Sunday, August 17, 2008

Despite the protests, democracy wins the day

Aniza Damis : NST

OVER the past week, many illustrious people and journalists have condemned the demonstrations against the Bar Council forum on Aug 9.

But I think it was a sterling example of how wonderfully democratic we have become.Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the Bar Council's Walk for Justice, when the Malaysian Bar walked from the Palace of Justice to the Prime Minister's Office. Seeing the peaceful protest, I commented that the public and Royal Malaysia Police seemed well on the way to learning how to be democratic.Last week's demonstration, this time against the Bar Council, showed that Malaysia has been on a sharp learning curve: we have advanced so far that even a less-than-peaceful protest is acceptable.

Consider this. The Bar Council forum was not declared illegal; the content of the forum was not declared illegal; the forum was held at the Bar Council building, which is private premises.

About 500 people stood outside the building, blocking the street, shouting, protesting, and condemning. They also threatened to storm the building. Not one was arrested.Even as little as a year ago, any demonstrating group without a police permit hurling abuses at a legally-convened meeting, would have been ordered to disperse, then water-cannoned, tear-gassed and, if they remained adamant, arrested and escorted to police vehicles.

Instead, what happened was that the police functioned only as a buffer between the demonstrators and the forum organisers and participants. In fact, as the riot police shuffled in to control the swelling crowd, it seemed as if they were reluctant to even be there.This, to me, is proof that the authorities have come to accept demonstrations -- peaceful or otherwise -- as a right in our democratic society.

Demonstrators have also become more sophisticated. While protesters of early days used to spray-paint slogans on old bedsheets, this time, one group, the Muslim Consumer Organisation, came with a dozen large, high-quality, professionally manufactured banners that must have cost about RM500 each.

Even though inflation is driving some poor Malay families to consuming just instant noodles and fried eggs several days a week, the Muslim Consumer Organisation obviously understood that, if you want to protest, you can't do it in half-measures.

Meanwhile, inside the Bar Council's auditorium, the forum to discuss the problems faced by non-Muslim families when a family member converts to Islam was under way.A young Chinese woman spoke about how her father had converted to Islam to marry an Iranian. A few years after this, he died. And the Muslim faraid inheritance system did not recognise the non-Muslim wife as his wife, nor the non-Muslim children as his children. "Can you imagine, the house you've been living in for 30 years is declared not your house," the young woman sobbed.

Listening to all this, I thought it was quite right for government leaders and de facto opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to have called for the forum to be closed-door.Because then the discussion would only involve religious leaders, and we wouldn't have to listen to the sad stories of these sad families, and feel sad.

About an hour into the forum, the police came in, followed by a handful of protesters who wanted to enforce an early shutdown of the forum.

I don't know how it is with other cultures, but I was taught that when you want to enter someone's home, you have to first give the salam (greeting of good wishes) to the host, then wait to be invited in before stepping over the threshold.If you give the salam three times and no one answers, then you should go away peacefully.

Naturally, the gate-crashing came as a shock. But then, I remembered the virtue for which Malaysia is famous: tolerance of other cultures. Obviously, the culture I had been brought up in is but one of the many different cultures that co-exist harmoniously in Ma-laysia.

When Professor Mehrun Siraj, a law professor who has taught at least an entire generation of lawyers in several Malaysian universities (and is probably now teaching the children of her first students), stood in front of the hall and started to speak, a couple of protesters, including Peninsular Malay Students Federation vice-president Jais Abdul Kari, yelled at her at the top of their lungs, trying to shout her down.

I was upset by this. I was as angry as I would have been if they had been shouting at my own mother. But then, I realised that this must be this culture's way of showing respect to elders. So, I calmed down.

After the forum was declared officially ended, Jais shouted, "Everyone get out! Take only the stairs, so that we can see that all of you vacate this building. "We will not leave until you all get out!" and stood by the auditorium's main door, like a host who's trying to kick out rowdy party guests.

Some people might find this disturbing. But the beauty is it brought together people of different ideologies.For instance, two protesters, one from Pas, the other from Umno rather happily and proudly said, "See! Who said Pas and Umno can't work together!"Meanwhile, at the front of the auditorium, PKR member of parliament Zulkifli Nordin was telling Bar Council officers off: "Don't touch (on) Islam. Don't touch (on) Muslims."The fact that members from the Islamist Pas, ultra-Malay Umno and secularist multiracial PKR can come together, focused on a shared belief, instead of bickering over political differences, shows how mature and fluid politics has become in this country.

The greatest proof of democracy at work that day was this: Might is right.Unlike in other countries where Muslims are the minority and have to patiently engage with the non-Muslims and convince them Islam is a peaceful religion and our God is merciful and just, over here, the Muslim majority can just tell people to shut up.

Many people might be opposed to this, but I sincerely hope democracy will be allowed to flourish.Then I can quit my day job and go into the banner-making business.

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