COMMENT "Everyone has their rights. However, we are governed by laws which are applicable to all." This is what Najib Razak declaredin his comments on the July 9 rally by polls watchdog group Bersih 2.0.
What the prime minister seems to have forgotten is a question arising from the great debate on jurisprudence - that we are not only concerned with obedience to all laws, but we must obey only morally good laws, and it is our duty to fight against bad laws. This is the position of natural law theorists.
The proscription of public assembly imposed by the Home Ministry is contrary to the rule of (good) law, for it limits the freedom of movement and speech by citizens at large in the name of security. This is a bad law that curtails the constitutional freedom of the rakyat. Thus it is the duty of every good citizen to disobey this law peacefully so as to bring about change in the current law.
In contrast, by obeying bad laws, we give credence to injustice and help promote the evil effects of unjust laws, and in the process, we harm the country. Therefore, it is the duty of every contentious citizen to disobey bad laws peacefully in a collective effort to initiate social change that will benefit the country as a whole.
Malaysia is now in the grip of a fierce conflict between the struggle for human rights and the senseless rule of unjust laws. We can see this clearly in many of the limitations and shackles placed on the July 9 mass rally organised by Bersih.
Citizens' right to be heard
This titanic struggle has a long history in the development of participatory politics all over the world.
It was brought into focus by the civil rights movement in America, where black and white Americans have tried to fight, using mass disobedience, for their civil liberties.
It was recently illegal under American law for blacks to mix with the white people physically, in any assembly, or even to marry. But these segregation laws were an example of a man-made legislation that was repugnant to the higher principle of equality between all mankind.
Subsequent twists and turns in the recent era of rapid historical change have made this segregation between blacks and whites illegal in the United States today.
In our own midst, Malaysian police has attempted to ban the Bersih public rally in the name of maintaining public security and order.
However, a mere pronouncement by the police need not become the gospel truth for all men on earth. We are governed by a higher law of justice. This higher law requires us to give the Bersih gathering a sympathetic hearing.
The guiding principle in granting Bersih their right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech is that as citizens, they have inalienable rights to be heard.
There is no evidence that other citizens would begrudge them this freedom, except for those people with their own agenda, like Umno Youth and Perkasa.
By right, the government should give the Bersih protesters all the protection of the law, including providing cops to help direct the traffic.
Have faith in the rakyat
As in western countries, holding a public protest legally and peacefully is the most natural right of every citizen. We see public rallies being allowed in western societies without much earth-shaking disturbance within their social order. There is no reason why Malaysia cannot follow their fine example.
In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, people have had to put their bodies in harm's way just to express their peaceful opinions.
Malaysia boasts of being a country long governed by the rule of law, and yet we do not even have enough confidence in our citizens to hold a peaceful rally, when no violence took place during the first rally in 2007.
The Bersih rally is an acid test for our political maturity as a democratic polity. Surely, after more than five decades of independence, there should be enough confidence in our citizens holding a peaceful gathering without causing some kind of doomsday catastrophe.
If Malaysian democracy is to have a chance to grow and flower into a full-fledged advanced democratic entity, then the Bersih rally must be given its opportunity to prove itself as a national institution.
We must be given a chance to show again that we can gather in large numbers peacefully, without causing any damage to public properties or bloodshed.
The Bersih rally must be allowed to clean up our voting system so as to protect the sanctity of our electoral process. Nothing else is more important than this fundamental aspect of our lives.