Injecting new blood into the Bersih struggle

Rejuvenating the movement: Ambiga and Bersih 2.0 members at the lobby of Election commission in Putrajaya in February. Ambiga and her committee will step down after the People’s Tribunal. Rejuvenating the movement: Ambiga and Bersih 2.0 members at the lobby of Election commission in Putrajaya in February. Ambiga and her committee will step down after the People’s Tribunal.

By Shahanaaz Habib

BERSIH 2.0 announced after the general election that its committee would be stepping down to make way for new blood. In an interview with The Star, Bersih 2.0 co-chairman Datuk S. Ambiga explains why. She also talks about its successes, failures, mission and tackles the question of the movement being seen as biased and pro-Pakatan Rakyat.


Q: What would you say is the biggest success of Bersih?

A: The building of awareness among the Malaysian public about the issue of clean and fair elections. I think it has made Malaysians get totally involved in not just the electoral processes of the country but also, the system of democracy. At this point, that is our biggest achievement. Where reforms are concerned, we have not achieved what we wanted to. But we are not going to stop not for a minute.

Q: Then why did the Bersih 2.0 committee make the decision to step down when it is still a perjuangan yang belum selesai (unfinished struggle)?

A: We think it’s the right time. We’ve been there for more than two years. It’s always been our intention to stay till the 13th general election and finish all the business relating to the elections.

We are going to step down after the People’s Tribunal. We can’t stay there forever. I am a firm believer of limited terms. I hope our political masters embrace this too. We believe in rejuvenation that there must be changes in leadership so that there is a rejuvenation of the movement.

I got this from the Malaysian Bar where one can’t be president for more than two years consecutively. There is wisdom in that. Nothing has happened to the Bar. In fact, we have seen better and better leaders come along, so to me it is a question of having faith in the up and coming leaders and giving them the responsibility. With Bersih 2.0, I am absolutely confident there are enough people who are qualified to take over.

Q: But won’t the agenda shift under a new committee?

A: They may shift focus but I don’t think they’ll shift the agenda. Electoral reform is one agenda but within that agenda itself, they may shift focus in relation to that. You must remember organisations, NGOs, civil society are members of the movement and they are the ones who will determine and have always determined the direction of Bersih. And I don’t see any problem with continuity after we leave.

Q: What are Bersih’s failures?

A: We have failed to push for sufficient reform before the 13th general election. I think that is not just our failure, but everyone’s failure. We can only push but it didn’t happen.

If you are looking at failures, that would be the one that stands out.

In fact, we were so alarmed by the huge number of smear campaigns, political violence and money politics that was allowed to continue unchecked despite objections. Pemantau, our citizen observer mission, issued weekly reports about it after parliament was dissolved as to what was wrong during the campaign period. To me, you could regard it as a failure of the system.

Q: What do you think of the reforms the Election Commission (EC) had put in place?

A: Indelible ink didn’t work. It was a failure. I don’t believe there was enough commitment to indelible ink to ensure its success. Once you tell me you diluted the ink (to contain less than 1% silver nitrate content) it’s doomed to failure, Why was the public not informed of the dilution? And about silver nitrate causing cancer? I don’t even know if that’s accurate. I would imagine you’d need to drink a bottle of it before it could affect you. Why was there no transparency with the public? We didn’t know it was diluted and we were shocked to hear that.

And having just read news reports on the use of food colouring (instead of chemical in the indelible ink), I have to say I am flabbergasted! Why are we getting a different story every time about the ink?

My question is was that deliberate or just incompetence? Either way it was to me a misrepresentation to the public. That’s a failure that one demand didn’t work.

As for the longer campaign period fair enough. We asked for three weeks, they gave two that’s fine.

On the overseas voting, the way it was implemented was not at all satisfactory. It was very last minute and people were unclear. And we had concerns about the security of the ballots.

The advance voting was a new thing that was introduced but it was marred by the indelible ink being able to be washed off. Advance voting in particular is of concern because if the ink washes off, they can vote again on polling day. That’s obvious. I believe the opposition parties asked for a list of the advanced voters but were refused the list. Why? What’s so difficult about giving that list? It’s this cloak- and-dagger behaviour that is of concern. There is just no transparency. It is disconcerting and gives rise to speculation and people believing the worst. If you are transparent about all these things, then people at least understand what is happening.

Q: You have said this was the dirtiest election but what is your basis of comparison? Surely the 2008 and 2004 and elections prior to these were dirtier?

