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Friday, November 16, 2007

REHMAN RASHID: The great wet T-shirt contest

NST (16/11/2007): WE have to get one distinction clear. The issue arising from last Saturday's Bersih rally at Istana Negara was not electoral reform, but freedom of assembly.
Electoral reform is a non-issue in this case, because the Four Demands printed on the backs of all those yellow tee-shirts are readily enough addressed.

Indelible ink. Done.

Clean electoral rolls. Being done. (As part of the process, all registered voters should check their MyKad to see if they're still residing at their registered addresses.)

Free and fair access to media. Fair enough. (Though we'd need to discuss further the definitions of "free", "fair", "access" and "media".)
Abolition of postal vote. Potentially unfair; how about "free and fair postal vote"?

In any case, the avenues of recourse in these matters are not only open but waiting -- if only for the present administration to practise the sincere conciliation it advocates.

The basic premise of a public rally, however, is to involve as many people as want to be involved, and impact the rest. Several thousand joined in (the numbers, shall we say, are disputed) and uncounted tens of thousands more were impacted.

Mass-transit train stations were closed, while taxis and buses were immobilised in the huge traffic jams that coiled around the city like dead serpents in the rain. On the peripheries of the throng at Istana Negara, KLites stood still in stoic clusters, sheltering in the underpasses.

On the roads and highways, motorists waited, grateful for once for the rain, which at least kept their engines cool. As well as, perhaps, the heads of the protesters and the police.

It was, indeed, a well-conducted bit of rebellious anarchism. As is my wont, I had gone to where the party was not: Dataran Merdeka. A group of about 300 protesters had gathered there, held back on Lebuh Pasar Besar at the Loke Yew Building, just short of the square. They stood and chanted slogans for about 30 minutes, during which time most of them slipped off in the direction of Istana Negara.

A rear guard of a couple of dozen stayed on for another 30 minutes, then thanked the police line, apologising politely for having kept them standing in the rain. There was a brief chorus of "Hidup Polis! Thank You Polis!" -- what they were demanding was as much for the sake of the police as for all Malaysians, they declared -- and then they adjourned to the palace.

There was none of the violence of Bersih's previous rally, in Batu Buruk, Terengganu, two months before. No burning flags, no wild gunplay in the teeth of gang-mauling mobs.

After the protesters' "memorandum" was handed over to a palace official (the Agong being at the time back home in Terengganu) the rally dispersed, leaving not even litter in its wake.

With all this admirable restraint, it's understandable that the rally organisers should blame the disruptions of that Saturday afternoon on the police. Understandable, but not acceptable.

Having declared it an illegal assembly, the police were bound by law, first of all, to prevent it. Hence, the roadblocks that jammed everything in a five-kilometre radius of the palace. They were not entirely to identify potential rally-goers (although five coachloads of Pas supporters were filtered out on their way into town) but, much more simply, to stop everyone equally.

Secondly: Maintain public order. I got to Masjid Jamek half-an-hour after the water cannon and tear gas, and so cannot tell you whether the mood of the protesters had warranted it. The police said yes, the protesters said no; you had to be there.

Other than that, protesters, police and bystanders alike maintained their discipline. The protesters had their moment, their message was delivered, and the disruptions of that afternoon were due to only one thing: the illegality of public assembly without permit in this country.

The Right to Assembly is included in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hence, it is also contained in Article 10 of our Federal Constitution. It is on this basis that the event's organisers and advocates contend that the rally was not illegal.

But what they were really up against were the provisions inserted into the Constitution as a caution against mass rallies turning into mass murder.

Perhaps the 47 years since the Emergency and 38 years since the May 13 riots are sufficient to prove that Malaysians can be trusted now to assemble without let or hindrance; that the police should be expected to perform only traffic management, not crowd control.

Had that been the point of it, Saturday's rally might have helped prove that point. Breaking the law to change the law may be justified if "the law is an ass, an idiot", as Dickens' Mr Bumble fatuously remarked in Oliver Twist. But changing the system to change the law is oxymoronic.

You might as well throw the baby out with the bathwater, cut off your nose to spite your face and burn your mosquito net to foil a mosquito. Whatever else you achieve, you'd look a right berk.

