A reluctant symbol

The New York Times, one of the most influential newspaper in the world, published this article  today on Malaysia and Bersih 2.0.

A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia


August 8, 2011

KUALA LUMPUR — Her photograph has been burned by ethnic Malay nationalists, there have been calls to revoke her Malaysian citizenship and she has been threatened, via text message, with death. The movement she leads, Bersih, an alliance of 62 nongovernmental organizations pressing for electoral reform, has been declared illegal, and a demonstration that brought thousands of its followers into the streets of this capital city last month ended with nearly 1,700 arrests.

But having stared down these challenges, Ambiga Sreenevasan, 54, a University of Exeter-educated lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, is now being hailed by many here as the “new symbol of civil society’s dissent.”

“She has not been afraid to speak the truth to power,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling firm in Kuala Lumpur.

Over peppermint tea in a busy cafe recently, Ms. Ambiga squirmed uncomfortably at the attention she had attracted.

“This focus on me is actually ridiculous,” said Ms. Ambiga. “It’s a true citizens’ movement, because the citizens have taken ownership of Bersih.”

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih — “clean” in Malay — got its start in November 2007. Members of the political opposition and civic groups defied restrictions on gatherings of more than five people without a permit and rallied for changes in an election system they said unfairly favored the governing coalition, which has been in power since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957.

The demonstrators were dispersed by tear gas, and some were arrested. They did not achieve their immediate demands, which included better access to the state-owned news media by opposition candidates and the use of indelible ink on voters’ thumbs to help prevent fraud. But their action was credited with winning support for the opposition and contributing to the governing coalition’s poor showing in the 2008 election, when it fell below a two-thirds majority for the first time.

Ms. Ambiga did not attend that rally in 2007, but earlier in the year she had led a march of more than 2,000 lawyers calling for judicial reform. And while she runs a commercial litigation practice, she has also devoted considerable time to pro bono cases involving the rights of squatters, indigenous people and women. In 2009 she became the first Malaysian to receive a U.S. State Department “International Women of Courage” Award.

Maria Chin Abdullah, executive director of Empower, a nongovernmental organization that promotes women in politics, said it was because of Ms. Ambiga’s “commitment, dedication and leadership in defending human rights and democracy” that she and other N.G.O. leaders approached her to lead Bersih 2.0, the second incarnation of the electoral reform movement.

Ms. Ambiga agreed, on the proviso that it be “civil society-driven,” and not simply a tool of opposition parties.

Again, Bersih pushed for an end to electoral fraud, media access for all parties and a minimum 21-day campaign period before any election. But Ms. Ambiga said she never expected the event to unfold the way it did.

What began as a call for reform morphed into widespread anger at the government’s handling of the activists. When Bersih was declared an unregistered and therefore illegal organization, barred from demonstrating in the capital, and more than 200 people were arrested in the weeks leading up to a July 9 protest, Ms. Ambiga said, the effect was to prompt even more people to join in the rally. Bersih estimated that there were 50,000 protesters; the police put the figure at 5,000 to 6,000.

As the demonstrators tried to march to Stadium Merdeka, the police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. Among those arrested was Ms. Ambiga, who, along with the others, was released that night.

“While I was sitting there the most wonderful things were happening in Kuala Lumpur, which I could only read about that night,” she said. “It brought tears to my eyes. I just didn’t for a minute expect Malaysians to rise to the occasion in the way they did that day.”

Even though the rally was blocked, she said, Bersih has heightened public awareness of the need for free and fair elections. “A number of people have told me that they may not have voted before, but they’ll definitely vote next time,” she said.

Even now, though, she does not call herself an activist.

“I think I’m an advocate for a cause,” she said. “In a sense it was a learning experience for me, pulling myself out of the comfort of the Bar Council and all its support that it had, including finances, coming into this organization that didn’t have a single cent.”

Ms. Ambiga, who is ethnic Indian in a country that is mostly Malay and mostly Muslim, said that the protesters “exploded many myths” about Malaysians, such as the notion that people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds could not work together and that the middle class was “too comfortable to step up to the plate.”

