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For a Society Civil and Decent

ambigaInterview with Ambiga Sreenevasan:

Penang Monthly  editor Ooi Kee Beng talks to Bersih icon Ambiga Sreenevasan between sessions at the inaugural ASEAN Coalition for Clean Governance conference on civil society and asks why she thinks “Malaysians are a great people”.


Ooi Kee Beng: Let’s discuss the recent rise of civil society activism in Malaysia. We had a half-year of rallies in mid-2007, starting with 600 people from the Malaysian Trades Union Congress demonstrating outside the prime minister’s office against government refusal to initiate minimum wage legislation. Several union demonstrations were held in the following weeks. Soon after the country became 50 years old on 31 August that year, the big rallies really began. It started with the Malaysian Bar Council, of which you were the president then, organising the so-called Walk for Justice on September 26. About 2,000 people took part.

Then came the first Bersih rally on November 9 in which 30, 000-50,000 people participating. This was followed 16 days later by the Hindraf rally with just as many marching for Hindu rights. In truth, these marked the beginning of the end for the Abdullah Badawi administration.

Then came Bersih 2.0 under your leadership. Two huge rallies have been held, one on July 9 last year, and one on April 28 this year—the latter being five times bigger than the former when 50,000 were involved. I understand it was one of your demands for taking over the leadership of Bersih 2.0 that the political parties stayed out of the steering committee. That, I believe, allowed for many Malaysians to step forward into the more non-partisan space that was consequently created.

Ambiga: I am overwhelmed by how things have grown. When I took over, I simply thought the issue to be worth fighting for. Who could be against free and fair elections, you know. So we sought a non-partisan path. We first went to the Election Commission to press our demands, but quickly learned that that was not going to get us anywhere. After the Sarawak state election in April 2011, we decided to organise a big march.

It was going to be a civil society movement.

Looking back now, I think Malaysian society was at a tipping point, if it had not already passed it. We didn’t have a clue that it would grew into something so big. But when the government started attacking and harassing Bersih in the weeks leading up to the rally in July that year, people were cheesed off.

To be honest, I was even going through a speech in my head to explain why the turn-out had not been huge, etc, etc. But 50,000 turned up. So there you go. What’s more, the crowd cut across all divides—gender, age, race, you name it. All were represented.

If Bersih 2.0 was a success, then Bersih 3.0 was a roaring success. It was like the dam had burst and you couldn’t push the water back. People had been saying that they missed taking part in Bersih 2.0 and were therefore surely not going to miss Bersih 3.0.

Bersih provided the focus for all the frustrations and disappointments Malaysians had experienced for a long time. The movement became a lightning rod. People were looking for a non-partisan way to express their anger and discontent. The tipping point had certainly been reached, and what is amazing now is that the people have taken ownership of the movement. It is a bottom-up movement that has its own life now. Even if I leave tomorrow, Bersih will not end. People are too emotionally involved in Bersih for that to happen.

You see that also in the global support. Last year, about 32 cities held simultaneous rallies throughout the world. This year, there were 84 cities doing that.

OKB: I want to agree with you that Bersih will continue even without you, but at the same time, a movement like that is very emotionally charged. It does need an icon, someone to personify the movement and concentrate its energy.

Ambiga: They thought I was an easy target. But I am a minority in many ways—woman, Indian, Hindi. Malaysians are good-hearted people you know. They do not like bullying of any kind. So you see how they disliked the government bullying Anwar Ibrahim continuously.

Now, I was pretty harmless. I was not a politician. So when they started bullying me, I think people got really upset. And I think the government was shocked at the extent to which people decided to express their displeasure.

For a government to condone or even order such harassment was unforgivable. It backfired on them.

OKB: The continuing harassment after Bersih 3.0 when groups came to your house to insult you in various ways must be backfiring even further.

Ambiga: You know, you should have seen the flowers sent to my house by people. A tweeter campaign was started to support me, and I have had people visiting me to show support every weekend. People from all walks of life, all faiths, all ethnicities…they would sing and dance. All this would take place in my house in retaliation against the bad behaviour conducted against me outside.

