09 August, 2008

Rival groups unified in protest - the day when the loudest won ?

The police yielding to pressure to disrupt the half-day Bar Council forum on conversion to Islam at 10 am in Kuala Lumpur today is a most adverse reflection on law and order as well as religious harmony in Malaysia on the eve of the 51st Merdeka anniversary.

Malaysia has failed a major test in nation-building to demonstrate that we are shaping up to be a more civil society where sensitive issues of inter-faith problems can be discussed in a mature and responsible manner to promote national unity and religious harmony in the country.


The "Conversion to Islam" forum held by the Bar Council in the federal capital today was ended early to avoid tension and prevent the situation from getting out of control, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said.

He said police advised the organiser to end the forum early to avoid tension after the crowd demonstrating outside the Bar Council office, the venue, continued to swell.

"We didn't want the anger to lead to any untoward incident. So far, I've not received any report on threat to security or disturbance to public order," he said.

Police did well in controlling the situation, he told reporters here.

Syed Hamid said that although the country practised freedom ( ?? ) of speech, the sensitivities of others must be respected.

In her opening speech, Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan invited the protesters to join the forum and share their dissenting views.

"I'm aware this forum has drawn many criticisms from many quarters. I don't have a problem with criticism... there are demonstrators outside, you can hear them," she said.

At 9.25am, just as the forum was warming up, Ambiga informed the participants inside the auditorium that the police had advised the forum be wrapped up by 10am.

According to reports, the 100-plus protesters, who had been demonstrating outside the building since 8am, had swelled tremendously and were in danger of turning more than unruly.

At 9.50am, a handful of protesters, led by Kulim Bandar Baharu parliamentarian Zulkifli Noordin from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), muscled their way to the front of the first-floor auditorium at the Bar Council headquarters in Leboh Pasar Besar here amid an ongoing and lively discussion on the 2006 court case of R. Subashini, whose ethnic Indian husband T. Saravanan had embraced Islam and converted their five-year-old son without her knowledge or consent.

The forum lasted only an hour and 10 minutes, when it was schedued to last till lunch time, Ambiga was satisfied. She found the discussion fruitful.

"It's unfortunate that we could not carry on with the forum. It's a real shame we had to stop the forum due to the advice from the police.

"I have great faith in our ability and maturity, as Malaysians, to discuss sensitive issues sensibly. I do not subscribe to the view that we cannot talk about sensitive issues, not for one minute. Not today. Maybe it was the case 30 years ago, but not today," Ambiga concluded.



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