Ambiga explains why Bersih has global appeal
“Its cause is noble and easily understood and cuts across racial, religious, gender and other divides.”
As reverberations from Bersih 2.0’s call for free and fair elections reach beyond Malaysia’s borders, so has the popularity of the organisation’s prime mover, S Ambiga.
A month after the July rally, she was enthusiastically received in London, where she spoke at a fund-raising dinner and participated in a dialogue on electoral reforms. She followed that up with a highly successful speaking tour of Australia. And then she went on to Europe.
FMT writer Celine Boileau caught up with her in Paris and filed for FMT the following transcript of their interview.
How do you explain the success of Bersih in Malaysia?
Firstly, Bersih’s cause for free and fair elections was a cause that was noble, easily understood and one that cut across racial, religious, gender and other divides in Malaysia.
Secondly, it was timely. The social and political conditions in Malaysia are now such that Malaysians want a more participative democracy, a system of good governance and the ability to exercise basic social rights.
Thirdly, this was a civil society initiative. It was not politically driven. As a result, it could not be easily brushed off as a mere political ploy, although attempts were made to do so.
The remarkably disproportionate response by the government to Bersih 2.0 was also a major contributing factor.
Therefore, although Bersih 2.0 started as a movement for free and fair elections, on July 9, it was about much more. It was about democracy and the public’s disgust against abuse of power.
What is the possibility of Bersih holding another rally in KL if electoral reforms are not made in time for the next general election?
There is of course the possibility of another rally if we are robbed of the reforms promised before the 13th general election. I believe people will be very disappointed if the government rushes for the election without meeting the demands of Bersih 2.0. They will feel cheated.
How did Bersih 2.0 become a global movement?
I believe that the cause that Bersih is promoting is appealing and supported by all Malaysians wherever they may be. The cause is also universal. The need for free and fair elections is a basic tenet in any democracy. Admittedly, it resonates more in developing democracies.
Much of the support comes from Malaysians living or studying abroad. Many of them have been exposed to how meaningful democracies actually function and are concerned with the repressive politics practised in Malaysia. On July 9, the rally for free and fair elections took place in 32 other cities worldwide besides Kuala Lumpur.
We must commend Bersih 2.0 supporters overseas for organising themselves. Bersih 2.0 in Malaysia did not organise them. They took the initiative to do so and we now have a vibrant global Bersih Network.
I do not believe that is accurate.
Bersih 2.0 is led by a steering committee that does not include any political party leaders. It is wholly a civil society initiative.
The first Bersih movement (in 2007) was initiated and led by many opposition party leaders together with civil society organisations. We decided to revive it—because the agenda for free and fair elections is still relevant and important—we also decided that Bersih 2.0 would be entirely a civil society movement.
Nonetheless, Bersih 2.0 does receive the support of the opposition parties in Malaysia, as they believe they are severely handicapped in the manner in which elections are run.
However, Bersih 2.0 has always sent invitations to all political parties, including the government parties, to all its functions. The government parties have never responded positively to any of these invitations.
It has been reported that with Bersih, Malaysians have, for the first time, come together to support a single cause. Do you see Bersih as game changing for Malaysia’s national identity?
I believe Bersih is game changing for Malaysian national identity. The overwhelming support for our cause shows that ordinary Malaysians do not want to be divided. Malaysians are no longer content to allow themselves to be identified and segregated according to issues based on race and religion.
The July rally has done wonders for the psyche of the citizens. They overcame many fears when they stood together that day. One of the main fears they overcame was the fear of a repeat of the racial riots of May 13, 1969.
The French newspaper Le Monde recently compared you to Aung San Suu Kyi. Is she a model for you?
I am very humbled and flattered by this comparison. She is certainly inspiring and a role model for me. But I do not believe I am deserving of the comparison. She is an icon who has suffered much more, been through much more and stood up to much more than I have ever had to.
Aung San Suu Kyi is now officially taking a political role. Is this something you’re considering?
I am not a member of any political party. Nor do I have any political aspirations. I have been painted as an opposition leader simply because it was an easy way of attacking the credibility of Bersih 2.0 and its leaders.
You recently compared Burma to Malaysia in your criticism of the Peaceful Assembly Bill. Does the comparison stop there?
It was in the context of Burma’s human rights record that I made the comment that even in a country like Burma, the peaceful assembly law appeared less oppressive. This was after I had read reports about their law, which they had coincidentally just passed.
There is no doubt that Burma’s human rights record is much worse than Malaysia. However, like Burma, we still do not have a meaningful system of checks and balances in Malaysia. Nor we do we enjoy a system of good governance.