Recently the Johor ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, said street protests are not the solution to rising living costs in Malaysia.
He was responding to an opposition politician who had urged the public to consider gathering in the streets of Kuala Lumpur to express their frustration.
“Have we not learned from the bloody street protests of the past? Have they forgotten the riots of 1969, also more recently, the Bersih riots?” Sultan Ibrahim said. “It never achieved anything, except chaos, destruction and a black mark on our nation’s history…
“Protesting on the streets is not the Malaysian way…. there will be no winners when this happens. There will only be losers, and who knows how long it will take for scars to heal.”
I agree street protests are not the immediate solution. Still, they are a legitimate way of expressing grievances and dissatisfaction, as provided in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.
As Bersih respectfully clarified, we must reflect on the history of our independence struggle that was born out of protests.
Holding a protest is a basic right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fundamental constitutive document of the UN, of which Malaysia is a member state. Article 20 of the declaration states that:
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(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association
As a UN Human Rights Council member for the 2022-2024 term, Malaysia must respect what it pledges regarding the right to expression and assembly.
Malaysia is not alone in denouncing violent mass demonstrations. But we should be open to peaceful protests or polite protests.
Over the past decade, protest movements have become a regular part of the political scene in Malaysia. They are a form of participation that allows people to actively voice their views and take a stand rather than just being passive observers.
But why do people protest? Why do Malaysians protest?
People have frequently taken part in mass protests for two key reasons: to influence policymakers and to help shape public opinion.
On the one hand, the protesters (especially if their numbers are significant) put pressure on the political authorities for recognition and to get their demands met.
On the other, they are also seeking public support and rallying the wider population to support their cause and struggle. Shifts in public opinion can help movements reach their goals by making decision-makers more responsive to their demands.
We need to change the narrative that the holding of protests is a negative phenomenon; this is a narrative promoted by many non-democratic and autocratic countries.
Protests are not about going against the authorities. Rather, they provide an avenue for people to champion a cause and to struggle based on certain principles. Indeed, people can be involved in demonstrations for many different reasons.
As for potential violence, this is where the police and the security forces come into play. Their role is to facilitate protests and to ensure the rallies are peaceful and non-violent.Khoo Ying Hooi
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
11 July 2022