News analysis

Planned pro-Malay 'red shirts' rally has no clear leader

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaking at the Umno Supreme Council meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week. With him are (from far left) Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin. Demonstrators at the Bersih
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaking at the Umno Supreme Council meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week. With him are (from left) Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin. PHOTO: NSTP
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaking at the Umno Supreme Council meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week. With him are (from far left) Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin. Demonstrators at the Bersih
Demonstrators at the Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur last month. The rally on Aug 29 and 30 drew tens of thousands of people clad in yellow, calling for Mr Najib's resignation.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The current big story in Malaysia is the pro-Malay "red shirts" rally planned for Wednesday in downtown Kuala Lumpur as a response to the Aug 29-30 Bersih rally which drew tens of thousands clad in yellow, calling for Prime Minister Najib Razak's resignation.

But while an Umno division chief and avowed Najib loyalist, who is the upcoming rally's de facto spokesman, claims that 300,000 people will turn up for the demonstration to support the embattled premier, no clear leader has so far stepped up to claim responsibility for organising it.

The National Silat Federation, or Pesaka, was confirmed as the official organiser only on Saturday, but the little-known martial arts organisation said the event - which has been in the news for the past two weeks - is open to all Malaysians who disagree with Bersih. Earlier, it was trumpeted as a rally for Malay unity.

The statement by Pesaka president Mohd Ali Mohd Rustam, Umno's former Malacca chief minister, was clearly aimed at defusing widespread concerns about the rally's racial overtones, especially with inflammatory remarks mostly posted online by "red-shirt supporters".

Tan Sri Mohd Ali even said on Saturday that red was not the official colour for the event, indicating that those taking part may come in any coloured shirt or garment and not just red or black - the colour of the silat movement. Mr Mohd Ali said those who were "racially angry" or out to create trouble were not welcome.

The lack of support from better-known pro-Malay groups such as Perkasa and Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, as well as a warning from influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad that a red shirt-yellow shirt rivalry could incite civil unrest, has dented the organisers' claims that the event is symbolic of Malay unity.

Many Malay critics of last month's Bersih rally have denounced it as part of an attempt by the Chinese to usurp political power. Mr Mohd Ali on Saturday claimed that Bersih - a coalition of 84 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) seeking electoral reforms - had insulted national leaders.

Independent pollster Merdeka Centre's Mr Ibrahim Suffian told The Straits Times that the top leadership of the ruling Umno party has been ambivalent towards the red shirts. On the one hand, Umno "did not want to be associated with a counter rally" tinged with racial overtones, but on the other, was still obliged to "tacitly support efforts to show 'Malay strength'".

One analyst said there was little downside for Datuk Seri Najib, who is Umno president, in the show of force against Bersih.

Senior fellow Oh Ei Sun from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies noted that "a big number will be a big plus for Najib, but a small number is no harm either, as in any case negative public perception doesn't seem to impact on the viability of the present administration".

Other well-known right-wing Malay bodies have also tried to distance themselves from the amorphous gathering dubbed the United Citizen's Gathering as well as the Malay Dignity Gathering.

The march is set to begin at noon on Wednesday near the popular shopping and tourist districts of Bukit Bintang and Jalan Petaling - both areas seen as symbols of Chinese economic power - and end at midnight at Padang Merbok, an open field between Merdeka Square and Parliament. Some traders are reportedly considering closing their shops on Wednesday.

But tensions are already running high in the city, with incendiary posters being put up at some places showing a Malay martial arts proponent beheading a Bersih supporter with the caption "be ready for a bloodbath". Those linked to the rally have denied responsibility for the posters. There have also been unfounded rumours, largely spread through social media, of red shirts gathering over the weekend.

"The rally is highly provocative and racially tinged, marching through the Bukit Bintang and Jalan Petaling areas, risking precisely the ethnic violence that Umno asserts that through the 'Barisan (Nasional) Way', it is uniquely able to prevent," Professor William Case from the City University of Hong Kong's Asian and International Studies Department told The Straits Times.

Mr Najib has insisted Umno is neither organising nor sponsoring the march, but links to the ruling party persist after a letter asking all divisions in Malacca to send at least 1,000 members each to support the rally, and another revealing a Sept 4 meeting of state-level representatives to plan for the protest surfaced.

Umno's Sungai Besar division chief Jamal Yunos has been the main protagonist, claiming that 30,000 members from 750 Malay NGOs are supporting the rally and that Umno divisions in Malacca and Selangor had been asked to mobilise for the gathering.

But the lack of support from better-known right-wing pro-Malay groups such as Perkasa and Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, as well as a warning from influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad, a harsh critic of Mr Najib, that a red shirt-yellow shirt rivalry could incite civil unrest, has dented the organisers' claims that Wednesday's planned gathering is symbolic of Malay unity.

In addition, Pesaka has recently been critical of Datuk Jamal, condemning a "self-defence" demonstration led by him prior to the Bersih protest.

"Silat is a peaceful sport and is practised by people who are able to control their anger and are very well disciplined, and not like what you saw," said Pesaka secretary-general Megat Zulkarnain Omardin Megat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis Planned pro-Malay 'red shirts' rally has no clear leader'. Subscribe