Zaid: Protests are the 'Malaysian way'

Beh Lih Yi | Dec 5, 07 (Malaysiakini)
Outspoken Umno politician Zaid Ibrahim has added his voice to critics in Barisan Nasional (BN) who have questioned the hardline stance against public rallies, as he suggested that the government is not listening to the people’s concerns.

At the Kuala Lumpur Rotary Club’s weekly luncheon talk today, he said the government’s use of “force and power” in cracking down the rallies do not help to address the issues raised.
“In leadership, I think, hubris and arrogance has no place. This is the government of the people. We have to listen, even to the most ridiculous demands,” he told some 50 professionals in a discussion targeted at election issues.
“This is characteristic that we hope we will get in the next government – it is not in this government.”
Zaid’s criticism highlights apparent differences within the BN on how the government should handle public displays of dissent through street rallies.
Gerakan’s Dr Toh Kin Woon (left), in a strongly-worded letter, had disagreed with BN leaders, while MIC’s SK Devamany (right) said in Parliament that the unexpected numbers at the Hindraf rally on Nov 25 showed that the government has failed the Indian community.
Elaborating, Zaid – who is the Kota Baru member of parliament and runs one of the biggest legal firms in the country – also said demonstrations should not be treated as a challenge or threat.
“In you want to be a democratic and a first-world (government), you have to accept that people can do stupid and unnecessary things, but they have the right (to do so). You have to manage them and you can’t manage protest as a threat of challenge at all the time, it’s not a personal challenge,” he stressed.
Zaid’s remarks appear to rebut Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who had said on Nov 9 – a day before the rally by polls reform group Bersih – that he is averse to being challenged.
Despite the premier’s vow to crack down on public rallies, that rally saw 40,000 people taking to the streets to support a demand for free and fair elections.
Two weeks later, about 30,000 supporters of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) also marched in Kuala Lumpur to highlight the alleged marginalisation of the community.
The size of the two rallies were the largest in a decade, since the reformasi era, but police responded with tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
Zaid also disagreed with the notion that ‘demonstrations are not the Malaysian way’ and described calls to use the Internal Security Act (ISA) against protesters to revoke their citizenship as “silly”.
“It’s wrong, it’s our way, that is how we got independence – through the streets. Can you imagine if the British had the same thinking those days, they would have put all the ‘Melayu Umno’ (Umno Malays) under the ISA,” he said to laughter from the floor.
Issues not solved
He said the government and police should learn, especially after 50 years of independence, to allow peaceful protests as this is part and parcel of life in a democratic country.
“The way that the government has managed these issues, to me, they could have done better. We (may) not demonstrate, (there may be) no protest, but that doesn’t mean you solve the problem or address the issues,” he pointed out.
He then cited the Bar Council’s decision yesterday to cancel its annual human rights day march on Sunday after it came under pressure over the issue of obtaining a police permit and the possibility of its action being branded an ‘anti-government rally’.
“I was part of the walk last year and the year before, we just walked around the garden, it’s good exercise but again, we couldn’t do that,” he lamented.
Although Zaid said he does not agree fully with Hindraf’s demands, he said the government has indeed failed to address such issues as the series of religion-related controversies involving converts, demolition of temples and the perceived Islamisation policy.
“You have exaggerations like ‘ethnic cleansing’ (being made) – they perhaps don’t know what they are talking about when they say this, but in terms of ethnicity and religious marginalisation, yes, they do feel that,” he argued.
He added that, if the Hindraf protest is viewed only as “ethnic-driven”, then the real causes will not be acknowledged.