Ambiga: A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia

August 9, 2011

A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia

by Liz Gooch
Published: August 8, 2011

KUALA LUMPUR–Her photograph (right) 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.”

A version of this article appeared in print on August 9, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia.

9 thoughts on “Ambiga: A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia

  1. 907: One Month After

    By Debra
    August 09, 2011

    KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 9 — The July 9 rally for electoral reform here has burst the myth that Muslim-majority Malaysia’s middle class is “too comfortable” to demonstrate dissent and that its citizens are too colour- and creed-conscious to work together, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said in remarks published today.

    Influential US daily the New York Times dubbed her Malaysia’s “new symbol of civil society’s dissent” in its story “A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia” published a month after the Bersih march that was put down by the authorities.

    Ambiga told the New York Times 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.”

    The Bersih 2.0 rally saw thousands of Malaysians take to the streets in answer to the civil society movement, made up of 62 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), despite a city-wide clampdown by the police that ended with nearly 1,700 arrests.

    According to Bersih 2.0’s estimates, 50,000 people rallied to its call for cleaner and more honest elections while police figures put the crowd at closer to 6,000.

    The images of demonstrators being shot at with tear gas and chemical-laced water were recorded and transmitted around the world by international media agencies, which appear to have blemished the Najib administration’s global image and could jeopardise the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s showing in the next general election, widely expected to be called by year end.

    The coalition of 13 political parties has been in power since independence 54 years ago.

    The first chapter of Bersih, which kicked-off in 2007, has been credited with the BN losing its two-thirds control over Parliament for the first time in decades.

    While Putrajaya maintains the July 9 rally and its organiser are illegal, Ambiga is hopeful the eight demands put forward by Bersih 2.0, including better access to state-controlled news agencies and indelible ink to prevent voter fraud, will be implemented sooner or later.

    She told the NYT that the Election Commission (EC) had responded positively to Bersih 2.0, notably making it possible for more Malaysians abroad to vote, was an admission that there had been a problem of election fraud.

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

  2. Bersih can thank Umno-BN for bringing so much publicity to the issue of electoral fraud by disallowing the rally. Not that kiasu Umno-BN can help itself. It keeps saying most of those on the streets (because it closed the stadium) were Malays, but canot face the reason for this.

  3. Once an elected government begins to abuse and attack the very people it is supposed to protect, then that government has lost its moral right to govern.

  4. To Najib and the pariah UMNO Malays, Datuk Ambiga is a symbol of “anti-islam”.

    That is what Najib, as Prime Minister and President of UMNO said that himself.

  5. Actually the rallies already awaken the rakyat for needy clear and clean electrol system. But the BN-UMno could not accept the need to change because they afraid this 8 demands lulus will definely weaken their polls and to played safe and must ahead of their own shadows…..use PDRM and Court orders to slammed BERSIH 2.0 as illegal gathering and accuse BERSIH intention to toople the Government…..that is normal reaction to protect their means…..but what disappointed me is that they are using PERKASA and Khairi to inflict racials remarks ….and lastly using PDRM as their platinum shield…..but it was really a big mistake to Najib without realising the outcome of it will definitely benefits the PR….just wait for the result in this coming PRU 13….

  6. She sounded humble here. In a way she got what she wanted .Got world-wide media attention, honored by her alma-mater Exeter U and our government agrees to some of her electoral reform proposals. We are implementing biometrics system, far better than indelible ink.

    The EC gave her due attention. Her mistake was to invite the opposition parties. if not she would have been granted the demo at Stadium. Men will not turn down women. Women are always respected. She will be treated well, if not for that.
    I am glad that she stated clearly she’s not entering politics.

    Good Ms Ambiga. You are a good litigator. Don’t smear your good name by joining politics. Your opponents will cook you.

  7. I can’t see how Ambiga is a reluctant symbol for electoral reforms when she is the primary mover of this peaceful movement, to the extent she told Anwar Ibrahim off!

    It’s clear the NY Times is not fully informed about the situation here, hampered as it probably is, as are most foreign news agencies with perhaps the exception of Al-Jazeera, by half-assed journalists either reporting from Singapore and Bangkok or the Long Bar in RSC, Dataran Merdeka.

    Let’s get it right:

    Ambiga is THE force behind Bersih. Otw, she would not be jet-setting to London and Washington just for the heck of it!

    we are all of 1 Race, the Human Race

  8. ” Even the ordinary man in the street has come to appreciate what Ambiga stands for “. – Haji Sulaiman Abdullah ( from article above ) .

    Only sincere , honest individuals enjoy accolades like this one above . Thieves , petty thieves , the corrupt who think they deserve to be appreciated for their legacy of theft and corruption can only appreciate and envy Ambiga’s status now – something they will never achieve in a million years.

  9. Ambiga is a great lady. Most Mallaysians will only complain and criticise but rather others take up the cudgel. That is why she is recognise even in the US. She don’t need a Bedul approval.

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