The huge turnout at Stadium Merdeka sends a stark message to the BN government that its days are numbered.
Why did the government withhold its “firepower” when thousands of people gathered at Stadium Merdeka in a people’s uprising rally (Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat)? In all the Bersih rallies, the government came down hard on the participants. It used brute force to crush a popular movement. In the aftermath of the Bersih 3.0 protest, it tacitly supported the senseless and obscene attacks on a prominent Bersih leader. When it came to tackling a people’s uprising, it suddenly became all soft and sweet.
It appears that the Barisan Nasional government has learnt its lessons from the Bersih street protests. It does not want to receive anymore bad publicity. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak had had enough of mud thrown at his face. He did make some concessions and managed to repair his tattered image with his so-called reforms. He tried to endear himself to the people, but the gulf is too wide to be bridged. The mistrust continues to deepen.
With the general election on his doorsteps, Najib and his government cannot afford to make another costly slip. When Pakatan Rakyat unveiled its plan for a people’s uprising rally, it presented Najib with one last opportunity to redeem himself. There were two choices on his table: use state power to once again pulverise the opposition or accede to the demands of his opponents. Najib chose the latter course and saved the day. Who won? Najib or Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim? Each can use the event to score brownie points with the voters.
Najib can trumpet to the country that his government is truly committed to freedom of assembly and democracy. The people have nothing to fear if the BN government is elected again. Anwar can shout from the mountain top that Pakatan has displayed its political prowess and maturity and is a force to be reckoned with. The people have an alternative government ready to take over and guide the country to a brighter future. The two political gladiators are circling around each other, trying to find the weak spots in their respective armour to go in for the kill.
The contest is also a mind game. Anwar was probably expecting Najib to react harshly on Pakatan’s rally. At one point it appeared that a bloody showdown was imminent when the police wanted the gathering to be held at the national stadium. The opposition refused to budge. Najib probably read Anwar’s mind and decided to change course abruptly. To everyone’s surprise, police brutality was replaced with police courtesy. Najib chose not to make Anwar a martyr to the cause of freedom.
The Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat went on smoothly and all came out unscathed. This was largely a political rally which attracted a bigger crowd than Bersih’s gatherings. A question arises: was the government afraid to crack the whip on a resurgent Pakatan? Najib was bold and brash in his dealings with Bersih. He has no respect for a non-governmental organisation which has no political clout but only carries the dreams and hopes of Malaysians for a better life. His government bullied the NGO and bashed its supporters who are just ordinary citizens. But Bersih did not perish. It grew stronger and represents a credible threat to the BN dinosaur.
Now the threat to BN’s political survival is real. Pakatan and all civil groups fighting for the same causes are presenting a united front to the BN army. The “uprising” shows that a huge majority of the Malays who came to Stadium Merdeka without any monetary incentives have come to resent Umno and are keen to see the old party and its effete BN allies leave the national stage. BN may stage its own rally to win back support, but any public event organised or sponsored by BN is mere propaganda bereft of purpose or force.
Najib’s generous gesture is tinged with suspicion. He allowed a mammoth Pakatan rally to proceed not because he was kind-hearted or a born again democrat or a freedom lover. One suspects he grudgingly gave the green light to save his political hide. His political kindness is based on political expediency: “I am kind to you. Give me your votes.” Once he is back in power, he is likely to hound his opponents with vengeance. Then any rally mounted by his defeated rivals will be beaten to a pulp.
The voters will have to decide whether the BN government had a sincere change of heart in permitting the people to openly express their thoughts and feelings. Najib needs a political lifeline, and any gesture of friendliness towards the people is one point scored for his BN team. But the “uprising” at Stadium Merdeka is a grim reminder to Najib that his time is fast coming to an inglorious end. The people “rose” because they are acutely aware that many things are not going right with Malaysia under Najib’s watch. The size of the crowd is a mirror of the strength of the opposition and the depth of public resentment.