BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan visits Melbourne to launch the Clean Before ’13 campaign. Sumisha Naidu chats to her about Global Bersih 2.0 and her hopes for Malaysians overseas.
ON JULY 9, 2011, hundreds of Malaysians gathered at Melbourne’s Federation Square to support Global Bersih 2.0 – the international leg of a movement for clean and fair elections in Malaysia. In a V for Vendetta-like move, rally organisers distributed masks bearing a woman’s face to the Melbourne crowd so they could remain anonymous.
“It was to mitigate their fears,” says organiser David Teoh.
Many demonstrators were worried they’d face repercussions from Malaysian authorities for participating in the controversial movement – even if they were 6,000 km away from home.
Given Bersih 2.0’s legal status was constantly fluctuating in Malaysia, those fears were not unexpected.
But what was surprising to the organisers was that hardly anyone decided to use the masks. Instead, they posed with them in photos.
After all, the woman whose face was on the mask was a celebrity among this group of people, notorious in Malaysia and with Malaysians around the world for being the one who had brought them all together in the first place.
It was the face of Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan; former Malaysian Bar Council president, human rights activist, and the chairperson of Bersih 2.0.
THE way Ambiga describes it, the masks are about the only things Bersih 2.0 and the anarchist movement in V for Vendetta have in common.
That, and the fact that Bersih 2.0 is also a people-driven movement.
“While I’ve had the honour of heading it, Bersih has always been the rakyat’s [Malaysian citizen’s] movement,” Ambiga has said.
She tells Meld, through Bersih, ordinary people stepped up to the plate like they never have before.
Anarchist tones may seem present when she says Malaysians need to “take back control and ensure that the future of the country is bright”. But one would be hard-pressed to find anti-government sentiment in Bersih 2.0’s demands for a clean electoral roll, reformed postal voting, use of indelible ink, a minimum campaign period of 21 days, free and fair mainstream media access, strengthened public institutions, and an end to corruption and dirty politics.
The Malaysian government, on the other hand, sees it differently.
“We have been building this nation for so long. We do it peacefully,” Prime Minister Najib Razak has said.
“Ambiga wants to ruin all this.”
Malaysian opposition parties’ alignment with Bersih 2.0 is not helping the movement’s case. But during a recent talk at Melbourne University, Ambiga stressed Bersih had invited everyone to participate in the non-partisan movement – including the government – as long as they left their respective political agendas out of it.
The government declined, and as Melbourne-based Malaysians turned up to Federation Square on July 9, an estimated 50,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in what was intended to be a peaceful rally to bring attention to Bersih’s demands. But as the rally was deemed illegal (organisers failed to obtain a police permit after protracted negotiations), it did not remain peaceful for long. Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up the protest.
Last month, Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission began an inquiry into allegations of police brutality.
REGARDLESS of her detractors, Ambiga and Bersih 2.0 have made an impact on Malaysians.
Post-Bersih, frequent reports of irregularities in the electoral system have begun to emerge, forcing the Prime Minister to set up a Parliamentary Selection Committee (PSC) for electoral reforms. Ambiga was in Melbourne two weeks ago to launch Bersih’s latest campaign, Clean Before ’13 – a call for the PSC’s reforms to be implemented before Malaysia’s 13th General Elections, which must be held before the end of 2013.
Ambiga says she felt it was important to visit Australia in light of the immense support Bersih 2.0 had and is receiving from Malaysians abroad. Reports indicate there have been at least 23 Global Bersih 2.0 rallies held across the globe, with Melbourne playing host to the biggest turn-out with more than 500 people attending.
“I have to say I never realised how important the diaspora was actually until Global Bersih,” Ambiga says.
Malaysians living overseas, she says, are in a unique position to bring awareness to issues of concern back home.
“I think you must take advantage of those freedoms [you have overseas] and you must disseminate information freely, and I think the importance of that is you’re actually raising the bar and the standard for people at home in relation to freedom of speech, in relation to fundamental freedoms,” she says.
“That’s why the disapora is so important.”
AMBIGA says Malaysia’s young diaspora are becoming increasingly disillusioned with local politics.
And the figures of Malaysians heading overseas continue to grow. World Bank senior economist Philip Schellekens recently reported that the number of skilled Malaysians living abroad has tripled in the past 20 years. One in five tertiary educated Malaysians have left home, headed for countries like Australia.
Ambiga says she understands why people are leaving. In fact, she says this is what prompted her generation to seek change in Malaysia.
“I have always felt we’ve failed the next generation, actually, and that is why so many of us my age decided to do something about it,” she says.
“We think that the country that we’re handing to the youth is not the country that I think they would want to live in, you know?”
Ambiga says prior to Bersih, she felt the younger generations were faced with a nation grappling with major problems like corruption and a “lack of integrity in major institutions”. But she says she is hopeful movements like Bersih have inspired Malaysians abroad to come home.
“There is change that is happening and I think they need to be part of that change,” she says.
“Let me tell you, I think international students realise that now, whereas previously they felt nothing seemed to be changing in Malaysia.
“Now with Bersih and other civil society movements, they can see that people at home are really making an effort…so I think that has brought hope.”
At the Melbourne launch of Clean Before ’13 at Clayton Hall, Ambiga’s words seemed to be ringing true. Malaysian students had come forward to speak publicly about their fears for their country and how Bersih 2.0 was reinstating their hopes for its future. One student was even moved to tears.
“We know that clean and fair elections is what we want,” student Julian Yong says.
“As students, we should take a stand, stand up for what we believe in.”
International student Clement Ting says he had never felt like going back to Malaysia until Bersih 2.0 happened.
“At the Bersih rally, when everybody sang Negaraku [Malaysia’s national anthem], I felt like this is the sweetest song ever,” he says.
“I told myself, this is unity.”
Ambiga says she has been blown away by the stories she’s heard from overseas Malaysians.
“Isn’t it wonderful that people feel a sense of unity?
“I think a lot of people felt this was the first time they were united and that’s a wonderful feeling, actually.”
AMBIGA recalls a time when she was an international student, over 30 years ago in the UK.
“I never contemplated staying anywhere other than Malaysia,” she says, “I always saw my future there.”
She reiiterates her hope that overseas Malaysian students can see a future for themselves there too.
“I’d like to encourage them to come back and join with us in bringing in change,” she says.
“But even if they’re outside, they’re still doing a lot for Malaysia, which is very commendable.
“It’s our failing, not theirs, if they don’t feel they can do the best for their family and children in Malaysia.”
For those who choose to stay overseas, it is imperative, she says, for them to register to vote, even if – as she understands it – the infrastructure is not yet in place for postal voting. The Electoral Commission says they are not going to implement the infrustructure until the PSC had finished its work, she says.
But the Malaysian Consul General to Melbourne, Dr Mohamad Rameez Yahya, has indicated progress has been made toward enabling Malaysians in Melbourne to vote.
Ambiga says Bersih 2.0 will continue to “do [their] utmost” to make sure overseas voting happens. And she is hopeful this will be just one of the many changes to come in Malaysia.
“We have a wonderful bright future if we can just get our act together now,” she says.
“We have everything going for us.”
Watch Ambiga’s full speech at the Melbourne Law School, Electoral Reform and the Quest for Democracy in Malaysia.