This was basically to show that I was not alone. That’s why I say, the government can’t seem to read the people anymore. Malaysians are a decent people, they do not like bullying.

OKB: The strain on your family must have been quite bad.

Ambiga: It has been; it has been. I can take a lot personally, but I feel really bad when the family is affected. But they have very supportive, but they are very concerned for me, and of course they have a point. I now have bodyguards, they insist that I do.

But there is no control over this, you know. Things are just taking off like a rocket. It just goes to show how ready everything was. All it needed was a spark, and Bersih was such a spark. The government does not realise how disgusted people are, with what they are seeing, with how much they have to stomach…People have just had it up to here.

OKB: The racial discourse no longer has good reasons like it used to. There used to be economic goals, fairer distribution of wealth, etc. But none of that is credible now.

Ambiga: Yes, even the Malays are saying that. What is wonderful about this movement is that it is about getting over the fear of May 13. The different races were helping each other during the rallies. It was all very moving.

OKB: In a society like Malaysia, where the opposition until 2008 was an eternal one, civil society and opposition parties tend to merge in many of their interests. Even the personnel overlap, necessarily. And so claims that the opposition has hijacked Bersih do not make as much sense as it might appear at first hearing. We have PKR leaders like Eli Wong and Tian Chua, who were known more as social activists before they became politicians. Now, when opposition parties at the federal level actually govern certain states, the need for movements like Bersih to remain non-partisan must be ever stronger.

Ambiga: Yes, definitely. Now, the opposition may support us, but that does not mean that we necessarily support the opposition. We are acting on principle. Is it any wonder that the opposition supports us? It is after all they who suffer from the lack of free and fair elections.

The government tries to undermine Bersih because they remained quite shocked over the support that the movement enjoys.

OKB: Bersih being a lightning rod for public frustration with the federal government also may mean that, going forward, spin-off movements and effects will be unavoidable. You have mentioned how journalism will have to change. I would add that besides the need for journalism as a profession to come of age, the role of experts in comprehensive planning etc will also have to be enhanced as well so that politicking does not decide how things are done in the country. Do you see Bersih as a generator of other movements in the near future?

Ambiga: Where the people are concerned, the two recent Bersih rallies were a way for them to vent their frustration. Bersih meant a lot of different things to them, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Bersih transforms itself along the way into something else, but that would only be because the people want it that way, and not because what the Bersih steering committee wants.

There will be spin-off NGOs, and I am sure there are already many. But they will be interlinked in a broader way, with the goal being good governance, ultimately. You see, it is almost like leadership from the ground up. The government, in condoning so much abuse has lost much of its mandate. It is now the people themselves who are setting the standards of common decency, not the government. The government does the opposite, and are no longer the leaders, be that of morality or anything else.

The moral initiative is with the people now, and the realisation by the people of that role makes them a formidable force indeed.

Excuse me, but I get so emotional and so starry-eyed when talking about Bersih.

OKB: Well, you have never seen anything like this in your life, have you? So be as starry-eyed as you wish.

Ambiga (laughs): No I have not seen anything like that before. People show so much support. Simple people…It is not only an urban phenomenon. Indian women from rural areas have come out in support of me and of Bersih in rural areas. Oh how empowering it all is, you see what I mean. This movement is empowering Malaysians like I’ve never seen before. And the ripple effects will be huge.

Things have gone too far for the government to stop it. They must response wisely and decently.

People feel they deserve better. Governance has reached such a low level, people simply had to react. In a sense, we have to thank them for going so low, for being so outrageous that people had to empower themselves and take things into their own hands.

The racial card was pushed too far. The vulgarities and abuse that the government condoned insulted the sense of decency among Malays as well.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has attempted certain changes. We have to give him credit for that. He did repeal the Internal Security that we all hated so much. But he is always held back, and so his attempts never go far enough.

OKB: Has the Prime Minister ever contacted you to discuss matters?

Ambiga: No, he has never done that. The movement is not a political party, so they don’t really know what to do about it. They don’t know what to do about me. They can’t believe I don’t have any political aspirations. They think I am like them.

