The beautiful carnival-like atmosphere in Sabah, where cooperation between police and protesters was a highlight.
When I made my way to the city on the morning of 28 April 2012, I must admit that I had my moments of reservation. I’d seen pictures of the 1986 Sabah riot where five people had perished, including a Filipino carpenter on work permit who tried to attack a police officer with a machete. These images flashed in my mind.
The event was slated to start at two in the afternoon. However, after reading a comment made by the President of the Malay Chambers of Commerce Malaysia (Sabah), Datuk Awg Buatamam Hj Ag. Mahmun, who said that one of the reasons they objected to the rally was because it might cause traffic jams. He also said that it might create a sense of insecurity among visitors to the city, both foreigners and locals.
With this in mind, I decided to make an early start. I reached the area just a little over twelve o’clock, way too early! There was no traffic jam; well, at least none which was exceptionally worse than on normal days. I proceeded to the Atkinson Clock Tower, which has free parking available. As I drove up the hill towards the tower adjacent to the rally venue, i.e. Padang Merdeka, I noticed that there were many policemen stationed at its perimeters. I found out later that coincidentally, the City Hall in collaboration with law enforcement bodies was organizing its ‘Safe City’ programme at the Padang on that day, which was the reason why Bersih Sabah was declined the usage of the venue. Hence, the police presence was not necessarily for Bersih Sabah per se.
At about 1:30 in the afternoon, Bersih supporters started streaming in to Padang Merdeka. First a pair, then a small group and later a larger group.
For lack of better terms, I could only describe the whole situation as ‘tongue in cheek’. Why? I do not think it was a coincidence that the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) decided to do their drill around the same time as Bersih was supposed to start, which was at two in the afternoon. By the time the Bersih supporters arrived at the Padang, the FRU was already occupying it.
The comedic element of the situation was not lost on everyone there and I think most of us, including the law enforcers themselves, found it amusing. There we were – the FRU doing a demonstration on how they deal with riots and, on the other side of the Padang, a real sit-in protest was ongoing.
The situation also offered good-natured ribbing between the Bersih supporters and Sub-Inspector Samad Sumardi whose voice could be heard over the loud speakers. At one point, he demonstrated what commands he would give to rioters in an actual riot.
“Undur..! Undur..! Kalau tidak, kami akan bertindak!” he commanded. Bersih supporters responded with a resounding “Tidak!”
Further on in his demonstration, he likened folks who participate in illegal gatherings as ‘sampah masyarakat‘, to which Bersih supporters responded with a ‘boo’.
With all the ribbing going on, he took great pains not to offend Bersih supporters. Later on, he explained to his audience that the whole exercise was merely a demonstration and not a message to anyone present (he was obviously referring to the Bersih supporters). Those present among the Bersih crowds were political leaders from opposition parties and a few non-governmental organizations like Himpunan Hijau, Bela Tanah Rakyat (Tabah), Paco Trust, United Sabah Dusun Association (USDA) and Gabungan Mahasiswa Islam SeMalaysia (Gamis).
There were moments when the Bersih supporters tried to breach the boundary and inch their way further to the Padang.
According to a reliable source, the Sabah Police Commissioner – Datuk Hamza Taib – had issued an explicit directive to his men that he did not want to receive a single complaint about police harassment and that there should not be any provocation from both sides.
At the end of the day, I think Bersih in Sabah was a win-win for everyone involved. Bersih got to air their demands and Sabah police had an image boost. I think most of us, if not everyone, left the Padang feeling confident in the level of professionalism of our Sabah police. It also showed the level of maturity Sabahans have when it comes to peaceful rallies. It ended at exactly four in the afternoon, as promised by the organizer. I observed that participants handed out plastic bags for the collection of litter.
Some reports claim that there were only about 500 participants. I think they were estimating those participants who were actually sitting. Many were standing and walking about, mingling among the crowd. There were definitely more than 2000 present, although a smaller group as compared to Bersih in West Malaysia. However, this can still be considered as a huge leap, because zero attended Bersih in Sabah in 2011.
Congratulations to everyone involved!
For more Bersih stories, click here.