NAJIB'S PROMISE: Yesterday's gathering at Stadium Merdeka indicates improved civil liberties
Azmi Anshar, NST
THEY came, they screamed, they mouthed, they preened, all in good spirits and in no worse shape than when they first arrived at the Stadium Merdeka since mid-morning yesterday for the hyped-up "Perhimpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat", where only a miniscule fraction of the touted one million crowd turned up.
Large peaceful assemblies previously untenable are, to the surprise of Pakatan Rakyat diehards, possible but they would rather lose their manhood than admit that yesterday's gathering was somewhat prim, proper and... dull.
So what if it was tedious, not to the Malay-dominated Pakatan faithful of course, but to other ordinary Malaysians making their way against the congested city streets commandeered by protesters. But by convoking the big crowd to the historical venue of national independence, Pakatan unwittingly magnified Datuk Seri Najib Razak's fulfilled promise for improved civil liberties.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, bless him, was still the centre of attention in this humdrum affair -- by his high standards of instigation.
There was no sleight of hands instructing supplicants to break police barriers, no overturned vehicles carjacked by humans resembling raging monkeys, no bloody altercations with police and, startlingly, no drama queen antics of feigned injuries. Not very Anwarish.
Instead, the assembly was addled with political chinwag purposely designed to bedevil government leaders, especially the prime minister, and selected government-linked companies where the opposition failed to rattle into corporate submission.
What the crowd had to endure was a series of chest-thumping but debunked allegations by Pakatan leaders eager to downplay scurrilous events of past weeks that made them look like chumps: Pas and its paradoxically confusing edicts on the demand to apply "Allah" in the ecclesiastical context, DAP and its bizarre party elections where a loser can be a winner after 19 days of mulling and PKR and, well, whatever latest scandal roiling around Anwar.
Moreover, the destructive elements in Pakatan couldn't muster a plausible pretense to provoke a fight with the police because the security people -- leery of the ways of certain anarchists and their propensity to rustle up street chaos on the call of a not-so-subtle hand signal -- kept a polite distance and simply made sure traffic flowed smoothly.
So subtle was the police presence that they didn't even need to construct a protective shield for mainstream media reporters previously the brunt of vicious gangs. Which can only mean that the Peaceful Assembly Act envisioned by the government when it was enacted last year is now a resounding success: implementable once politicians organising the event follow the rules permitting their right to free expression but respect the authorities' right to fix the location for sensible crowd control.
Otherwise, Pakatan leaders could have easily mobilised their people to congregate at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil (recommended by police for bigger crowd accommodation and better public transport) or the PKR-controlled Shah Alam Stadium but the choice of the two venues wouldn't be as "cool and photogenic" as Stadium Merdeka.
Pakatan apologists will continue to contest the fact that Malaysia has advanced the ideal that free association and assembly is steadily becoming the norm.
That's the rub: the more "civilised and dull" assemblies they summon in the event Anwar feels threatened by fresh scandals, the better cemented are Malaysians' civil liberties. And that can't be happening.
One fine day, Anwar and his ilk will realise that the mass public assemblies that served him artfully in the past, from his dodgy 1974 Baling demonstrations over farmers' hunger that didn't exist to his ugly street riots in 1998 after he was fired as deputy prime minister, will actually be banal and quaint, as it was yesterday.
But that doesn't mean yesterday's serenity will repeat: with general election just a quarter away, Anwar will be desperate to figure out a way to incite an Arab Spring moment using typically fishy anti-government allegations under the intense glare of western media astigmatism. Just watch.