I am sure they have checked up on me thoroughly and cannot believe how boring my past is.

OKB: Let’s talk about your global profile. In 2009, you received the Award for International Women of Courage from American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and from Michelle Obama. In July 2011, you were awarded an honorary doctorate in law by the University of Exeter, and in September 2011, the French granted you the Legion of Honour insignia. Can you talk about these?

Ambiga: In truth, all three were not given for my work with Bersih. They were acknowledgements of my work on human rights. The Hilary Clinton award was given after my presidency of the Malaysian Bar Council. The Exeter award, although that was conferred only after the rally, was decided upon before that. That was also the case for the French honour.

The beauty of the Bar was that it prepared me for the work with Bersih. At the same time, I must say that activism and advocacy are very different things. What the Bar presidency taught me was to always have a basis for everything I say. That training was excellent. I would always check what the law said on the issues involved. If I made a mistake I would admit it.

OKB: Am I right in thinking that you believe that if the electoral reforms you are calling for are carried out, most of the issues of governance we have would eventually solve themselves?

Ambiga: Eventually, that would happen, yes. That is the starting point for serious changes to come.

We need a complete mindset change. We must have leaders who do something because they think it is right.

OKB: Let me ask you, where is the intellectual work for Bersih at this time being done? Who are the thinkers? Is it just you, is it Wong Chin Huat, Pak Samad?

Ambiga: It’s all of us really. I give legal advice and some ideas, but the actual running, the implementation, the planning of the two rallies was done by Maria Chin Abdullah, for example. It’s just some very, very good people around who get things done.

And don’t forget, they stay committed as well. Pak Samad Said, for example, is an incredible man. For the Malays, for the rural Malays, he is an icon. And he communicates. He literally walks the street, recites poetry. He is a very unique and interesting human being. He is very different from me in his style.

OKB: I suspect a literary person would gain great respect in the Malay community.

Ambiga: He will tell you that on his walkabouts, people will love him and they will attack me. We appeal to different types of people. He attracts a group of people that I cannot appeal to. It’s all part of the growing consciousness in the country.

OKB: You are obviously a brave woman. But let me ask you, what fears do you have?

Ambiga: Well, when people say that I am brave, I just answer that I have no choice. Let me quote you this wonderful saying that encapsulates my point: “Being brave is not about being unafraid; being brave is to go on despite being afraid.” That’s how I would describe myself.

OKB: But do you get used to it? Does it get easier?

Ambiga: No, it does not easier, you know. For example the butt protests outside my house. It was indecent and all that, and some of it was hilarious and idiotic. But it was crossing the bounds of decency. I thought they had already gone as far as they could go, but this was beyond that.

The last protest had a huge crowd, with the Mat Rempits, you know kids on bikes. That was quite menacing, very disturbing. At every juncture I had had to face things I had never faced in my life, and it made me realise how much Anwar Ibrahim had to face, and what I experienced wasn’t even a tenth of what he faced and faces.

I suppose after a while you just ignore it. How else could you go on you know?

OKB: I suppose you accept it as being your life, your lot.

Ambiga: But what makes you go on is the support you get from the public. That’s what makes it worthwhile. When you are wondering Why me? Why me?, and you feel alone, you must realise you are never alone.

That’s what makes it all so special. The support people have shown me is all quite overwhelming.

OKB: You know, in the secular Confucian scheme of things, all one can do is to be cultivated and decent and prepared for his or her moment. Whether that moment comes or not is not for one to decide. One merely cultivates one’s nature.

Ambiga: Well, in a religious way, that is how I see things as well. I draw inspiration from the Hindu world. I pray, I read a lot, and I am quite guided by it all. I am also guided by the way I was brought up.

I remember my father, who was a surgeon, once called home from a public phone at the hospital where he worked. So I asked him why he didn’t just use his office phone. He said it was because he was calling on personal business and so should not use the hospital’s phone. It is this kind of ability to see conflicts of interest and to draw a clear line to minimise them that is so important in public service.

OKB: A good lesson to remember. Thank you for your time and for an inspiring chat.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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