KUALA LUMPUR - Thousands of protesters march down the Kuala Lumpur city centre on Friday in a rally against the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in Malaysia, with opposition leaders saying that the tax would widen the income gap and calling for it to be abolished.
The crowd dispersed without major incident in the early evening, but The Star reported late on Friday that 59 protesters had been arrested as the rally was drawing to a close.
Police also reportedly summoned opposition leaders, including Democratic Action Party lawmaker Anthony Loke, and social activists who led the rally to turn themselves in at the Dang Wangi police headquarters by Friday night.
Lawyers for Liberty legal coordinator Michelle Yesudas was quoted by The Star as saying rally leaders were called in for investigation under Section 143 of the Penal Code for unlawful assembly.
The Straits Times understands that the rally organisers had obtained a permit to assemble only at Padang Merbok, but the rally had continued until the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC).
Early on Friday, the protesters - who included members of opposition parties and non-governmental organisations, as well as parents and their children - had gathered at five meeting points including Maybank's headquarters and the Sogo shopping complex.
Many of them wore red T-shirts with the words “Bantah GST” (Reject GST) and carried banners with slogans like “Anti-GST parade: This is not a protest, it is a process” and "We fight for a better Malaysia".
“I brought my son because I wanted him to feel responsible for the country. He is the future,” said a protester who gave her name as Asmawati. She was holding the hand of a boy, 10-year-old Akmal.
They later marched to Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square but the area was sealed off and guarded by a heavy presence of the police. Less two kilometers away from the square, the Federal Reserve Unit was on standby with seven trucks parked near the police headquarters in Bukit Aman.
The protestors then decided to make the 8km march to the the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) led by a pickup truck carrying Mohamad Sabu, deputy president of the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
The sound of vuvuzelas blared on the streets of the capital as protesters marched while passing cars honked in show of support. Some drivers even rolled down their car windows to give high fives to those marching. The protestors also brought firecrackers and every few kilometers an explosion could be heard and this fired up the crowd even further.
“I am marching so that you don’t have to march! This is for you,” said an eldery woman to the passing cars.
Another man shouted at onlookers who taking photos, “Come down here! What are you doing? Stop taking photos and join us!”
Leaders from PAS and two other opposition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP), addressed the crowd in front of the Petronas Twin Towers, calling for the GST to be abolished, The Star reported.
Among them was PKR secretary-general Rafizi Ramli, who said the 6 per cent tax would widen the income gap.
"If the tax continues to be imposed on our people including the disabled, the poor and on pensioners, believe us, the people will rise and Umno - Barisan Nasional will fall," said Rafizi according to The Star.
DAP MP Anthony Loke said the large turnout for the protest sent a "strong message" to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and the government to abolish the GST, which he said "affects all Malaysians regardless of race".
PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu was quoted by The Star as saying GST affected everybody, from grandmothers to women who had to buy sanitary pads every month.
"We are against the tax because there have been too many discrepancies and corruption in the system," he said.
The leaders called the crowd to disperse at 5pm.
The Malaysian government introduced the 6-per-cent GST on April 1, saying part of it would be channelled back to the poor through increased cash handouts.
The GST, implemented after a nearly two-decade delay, is the lowest among Asean countries that have GST.
It is aimed at making taxes fairer and more transparent, given that only an estimated 1.7 million Malaysians out of a workforce of 12 million pay income tax.
Finance Ministry figures show that in 2012, only about 2.2 million salaried workers out of more than 13 million and only 15.6 per cent of more than one million registered firms paid taxes.
A few incidents marked Friday's protest march. A scuffle almost broke out between the protesters and a mysterious group of people dressed in black t-shirts and wearing face masks at Dataran Merdeka.
The latter waved a black and red flag before setting off flares and fireworks, The Star reported. They appeared to be provoking the protesters.
Separately, a man in his 40s collapsed during the march, apparently due to an epilepsy attack. He was rushed to the Kuala Lumpur Hospital for treatment.