Islam.

And are Malay rights really under threat? Have non-Malays ever taken to the streets to protest the special privileges accorded the Malays? Just because the chief justice and attorney-general are non-Malays, just because there are more non-Malays in the Cabinet than previously it does not mean the Malays are under siege.

Just take a look at who heads the government, the civil service, the armed forces, the police, and the government-linked companies. Just take a look at the racial composition of these agencies and departments. Just take a look at university intakes and scholarships given.

But, I admit, this is an emotional issue. I ask myself: Why is it that knowing Malay rights and the position of Islam are guaranteed in the Federal Constitution, some Malays continue to fret over it? Why is it that knowing it is impossible to change these provisions as two-thirds of MPs must vote to do so and that the majority of MPs are Malays, they continue to harp on it?

It is because there are many Malays who genuinely fear losing their privileges.

Let’s face it, who does not want special privileges? If, say, as in India, the minorities in Malaysia were to be given special privileges, would they give them up? Would they not protest?

So, one has to understand this fact, especially since Malays have been enjoying special privileges since 1970 and have gotten used to it.

The only way to make them understand that this is only a crutch and that they should learn to walk on their own feet or lose out in a globalised world is through education. Their confidence and skills need to be boosted. They should be encouraged to learn about other cultures, to broaden their minds and to know when they are being manipulated.

That is what intelligent Malays and the government are striving to do.

It will take time. Already some Malays are proudly standing on their own feet, saying they don’t need crutches; and they are distancing themselves from the politics of race and religion. I’m optimistic their numbers will grow.

And, very importantly, there is a need to ensure that wealth is distributed fairly so that more Malays, and Malaysians, enjoy the benefits of development.

If the confidence and standard of living of the Malay farmer, fisherman, smallholder, small scale entrepreneur and the lower-rung civil servant is improved, if there is more money in his or her pocket, they will boldly tell politicians: “We will not participate in your rally for no reason.”

A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.