She attributes her willingness to get involved in public causes to her upbringing. She cites as an inspiration her late father, a doctor who helped establish the National Kidney Foundation.

“I suppose I’ve been brought up to always try and do the right thing no matter what the odds,” said Ms. Ambiga.

Haji Sulaiman Abdullah, also a former president of the Bar Council, said he was not surprised by “the breadth and depth of leadership she has brought to the Bersih movement.”

“Even the ordinary man in the street has come to appreciate what Ambiga stands for,” he said.

The events of recent weeks offer plentiful fodder for a compelling election campaign narrative, but Ms. Ambiga shoots down any possibility that a political career could be in the offing. “I don’t have the stomach for it,” she said.

In fact, it has been Ms. Ambiga’s ability to define the Bersih movement as a cause apart from partisan politics that has enabled her to unite Malaysians, said Mr. Suffian, of the Merdeka Center.

Bersih has pledged that its campaign would continue and has called for people to wear yellow on Saturdays, but no more protests are planned for now.

“People keep saying, ‘What next?,’ but, quite frankly, I think the citizens have taken it upon themselves to organize things around the country using the yellow theme, the theme of democracy. What I think Bersih has achieved is the awakening,” Ms. Ambiga said.

She said there have been positive responses from the Election Commission, for example, making it possible for Malaysians living overseas to vote. Its announcement that it would introduce a biometric fingerprinting system, she said, was an admission that there had been a problem of election fraud.

When pressed on how Bersih would respond if the government did not meet other demands, such as equal media access, before the next election, which must be held by mid-2013, Ms. Ambiga’s tendency to deflect the focus from herself resurfaced.

“It’s not me making the decision,” she said. “It will be the rakyat” — Malay for “people” — “making the decision.”


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. chanjoe1
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 14:41:57

    I agree that its not anyone’s campaign but its really the Rakyat’s campaign. I took part not having any political intentions but for the sake of participating for the love of our country wishing for a more just and fair society and Govt which had run out of line for the 54 years in its existence.
    I respect those who were arrested and my support to those who were manhandled by the Police. If there is any need for financial support to fight their cause leagally, I believe Rakyat will response without 2nd thoughts.
    Guess we may have to push for Bersih 3.0 as the Govt & Ec has not responded positively to Bersih 2.0’s requests.


  2. Nick
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 19:00:58

    Hail to a truly remarkable woman! I believe the majority of right thinking Malaysians appreciate and tacitly support what she stands and fight for.


  3. monsterball
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 19:19:48

    Malaysians responded to BERSIH 2 ans support Ambiga’s quest for clean government….clean election.
    This support adds strength to Malaysians desire to change the government…who are so sick of so many corruptions and murders exposed…but not one charge being made to the real person responsible.
    Even the case of PKFZ RM12.4 billion ripped off…any decent and normal government will charge Mahathir….a PM for 22 years…who governed like a Dictator and how on earth anyone dare to do such things without his approval..is sickening to believe.
    Yes…Ambiga for clean election and government.
    PR wants Malaysians to support them to get rid of corruptions and dirty race and religion politics…always disuniting Malaysians.
    Above everything else….to get rid of crooks behaving like their grandfathers owned Malaysia and we are all their slaves..to slog and make money and let them take all and do as they like.
    Yes…..BERSIH2 and PR are in harmony ..purposes and intents.
    Ambiga is God’s gift to Malaysia….so brave…so intelligent…so firm and right.
    We are truly a blessed country ..made to be ordinary and going down to the drain ….by these thieves and robbers..so greedy…so cunning…so cruel.
    Such sickening hypocrites they are……these UMNO B dirty corrupted politicians…active and retired..still the same…never change..never will….as all thieves…robbers and murderers fear jails or death sentences.. more than anything else.


