KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 18 — The poor turnout at the “Save Malaysia” rally on Saturday has raised questions about the timing and the message the organisers of the protest had intended to send out, according to political analysts.
The observers said the lack of top leaders leading the demo was also a factor as the organisers battled to compete with other events held in Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Day. The rally, which took place at the Kampung Baru Jamek Mosque on Saturday, aimed to protest perceived political interference in the corruption trial of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi but failed to gain significant momentum or support.
Many were surprised by the lacklustre turnout, given that the event was organised by an umbrella group of Malay Muslims with the backing of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. It coincided with the 60th Malaysia Day — a day meant to commemorate the country’s founding in 1963. The organisers had intended to attract a large gathering, despite lacking permission from the police.
Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research (NASR), expressed the view that the rally’s slogan and theme failed to resonate with Malaysians.
“One reason for the poor turnout is that despite the ‘Reformati’ theme, which sounds very attractive to many, the prime minister had nothing to do with court decisions, and the reasons were entirely the attorney general’s.”
He also noted that the choice of having the protest on Malaysia Day might have deterred some from participating, as it’s a day meant for celebration.
“Another reason could be it’s Malaysia Day and most Malaysians would feel remiss if they joined the protest perhaps out of fear of being disrespectful on a day they are meant to celebrate Malaysia. In the end, if they wanted to protest Zahid’s DNAA (discharge not amounting to acquittal) it turned out to be the wrong strategy and ultimately was the fatal blow in their plan,” he said.
A coalition of Malay Muslim organisations, including Ummah, Gabungan Mahasiswa Islam Se-Malaysia, and Perkasa, came together to organise the rally under the banner of the Save Malaysia Movement. The movement had reportedly garnered support from PN parties like PAS, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, and Gerakan, with Parti Pejuang Tanahair later announcing its participation.
PN Youth chief Ahmad Fadhli Shaari emphasised that the rally aimed to protest the DNAA granted to Zahid, who faced 47 charges of misappropriating RM31 million from the charitable organisation he founded, Yayasan Akalbudi. Fadhli Shaari argued that Zahid’s DNAA had disillusioned Malaysians, necessitating the rally to “Save Malaysia”.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, noted that PAS, a dominant party in PN, had demonstrated mobilisation capability in the past. He concurred that, compared to previous rallies like those concerning the 1MDB scandal, there appeared to be political and scandal fatigue in the current political climate, discouraging people from attending rallies.
Ei Sun identified two factors contributing to the low turnout, conflicting messages about the rally and improved tactics by authorities to counter such events.
“Perhaps not as much as say 1MDB, as there is not only political fatigue but scandal fatigue as well nowadays.”
Associate professor at the School of Social Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia Azmil Tayeb said PAS had the ability to mobilise tens of thousands of supporters like it did in 2018 for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) where almost half a million people attended and the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) (Amendment) Act to increase the criminal powers of Shariah Courts.
The Act is known by its number 355, and the proposal for the amendment is commonly known by the Malay initials for Rang Undang-undang, as RUU355.
“Halfhearted efforts by PN to mobilise its supporters, political fatigue in general and people not galvanised enough to go to streets because of this one issue,” Azmil told Malay Mail this were some of the reasons for the poor turnout.
“I don’t think the PN lacks the ability to mobilise. We know that PAS can easily mobilise tens of thousands of its supporters like the RUU355 and anti-ICERD rallies. Seems like PH supporters who are more vocal in criticising Zahid’s DNAA because they see it as a betrayal of the promised reforms.
“PN only cares about exploiting issues that can potentially destabilise the government. Zahid’s DNAA is one of the issues,” he told Malay Mail.
Muhamad Azwan Abd Rahman, a research fellow at the Institute of Malaysian & International Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, highlighted a lack of coordination and competition with other events as key reasons for the rally’s poor showing.
He said the public was gradually moving towards unity and appreciating its values of togetherness instead of wanting to prolong any political turmoil.
“The coordination and action between the PN leaders and the masses was not structured. Then they had to compete with the Keretapi Sarong event around Dataran Merdeka in conjunction with Malaysia Day which stole people’s attention since it was around the same radius as the rally.
“This also shows that the public are gradually moving towards unity and appreciating its values of togetherness instead of wanting to prolong any political turmoil. Apart from this DNAA issue being one for the courts and not the government, it’s ironic that PN are protesting the DNAA when their top leaderships have also had DNAA charges against them. Also when only a handful of PN leaders join in with the masses it will be difficult to gather momentum.
“Hence the rally will had no political return nor value for PN compared to how Bersih rallies benefited the opposition in the past,” he added.
The police will be calling up 20 people who gave speeches during the rally to take down their statements today at the Dang Wangi police station.
Police top brass including its Inspector-General Tan Sri Razarudin Husain, Kuala Lumpur police chief Datuk Allaudeen Abdul Majid, Bukit Aman Criminal Investigation Department director Datuk Seri Mohd Shuhaily Mohd Zain, and Kelantan police chief Datuk Muhamad Zaki Harun had all warned the public against participating in the planned rally.
Razarudin said the rally is not the way forward to save Malaysia as its sovereignty is not being threatened, adding that the gathering could disrupt activities on a public holiday and cause public disorder and disharmony. The police top brass have said stern action will be taken against the organisers and participants if the rally proceeds.