More than 50,000 Malay Muslims gathered at the Malaysian capital's Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) yesterday afternoon in a celebratory gathering-turned-political rally after the government bowed to their earlier demands not to ratify a United Nations anti-discrimination charter.
Although organised by Malay-Muslim civil society groups, the rally was spearheaded by the two largest Malay opposition parties, Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), whose top leaders were the main speakers on a mobile stage set up in front of the historic square.
Even former premier Najib Razak was seated among them, after earlier riding the light rail transit with his wife Rosmah Mansor to the rally venue.
"When the two biggest Malay parties are united, Umno and PAS cooperating, we can do anything. The 15th general election, we will take back Putrajaya," said Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan, referring to the next general election. "The important thing is to find the right formula. People don't respect or care about our dignity. They insult our religion because we have lost power. For us to rise again, we must regain power."
His PAS counterpart Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man warned that if the government "wavers again (on Malay and Islamic issues), the people are ready to gather in Putrajaya to topple PH (Pakatan Harapan)".
Having first proposed it as a mass protest against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd), organisers went ahead with the demonstration, calling it a thanksgiving rally, after the PH government backtracked in November from ratifying the agreement.
Malaysia and Brunei are the only two countries out of the 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation that are not party to convention.
Mr Abdullah Zaik, head of Muslim group ISMA, said: "Our issue is not Icerd, but an evil liberal democratic agenda which sidelines anything religious. This is the real threat. The PH government today has a liberal democratic agenda. It is dominated by non-Muslims."
Despite PH coming to power in May burnishing reformist credentials, racial issues continue to loom large, with segments of the Malay community voicing fears that the charter would erode privileges granted under a decades-old affirmative action policy and their special rights under the Constitution.
Roads leading to the iconic square had been closed ahead of the rally, as tens of thousands from across Malaysia came dressed in white T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Protest against Icerd", and chanting "Malays rise!" and "Long live Islam".
Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, whose party has the largest bloc of Muslim MPs in Parliament, warned that "if Islam is disturbed, if Malays are disturbed, if our rights are disturbed, we will rise up and show we are united".
Although people were given permission to assemble between 2pm and 6pm, the rally ended an hour early as rain began to fall while PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang was justifying the special position of Islam, Malays and other aboriginal people in Malaysia as part of the nation's unwritten "social contract".
"The social contract is better than Icerd and better than following Western culture, which respects animals more than humans," he said, after receiving the loudest cheers of the afternoon.
Kuala Lumpur city police later said the total attendance was 55,000. The crowds dispersed peacefully.
In the morning, a group of about 300 members of Pertahan, a Malay martial arts (silat) group, gathered at the Federal Territories Mosque to march to the nearby National Palace and hand over a memorandum to the King.
They recited praises to Prophet Muhammad as they made the 2km journey before handing the memo to palace officials.
Malaysia's Human Rights Commission, or Suhakam, had also planned to hold a gathering attended by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Petaling Jaya yesterday to mark Human Rights Day. But the commission said it had been asked by the police to postpone the event to today due to "security risks... that border on national security".
Tun Dr Mahathir said yesterday that he will not be attending the Suhakam gathering as the commission supports ratifying Icerd.