In the past week, two judges delivered verdicts that proved to be a morale booster for the Malaysian rakyat.
First, the declaration by the Kuala Lumpur High Court on July 24 that Bersih was not an illegal organisation. Second. the High Court judgment which prevented Lynas Corporation from stopping the NGO, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL), from commenting upon the rare earths company.
Malaysians are wondering if the tide is finally turning. They wonder if the judges are sensing the mood of the nation and are beginning to perform to the standards expected of them, by acting with impartiality and complete independence of political interference.
The rakyat welcomes the decision by the two judges and hopes that reports, in the mainstream papers, will spread the news that the actions of Bersih and SMSL are in the public’s interest.
Undeniably, there is cautious optimism amongst some members of the public towards the High Court judgments.
Some argue that the verdicts of the judges are another tease. They maintain that judges have acted thus, to save their reputations, salvage the image of the judiciary and for Umno to promote the claim that the judiciary is fair and impartial. Will Umno later use the legal status of Bersih, as a means to crush it in the future?
The same response was recorded when Anwar was acquitted on Jan 13. At the time, many wondered whether his acquittal was because the government wanted the rakyat to believe that the judiciary was not tainted. Many feared that behind the scenes, plans were being hatched to implicate Anwar at some point in the future for other crimes.
The Sodomy II verdict produced a succession of ministers, including former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Information, Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yatim, declaring that the judiciary was “free”.
The same could not be said when Bersih was declared legal.
In early July, before the High Court judgement, Mahathir claimed that the purpose of the Bersih 2.0 rally on July 9 was to lay the groundwork for the opposition to repeat the 2008 election tsunami.
“Its objective is to tarnish the government’s name and the police, and with that the opposition parties will win.
“The purpose is political… precisely for PR (Pakatan Rakyat). It is not about whether the election is clean or not… that is secondary,” said the former PM.
He rubbished Bersih’s eight demands and accused the Bersih rally of being a means to attack the administration.
A few weeks later, on July 19, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak told a gathering of imams and mosque committee members in Serdang that they should avoid Bersih gatherings because its activities tarnished the country’s image and caused disunity among the races.
He claimed that those who joined Bersih were ‘mufsidun’, people bent on causing division of the races and between Muslims. He accused the Bersih 3.0 rally of causing “more harm than good”.
Then, a week later, Judge Rohana Yusof dealt Najib a severe blow when Bersih was made legal. In her 30-page judgment, she said that Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s declaration was “tainted with irrationality”.
“Hence, we are allowing the applicant’s application (for judicial review of the government’s declaration), with no order as to costs,” she added.
This verdict did not go down well with the rest of Najib’s administration.
Umno Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin claimed that the actions of those who took part in the Bersih rally were illegal. He cited instances of police roadblocks being breached during the Bersih 3.0 rally on April 28.
De facto law minister Nazri Aziz, whilst acknowledging the High Court’s decision, was adamant that the activities of the Bersih leaders were wrong.
“They must know the difference. The court only decided that they are not an unlawful society. But that does not mean that they did not break the law in the past,” he said.
Both Nazri and Khairy ignored reports of people being attacked by the police, journalists being beaten up and their equipment wrecked. Others were hounded for wearing yellow.
Joining in the government’s damage control exercise was Syed Hamid Albar who announced that the Home minister need not apologise for the government’s actions.
“What happened clearly showed that our judiciary is independent. The minister was exercising his power when he declared Bersih illegal,” said the former Home minister, who was once ridiculed for claiming that a Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng was detained under ISA “for her own safety”.
Despite Judge Rohana’s damning verdict against the government, the ruling coalition has tried to downplay the importance of Bersih, but it is the rakyat which has scored a moral victory. Bersih should seize the opportunity now that it is a legal entity.
The government’s latest catchphrase is “Janji Ditepati”. So far, the rakyat is disgusted that the Election Commission (EC) and the government have not fulfilled their promise with regard to cleaning up the electoral roll and acceding to the eight-point demands of Bersih.
Both the government and the EC should include Bersih as an independent election observer for GE-13, and that the EC accords Bersih full monitoring powers without any government restrictions.
Mariam Mokhtar is a FMT columnist