In language lawyers understand, here is a motto all are welcome to cut out and keep: Respice finem (res-PEE-kay fin-EM). Keep the end in view.

The value of keeping the end in view

ALSO to be noted was the role of the political opposition at last Saturday's rally. Leaders of PKR, Pas and the DAP were at the head of the phalanx in front of the palace gates, but their presence seemed practically ceremonial.

The protesters' memorandum on electoral reform was passed up from the ranks to the palace officials receiving it, with the party chieftains bestowing their blessings upon it in transit. But it wasn't their show. Party politics merely went along for the ride, expressing moral support for a cause from which they could also abdicate responsibility.

These leaders did not lead, they followed. In relegating themselves to a coalition of NGOs on an agenda of reform, our honourable parliamentary opposition handily reformed themselves out of the picture.

Which might explain why Pas president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang immediately threatened another rally back on his home turf in Batu Buruk, Terengganu. Perhaps stung by his relegation to hanger-on last Saturday, what with his party having done so much for the two Bersih rallies, Hadi seemed bent on reclaiming ownership of the issue.

(His apparent desire to make a Waterloo or Valley Forge of Batu Buruk shows that Hadi either lacks irony or is richly endowed with it -- the place couldn't be more appropriately named.)

One understands his frustration. The rally at Istana Negara was a spaghetti bowl of causes. Bersih comprised 67 NGOs, plus the political opposition. Not much could define a single cause that could rope together advocates of everything from theocracy to gay rights. Given how far from the centre all extremes fall in this country, "electoral reform" was just about the only thing that fit the bill.

What really united the protesters was their unhappiness with the Establishment. "It's not about changing individuals any more," said a friend I met watching the rally. "It's about changing the system."

I disagreed. I believed humanity constructs its institutions on our highest aspirations expressly in order to protect us from our basest natures. The system was neutral. What mattered was how it was operated and for what purpose -- not even by whom.

In that sense, though, my friend was right: it wasn't about changing individuals. The record is replete with instances of individuals, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, being subsumed by the system and rendered helpless before its bidding, regardless of their own will or intentions.

The system can be a corral of sacred cows, hobbled by myth and convention. The system can demand compliance and obeisance from even its most radical or idealistic components, writing the script and prescribing the rituals they defy at the peril of their prospects.

As such, the idea of simple human decency redeeming the loss of faith in our judiciary, civil service, legislature, police force and electoral process is, well, quaint. The honest judge or good cop is an anathema to the reformist impulse. "The police are a hundred per cent corrupt," said my friend, flat out.

That seemed unfair. Former inspector-general of police Tun Hanif Omar had only said 40 per cent. But if witnessing corruption turns a witness into an accomplice, then my friend could be right. The other 60 per cent would have to be held guilty of complicity, and corrupt by association.

I could sympathise, therefore, with his insistence on "changing the system". That's where he and the rally made perfect sense: Why respect a system you want to change? So my only question to him was: Change to what?

What do these protesters want to see arise from the ashes of what they deplore? A republic? An Islamic state? A confederated monarchy of hereditary rulers? Or would an alternative government comprising the present opposition and its civil-society sponsors suffice? If so, say so. This needs to be much more clearly articulated than in simple sloganeering for justice, integrity, transparency and changing the system.

History has posted a health warning on the intoxicating elixir of "People Power". When a revolution fuelled on this juice succeeds, the ensuing realities are never as righteously thrilling. People Power is a heady rush but, as with all addictive substances, it's a fix with a crushingly depressive comedown, curable only by another hit.

Thus has it been with the Philippines, 21 years and four chief executives since the Marcoses were hounded out of Malacanang and dazed pedestrians wandered around the presidential palace pilfering towels and Imelda's left-over shoes.

This is not to disparage our neighbour. The Philippines today boasts a ferocious democracy, crusading media and a passionate civil society, and remains a sovereign member in good standing of the global community of nations and a valued contributor to their workforces.

But is that what our reformists want? If so, no one's saying so. "Clean Elections", "Judicial Reform" or "Burn Baby Burn" all lack the specificity that would help the rest of us know exactly what they're selling. What exactly do they see as a better future for all? Where would they take us? What's the end they have in view?

Respice finem.


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