Penang backs down on 'Bersih' theme

Opposition-run state will use federal govt's national day theme for celebrations

Malaysian national flags adorning a shopping mall in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, ahead of the country's Independence Day celebrations on Aug 31.
Malaysian national flags adorning a shopping mall in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, ahead of the country's Independence Day celebrations on Aug 31.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A controversy surrounding Independence Day celebrations in opposition-ruled Penang appeared to be over yesterday after the state government backed down over the use of the word "Bersih" in its theme for the celebrations.

Penang's Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said the state would use the federal government's sanctioned "Sehati Sejiwa" (One Heart, One Soul) instead of its own "Bersih, Cekap dan Amanah" (Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy).

"The move by the armed forces to give the celebrations a miss has caused the state government to rethink its decision to use a different theme," he said in a statement yesterday.

He said Penang Governor Abdul Rahman Abbas deserved to receive the royal salute by the armed forces during the parade. "We feel it is unacceptable as the Governor is a symbol of our Constitution and he must be given the royal salute during the Merdeka parade."

On Sunday, the Malaysian Armed Forces (ATM) said in a statement that it would not participate in any Penang state-level national day celebration because the state's theme was not in line with the spirit of the 2015 national day celebration.

"The theme decided by the 2015 National Day Celebration Central Committee, namely "Sehati Sejiwa", must be supported and observed by all as in past years and ATM is no exception," the statement said.

Yesterday, Mr Lim blamed Umno politicians for politicising the issue, saying that the state had been using its own theme for national day celebrations without any issues since 2010. "Their attitudes are immature and an abuse of power as a means to deny us our right to celebrate the independence of our country together."

Last week, Penang state education director Osman Hussain issued a directive to Penang schools not to join in the celebrations without approval from the Education Ministry. Yesterday, the Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Bakar, said his men would participate in the state's national day parade only if it reverted to Putrajaya's theme.

"As long as Penang wants to use its own theme, the police will not take part in its 2015 national day celebrations," he told Bernama newswire yesterday.

The word "Bersih" has become highly sensitive as it is also the name of an electoral reforms group which plans to organise an overnight rally this weekend to protest against what it called Prime Minister Najib Razak's attempt to muzzle criticism about his administration and to stifle investigations into claims that he had received state funds in his personal accounts.

Analysts were divided about the significance of the controversy.

Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs chief executive officer Wan Saiful Wan Jan, in a Facebook posting, asked if the country was truly independent if Malaysians were not allowed to freely celebrate the national day.

"How merdeka (independent) are we when we have a supreme master politician telling us what we can and cannot do? What merdeka (independence) are we celebrating?"

Universiti Utara Malaysia political analyst Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani felt differently even though, he said, the issue reflected the fragile relationship between the federal government and the state.

"No, this does not mean that we are not merdeka. We can still celebrate merdeka.

"This is a matter of federalism and the choice of theme for the national day is not a major issue. I think this was a silly issue to begin with," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'Penang backs down on 'Bersih' theme'. Subscribe