  4. Li Li Fa
    Aug 09, 2011 @ 21:59:30

    Although a reluctant symbol, Ms. Ambiga has naturally stepped into the shoes of a born-again people’s leader. She has also ignited the imagination, fanned the desires, and fired the course of the civil society of this nation.

    I was awe-strucked with a similar movement in history when the late Mahatma Gandhi stood against what was then the British Indian authorities.

    Self-effacing, humble and purposeful, Mis Ambiga will have a lot of obstacles coming her way. But the active support from the rakyat within and without the country will hold her in good stead. Besides this learned lady has strong eminent admirers wholewide.

    A bouquet of yellow roses to this gutsy lady.


  5. Kenny
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 00:32:10

    Unfortunately I don’t see the EC making any real reforms. The biometric system is just a license to carry on cheating under the guise of a verification system which does not do anything to stop phantom voters and multiple voters.

    BN is depending heavily on cheating to win. Instead of spending its time and energy devising ways to cheat it could have gained votes by being more people-centric, throw the book at wrongdoers, allow more democracy and have the political will to clamp down on corruption. Instead it spends its energy protecting killers in MACC, demonizing and oppressing Bersih, detaining people without trial for no reason and creating unnecessary racial and religious issues.

    No cheating can work if the people come out and vote massively against BN. Even their illegal immigrants given instant citizenship to vote will be swept aside. BN is creating a situation where it will help the opposition kick it out of power.


  6. Trackback: A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia | julynine2011
  7. monsterball
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 17:06:06

    Crooks hates every symbol pointing towards arrest and jail sentences for them.
    What more..if these symbols are out in the open?
    Gone case…so fire off water cannons…tear gas bombs…beat..beat beat…arrest and divert attentions from the symbols.
    What have these symbols become?
    From nothing …but symbols…..they .have become the freedom fighters national flags…against enemies.


  8. BeWildered
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 07:05:33

    Being printed in the New York Times is a big deal. New York Times is an iconic news publication in USA and well respected, it is widely read by businessmen, professionals, politicians, academicians, and general public.

    New York Times reporting brings on credibility to Bersih movement in Malaysia. It is always the international credibility that counts, and the international standing that matters. shouting mad from the mad dog (you know who) in Kuala Lumpur does not matter.

    This also adds to the image and perception of BN government in the minds of foreigners who are in the position of making decision on where to invest the money that they have control in the companies they manage.

    This is not trivial matters.

    Of course, BN can also step up to the Electoral Reform and brings on electoral reforms which will definitely enhance the image of Malaysia as a country of transparency and as a good place to invest your money. But politicians in BN failed to see this opportunity and keep thinking and acting is a parochial manner and totally miss this huge opportunity. This says a lot about the low calibers of Malaysian politicians who in charge of the governance of Malaysia.

    Malaysian politicians generally are more focus on petty issues, childish exchanges, back stabbing, banana skin the other guy, and scheming on scandal, like a bunch of arrogant clowns.

    Malaysian rakyat also have been hood winded by all these clowns for too long that many also cannot think straight any more.

    Do you ever have the feeling that you tend to walk away totally confused after you play with a clown! Always stay away from clowns, they are very dangerous.


  9. A true Malaysian
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 15:33:32

    Well said, BeWildered. Their closet are full of skeletons, that’s why they failed to see this ‘opportunity’.

    White wash is urgently needed this 13th GE,,,,If not….


  10. klm
    Aug 12, 2011 @ 10:01:37

    You got to realise that BN is using the govt as a feeding system for its leaders big and small. Anything that changes the status quo is no longer an option for it. The resistance to change is too great.

    Let me tell you a real story.

    An uncle of a friend got the rights to a road building technology that builds roads better, faster and cheaper. This technology do away with the gravel that is used for traditional road system. He pitched it to JKR. While the people were impressed, they rejected the technology. The comment “Mana boleh cari makan lagi”.

    The introduction of this technology will do away with quarries, supply of gravels and the whole works that are essentially the turf of UMNO cronies.
    JKR rather reject the better technology than to eliminate the feeding system.

    How is Malaysia going to progress?


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