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The right to protest

(© Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams /

ASSEMBLING to protest an issue is a touchy subject in Malaysia, thanks to many factors, including police heavy-handedness in breaking up peaceful demonstrations. It is also common to hear of officials dictating the impropriety of the assembly without actually providing any avenue for the aggrieved persons to air their views.

Pakatan Rakyat politicians have championed the right for the public to assemble peacefully in the past. Thus, it would seem ironic that Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) councillors found themselves debating whether it was proper for residents to assemble and protest against a local development project on 29 Dec 2008.

The development in question concerned the Football Association of Selangor (FAS) field in Kelana Jaya.

This begs the question: should MBPJ councillors and Pakatan Rakyat politicians turn up and support the protest that was supposedly aimed at the council? After all, as a DAP member declared publicly to the residents: we are the government and would be protesting against ourselves.

The process

Model of a city (© Rodolfo Clix /
One school of thought was that the residents should not be protesting at all without exhausting all other avenues. There are provisions in the law that allow for the public to express their views, specifically under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976.

Section 21(6) of the Act applies to the issue of the FAS field development proposal. It states: “If the proposed development is located in an area in respect of which no local plan exists for the time being, then, upon receipt of an application for planning permission… the local planning authority shall, by notice in writing served on them, inform the owners of neighbouring lands of their right to object to the application and to state their grounds of objection within 21 days of the date of service of the notice.”

Since the protest was taking place before the 21 days notice has lapsed, it would seem that the residents were jumping the gun and ‘attacking’ the local council unfairly.

Another argument is that the MBPJ councillors should not be seen siding any particular group (be they residents or developers) because they have to consider the overall ramifications of an issue beforehand.

Appearing at the protest may lead to the impression that the councillors are not impartial and the developer may not be given due consideration due to public pressure. After all, the residents may be unjustified in their calls to stop a development because it is happening in their backyard.

The facts

Despite the concerns raised, fellow councillor Cynthia Gabriel and I did go for the protest against the FAS field development, as did PJ Utara MP Tony Pua and Bukit Gasing assemblyperson Edward Lee.

Our stand was simple: the protest is a legitimate form of expression and those of us in the government have an obligation to the public to hear their views, even if it was out of order from the normal process.

We listened to the residents’ concerns about the development project, that ranged from the lack of any open spaces left for the surrounding area, to the massive traffic congestion that the project would bring.

The possibility that the land was originally gazetted as institutional and converted into commercial land without going through due process was also raised.

(© Dmitriy Shironosov /

However, these issues were not what riled up the residents to protest. Rather, it was the discrepancies in the information that was sent out that caused residents to suspect that the MBPJ was trying to prevent objections from being heard through proper channels. The facts were:

  • Sales brochures were already printed and according to the residents, units were being offered for sale at the sales office (which is a problem since the project is not approved yet).
  • The two objection boards declaring the project was being proposed and which served as a 21-day notice to residents was flawed. It failed to list the proposal to build two 15-28 storey office blocks with 8 levels of podium that was listed in the official MBPJ letters sent out to residents to inform them of the project.
  • The official MBPJ letters sent out to inform neighbouring property owners of the impending project were only sent out to a few residents.

Following those revelations, the MBPJ instructed the developer to re-deploy the objection board with the missing items while the council would issue a fresh 21-day objection notice letter to the residents.

At the FAS field (Pic courtesy of KW Mak)

Argument lost

Now, it may seem like Cynthia and I were proven right in showing up to hear the residents’ grouses, as our presence prevented the misconception that the MBPJ was deliberately out to hoodwink the residents.

I would rather have been proven wrong, since the protest showed the service delivery system was not working properly. Were it implemented as per the law, the people would not have had to resort to street protests to highlight the issues at hand.

The episode also demonstrated that the system is not geared to take into account the concerns of those in the larger area who may be affected by a particular development.

Some 200 residents who assembled that day came from all over Petaling Jaya representing many residents associations who rallied under the banner of the All Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Residents’ Association Coalition (APAC). They came together to protest against the loss of an open space and traffic congestion from the project at the LDP Highway.

In that sense, APAC is no different from any trade or workers union seeking to protect the welfare of its members. I do not see a problem with a large coalition of interested parties taking to the streets to protest on an issue, provided they do it peacefully.

Lessons learnt

Right now, the public does not trust the government, regardless of which political divide we come from. It is due to any number of reasons, from conflicting statements made, to the lack of information being disseminated. Without such information, the people will always believe that the government is out to make a quick buck.

This, to me, is a systemic flaw that needs correcting. The public protests because the system does not work. I believe the right of the public to assemble peacefully to protest over an issue should not be taken by the government as something bad but something constructive.

In this instance, had the residents not highlighted the council’s mistakes, an injustice would have been done and no one would be the wiser.

MBPJ councillor KW Mak wishes everyone a Happy New Year and hopes the public will continue to make him wiser.

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