Second Sphere: Accept dissent as a new normal

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AS we celebrate National and Malaysia Day, the most popular topic of discussion is the Bersih4 rally organised by Bersih 2.0 on Aug 29 and 30.

As a supporter of Bersih4, I think it is an important landmark in the struggle of Malaysians in steering the country’s democracy to a higher level — one that is mature and progressive.

On Sept 8, the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham), which was an observer at Bersih4, and Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), co-organised a roundtable discussion, “Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly: Lessons from Bersih4”. It was co-moderated by Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria and myself.

The objectives of the roundtable were to review the human rights instruments and domestic laws pertaining to peaceful assembly and the peaceful Bersih4 rally (pre-event, the event and post-event issues). It also sought to draw lessons from Bersih4 and make recommendations for the future of peaceful assemblies as a legitimate vehicle in a democratic society.

To me, it is time for all of us to recognise that dissent in various forms, including peaceful assemblies like Bersih4, is “the new normal”. This is because it is part of democracy and is stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also provided for in the Federal Constitution. And we have the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA), which guarantees citizens the right to organise and participate in assemblies peacefully and without arms.

From the preliminary reports of Suhakam, the Bar Council and Proham, it is clear that Bersih4 was a very successful peaceful rally. According to Suhakam, the turnout was 200,000 to 250,000 people. Others said that it was 500,000. The participants were multiracial. Their mood was festive.  

As the organiser, Bersih 2.0 did everything that was humanly possible to ensure that everything went according to plan. For example, it communicated guidelines and updates, ensured that participants did not break the barricades, provided teams of volunteers for security, medical and cleaning, and prepared PA systems and portable toilets.

The participants were disciplined. Credit must also be given to the police and Kuala Lumpur City Hall for being cooperative.      

If all of us can accept such rallies as a new normal, then we do not have to keep facing all kinds of unnecessary opposition and harassment before, during and after such an event. We should not be faced with the poor arguments and threats and intimidation that were thrown at Bersih4 by some quarters.

They recycled archaic arguments. For example, that Bersih 2.0 and the rally were illegal, and that the rally would cause chaos, traffic jam, affect businesses and taint the good name of the country.

They employed a couple of new arguments. They accused Bersih4 of being detrimental to parliamentary democracy. What they fail to understand is that as long as Bersih4 does not have the objective of using violence and/or unconstitutional means, it is not detrimental to parliamentary democracy. In fact, on the contrary, Bersih4 is actually one of the ways of upholding parliamentary democracy.

They also accused Bersih4 of aiming to topple the government. The five objectives of Bersih4 did not state that it wanted to topple the government. The chants during the rally were about asking the prime minister to resign. Toppling a prime minister is not undemocratic. Toppling a government is also not undemocratic. To recap, the PR government of Perak was at one time toppled by BN.

A week or so after the event, some people are not happy that Bersih4 was very successful. Hence, they want to find fault. They claim that it was poorly attended, play the racial card by saying that it was dominated by the Chinese, highlight the incident of two people stepping on photos of politicians and sent a cleaning bill to the organiser for “dirtying” the city.

I will not be surprised if the authorities investigate more people related to Bersih4 for all kinds of allegations and offences, including the most petty of things. The reason could be to divert attention from the more fundamental issues raised by Bersih4 and other platforms.

That is why we must remain focused on the objectives of Bersih4 and the other voices and calls made on the state of the nation. We do not have to agree with all of them. But we should be able to agree on the fundamentals.

Finally, Bersih4 shows that we have reached a stage where we are bold and brave enough to do things as we want it. We must seize the momentum.

Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is CEO of Global Movement of Moderates and former deputy minister of higher education. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd

This article first appeared in Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on September 14 - 20, 2015.