Peace and order at GST gathering

Barring a minor scuffle, the anti-GST rally on Thursday was a peaceful one. The police were around but seemed rather friendly and accommodating.

At the end of the anti-GST rally at Dataran Merdeka on Labour Day, Suhakam commissioner James Nayagam was in high spirits and rejoicing.

Calling the rally a success, the beaming Nayagam says both the police and the organisers of the rally had kept to their word, which enabled the public assembly to go on peacefully.

"I give the police an 'A' for their handling of this rally. The police were there. They were very professional and were talking to the people. There was a free flow of persons coming in and out of the area. They didn't stop anyone. People could freely assemble and express themselves. The police allowed and facilitated the assembly.

"I don't think there is anything more that the police can improve on," says Nayagam, who is a "veteran of sorts" at monitoring rallies, demonstrations and public assemblies, having monitored 35 of these in the last few years.

He is the Suhakam commissioner in charge of complaints, monitoring and inquiries.

He also gives the anti-GST rally organisers an "A".

"The organisers had gone to the negotiating table and come to an agreement with the police about the time of the rally, what time it would end, that they would not cross into the Dataran Merdeka field and that it would be a peaceful assembly.

"And they honoured their word. They came, spoke and left. They passed the test," he says.

It's been just a little over two years when Dataran Merdeka was transformed into a different scene altogether, on April 28, 2012, during the Bersih 3.0 rally.

Back then, the police had put up barricades and razor wires in strategic areas to stop protesters from getting too close to Dataran Merdeka. There was a heavy police presence and FRU trucks and FRU personnel were standing by in their full anti-riot gear.

Things turned violent when some protesters breached the police barricades to try and get to Dataran Merdeka, and the police responded by unleashing their water cannons and firing 961 canisters of tear gas into the packed crowd of tens of thousands, who were running helter-skelter to escape the chaos.

The police also chased and hit a number of protesters, and the media were not spared either. This time around, there was none of that. There were no razor wires, no FRU, no water cannons, no tear gas. The police were around but seemed rather friendly and accommodating.

And the protesters were allowed to gather at Dataran Merdeka, although not on the field itself because that area was cordoned off as it was being renovated and deemed unsafe. There were nails on the field and, Nayagam says, a policeman had accidentally stepped on one earlier.

While the rally overall was peaceful, there was a bit of trouble when a group of youngsters wearing Solidarity Anak Muda Malaysia (SAMM) t-shirts tried to get onto the field. But they were stopped and held back by PAS' Unit Amal security volunteers and a brief scuffle broke out between the two sides.

Nayagam dismisses this as an "isolated incident", saying that in such big gatherings, there was bound to be a few individuals who wanted "to stretch the limit".

Drawing a parallel, he says that every time there is a wedding in Brickfields, without fail there would be a group of trouble-makers who gatecrash, push the tables and demand for food, but that does not mar the wedding.

Similarly, the small group of unruly youths did not mar the success of the public rally because the rest were well-behaved.

He credits PAS' Unit Amal for a job well done in pushing the unruly youths away and not allowing them to get on the field.

"An agreement is an agreement. The organisers agreed and accepted that the field was off limits. That was the only rule the police made - 'Don't cross into the field'.

"If the Unit Amal hadn't pushed them back and the youths had entered the field, and if the police and law enforcement moved in, then the whole thing would have gone berserk because that would have given a wrong signal and all hell would have broken loose," he says.

Nayagam remembers all too well how, in 2012 during Bersih 3.0, hell broke loose. He says it gave him nightmares and he never wants a repeat of that dreadful day.

So, understandably, he is calling on the organisers of the Labour Day anti-GST rally to do a post-mortem - identify and haul up the group of unruly youths and take them to task.

"That kind of behaviour is unbecoming. It causes a lot of unrest, can disrupt a well-meaning gathering and give a bad name to all. So we want the organisers to inform Suhakam of the action they have taken against that group," he says.

A noticeable change

Since the chaos of Bersih 3.0 and the flak the police received for using disproportionate force to disperse crowds, there has been a noticeable change in the police handling of public assemblies.

Nayagam says there is an apparent openness now on the side of the police.

For the anti-GST rally, he notes that it was the police who invited the organisers in for discussions, which is "something that never existed before in the past".

"We notice too that there is an openness to discuss. Previously, it was only one-sided with the police saying 'No, cannot'. But now there is an openness of both parties to discuss and come to an agreement."

He adds that perception towards public assemblies has shifted too.

"Previously, you can't even talk or dream about a public assembly."

There has also been an awareness on the part of the police of people having the right to assemble and some respect for human rights.

"The police can't be using force all the time. Using the 'cane' over time has become meaningless. Society has changed and the police likewise is responding to what has changed in society," he says.

Other than the anti-GST rally, Nayagam says this change is also noticeable in four other public assemblies, the Himpunan Hijau walk from Kuantan to Dataran Merdeka to protest against the Lynas Rare Earth plant, the Kelana Jaya stadium 505 rally after the 2013 general election, the Black 505 rally at Padang Merbok and the New Year Eve protest against the rising cost of living at Dataran Merdeka.

One point people seem to miss is the fact that the present Home Minister Datuk Dr Zahid Hamidi himself is a former student leader and a protester in the 1970s when he was at university at the height of the university students' protest days.

So, unlike the other Home Ministers, Zahid's unique background has probably put him in a better position to understand the psychology of protesters better.

At the heart of the Labour Day protest, of course, is the GST (the Goods and Services Tax) which is due to be implemented next April.

The GST is seen as a broader and fairer tax system because taxes are based on what people consume.

But, more importantly, essential food items like rice, flour, cooking oil, vegetable, meat, and fish will all be zero-rated, which means there will be no GST for these. Essential services like public transport, toll, hospital, schools and residential housing will also be GST tax-exempt.

Yet that message has not reached the common folks - at least not those who came for the anti-GST protest rally - who believe the new tax system will hike up prices of food and other essential items.

"The GST is a tax that will make us, the poor, even poorer," says Maziah, who came from Taiping for the rally with her husband. She complains that the price of rubber has gone down to RM1.80 per kg and rubber tappers like her are already finding it hard to make ends meet.

She fears she will not be able to afford food and basic items once the GST comes into play. "We are rich in resources like rubber, palm oil and oil and timber. Why can't the Government use income from this to build the roads, schools and for development projects? Why squeeze us even more?"

But Robinson Rodriguez, 56, who was also at the rally, says he is not totally against the GST. Rather, he has doubts over its implementation and whether an effective system is in place to stop businesses from profiteering.

"I agree we need to do something to bring down our trade deficit. But how sure are we that the money we pay for the GST will go to the right coffers?

"Corruption has become such a disease in the country. We need to address this first, otherwise no matter how much money the Government has or gets, it will never be enough because it will be whittled away by corruption," he says.

He points out that even if it is a consumption-based tax, it is always the lower income group who will feel the brunt because they would be the ones who have to watch what they consume and cut down on the extras, while the rich will not bother.

Rodriguez feels that a more gradual approach of the GST would be more palatable.

"Say, when you implement, you start it low at 3 per cent first, then gradually up it to 4 per cent, 5 per cent then later 6 per cent over the years instead of the proposed 6 per cent. That will give people time to understand how it works, get used to it and allow the authorities to iron out the chinks in the implementation.

"And if the country goes bust, we won't die. We will find a way and survive as a nation," he says.