About 150,000 people converged on Merdeka Stadium, Kuala Lumpur, for an opposition-called People's Uprising rally (Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat) on January 12.
This huge but peaceful mobilisation was an implicit warning to the Barisan Nasional (BN) government not to “steal” the coming general elections through the intimidation, corruption, electoral registration fraud and gerrymanders that have been used to hang on to power since formal independence from British colonial rule in 1957.
A banner at the packed stadium read: "Be warned, if you cheat, we will win the election through people's power.”
Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) secretary general S. Arutchelvan told Green Left Weekly that the huge turnout at short notice showed there is a “powerful mood for change and for a change of government” in Malaysia.
“The political mood on the day was vibrant. The overwhelming sentiment in the crowd was 'anything but UMNO' [the main party in the BN ruling coalition] or 'ABU' for short. But this mood is for more than a change of government, it is a mood for people's power.
“The crowd was huge but smaller than the April 28, 2012 BERSIH 3 rally for free and fair elections, estimated to have been around 200,000. However, this time there were more Malay than Chinese Malaysians. Malay youth made up about 80% of the crowd. This is important because the government has long relied on manipulating the Malay voters against other ethnic minorities.”
During the April 28 protest, police attacked BERSIH protesters with tear gas and baton charges and arrested 512 people. On January 12, Arutchelvan said police were better behaved.
“The police allowed the rally to carry on peacefully and this has created an important new precedent that rallies can be peaceful as long as the police stay out of it.
“The government had warned civil servants and students not to participate but nobody took these seriously.
“After the rally, the government tried to take some credit by saying the success of the rally was proof of the government's democratic reforms.”
But reforms the government has carried out under the democracy movement's pressure have still been minimal. The government plans to use indelible ink to deter multiple voting and says that more Malaysians overseas will be allowed to vote. Postal voting was previously limited to military personnel, civil servants, and full-time students studying abroad and their spouses.
However, many other gross irregularities remain. Apart from a very dubious electoral roll and gerrymanders, the government has many ways to buy votes. MPs in the ruling coalition are given a “constituency allowance” of 1 million Malaysian ringgit (A$315,464).
PSM federal MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj (popularly known as “Kumar”) tried to challenge this discriminatory practice in the courts. He was unsuccessful, but he addressed the January 12 rally.
“We gather here because we love our country. We come together to create a just society. We gather to build a clean and transparent administration with no cronyism and corruption.
“We gather to protest against a political system that has often used the race card to divide the public so that the richest 1% can grab a large part of the wealth of this country.”
Arutchelvan said that Kumar's was the rally speech that was most quoted in the media.
Solidarity rallies took place in several countries around the world January 12, including in Sydney and Melbourne.