Mahathir faces first big rally as thousands meet in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad faced his biggest rally since taking power in May, as opposition parties led thousands of ethnic Malays in Kuala Lumpur to protest a United Nations convention against racial discrimination.

The capital was flooded with protesters dressed in white, who were bused in from around the country to assemble on Saturday afternoon. Police estimate about 55,000 people had turned up, according to Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Mazlan Lazim. He added that the rally proceeded smoothly without any untoward incident.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which lost its six-decade hold on power in the May general election, had vowed to bring 200,000 supporters, and said co-organizer PAS, an Islamist party, would mobilize an additional 300,000.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) became a hot-button issue last month. Malay-based opposition parties and groups voiced fears that it would threaten Islam’s position as the official religion and erode the special privileges of the Malays, which make up the biggest ethnic community in Malaysia.

“The anti-ICERD rally is meant to be a show of strength by the country’s two largest Malay political parties,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst with BowerGroupAsia risk consultancy, referring to PAS and UMNO. “It will be a numbers game and the crowd size will reflect the strength of the UMNO-PAS partnership.”

Mounting backlash

About 30 percent of Malay voters supported the ruling Pakatan Harapan in the general election, according to a survey by pollster Merdeka Center in June, underscoring the shaky support Mahathir has from the country’s biggest ethnic group. Rumbles of concern over threats to the Malay-Muslim identity and religion have increased since the poll, Serina Rahman, a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in September.

Leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim said last month concerns over ICERD were “real” and its ratification should be postponed. “They are worried that the principles in our constitution are not accepted and threatened at the international level,” he said on November 18, even as he maintained he was anti-discrimination.

When Malaysia reversed its decision to ratify ICERD on November  23 after mounting backlash, organizers of the rally shifted gears. The assembly, initially meant to pressure the government not to ratify the convention, would go on, its organizers said, with the new aim of “thanking” the government for aborting ICERD.

Government opposed

The government was not supportive of the gathering. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the rally was irrelevant, Anwar said it was inappropriate and People’s Justice Party MP Fahmi Fadzil said the organizers should instead debate the matter in parliament.

Singapore on Friday issued an advisory to defer all non-essential travel to Kuala Lumpur and warned of possible skirmishes.

A second gathering on human rights that was scheduled to take place on Saturday was postponed until Sunday over security concerns, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Chairman Razali Ismail said in a statement.