A: No. I believe this was the worst because the dirty tactics were so overt. Don’t forget a lot of the irregularities or dirty tactics take place before polling day. It doesn’t just happen on polling day. If you look at the run up to this election, there was money politics, smear campaigns and political violence like we’ve never seen before. For example, when the opposition went to campaign, there were instances of violence and there were even bombs we don’t even know who did that. (There were four bomb scares – three at DAP offices and one at the PKR HQ in the run-up to the election where explosive material without detonators were found there and the police were called in to detonate these devices and investigate who was behind it). Those sort of things. And there was racist rhetoric as never seen before. When I say “dirtiest” it is my perception but I have a basis for saying this. The Selangor (Pakatan Rakyat) state government found there were many voters on the electoral roll in the state who could not be traced and reported this to the Election Commission (EC) but they did nothing. What does that tell you? If you had an Election Commission that was genuinely interested in a clean electoral roll, they would have acted immediately on a report like that especially when you have the state government raising it.

Q: But if there was fraud on the roll, then how could Pakatan Rakyat win so big in Selangor?

A: This is despite the discrepancies. Winning big doesn’t mean there was no fraud. They might have done even better if the electoral roll was clean. But the facts have to emerge before final conclusions are drawn.

Q : Bersih had Pemantau (a team of volunteer election observers) going around during the election. Have you found areas of concerns backed by evidence?

A: Yes we have. We are writing a report and we will release it soon. Don’t forget this is the first time we are doing it. We find some of the information received back may not be as detailed as we had hoped. Considering that it is the first time we have done it, I think we have got some interesting results results, that I think people should take notice of.

Q: But does it suggest fraud?

A: I can’t say anything just yet because we have to go through it and analyse it then come to our conclusion.

Q: What is the mechanism for the People’s Tribunal?

A: We will be making an announcement on that quite soon. The tribunal will start proceedings in Sept. This is a mechanism that happens around the world and is something endorsed by human rights groups. It is really the people finding out the truth through an independent panel. Obviously, the panel has to be independent. Unlike election petitions, the tribunal will be looking at the overall picture of the election so it will look at everything – the electoral roll, the delineation, the allegations made. There are many allegations and it is good for an independent body to study those. For me, the People’s Tribunal is critical because we have to confront what happened in the 13th general election before we can really move on.

Some people say there was fraud, some say no. I think we should gather all this and leave it to an independent tribunal to draw conclusions. We hope EC and all those people who have anything to say on the issue will participate.

Q: Would people see those sitting in the People’s Tribunal as independent or are you drawing them from Bersih?

A: They would be totally outside Bersih. That’s why we need distinguished people. We already have some distinguished people who have agreed and we are still waiting for others to reply, so we can’t make the announcement yet. When you look at the people who are sitting on the tribunal, all sides will be comforted that they are people whom no one can interfere with and who would be absolutely committed to the truth. Bersih wants the truth. Everyone wants the truth.

Q: Bersih is withholding recognition of the elected government until the outcome of the People’s Tribunal and what impact does that have?

A: What we actually meant was that we will not comment until we have the facts. And we will base our decision on the findings coming from the People’s Tribunal. Many have said the Tribunal has no legal standing, but it has moral force. We hope with those findings, we can move the agenda for reforms much more quickly because it will be based on findings and fact rather than speculation.

Q: You have said the findings of the People’s Tribunal findings will be given to the authorities but Bersih has been on the warpath with the authorities, including the government, the Election Commission (EC), the National Registration Department (NRD), the Immigration so why would they listen?

A: We need to do what we think is right. When I say the authorities, it is to the PM, to Suhakam and the like because I think it’s important for everyone to see and read the findings, whatever they may be. It may favour one side or the other we don’t know. We hope they will receive it in good faith because only then will there be hope for any commitment to reform.


Q: Why are you asking EC to step down for this elections?

A: It’s appalling what they have done with these elections. And they have always behaved as if they don’t have the power to stop election offenses and so on. They always say it is not within our power but I disagree.

Q: But do you believe the problem will be solved if these personalities go away?

A: No but it’s a start. If they do resign, then we will all have to have an input who should be appointed. But ultimately if there’s no real political will to really reform, it won’t happen.

What’s happening with electoral reform now is cosmetic – it is being seen to be done so that it looks as if they are reforming. But a real cleaning up of the system needs much more than that. It’s like corruption just by having a minister (Datuk Paul Low) there, although he may be committed to bringing change – is not enough. It is not really getting to the root of the problem.

Without political will, it means nothing. Without charging people and dealing with corruption, it’s not much use. It’s cosmetic again.

Q: But why are you attacking EC and not NRD because they are the ones that issue ICs?

A: To me, that’s a mere deflection of the criticism. Are you telling me that if the EC knows that NRD is issuing ICs illegally that they don’t have a duty to make a police report to ensure that the electoral roll is clean? I’ll tell you why I think it’s ultimately EC’s responsibility. Under Section 9 (a) which was introduced under the Elections Act, courts can’t look at the electoral roll anymore. It is entirely “looked after” by the EC, so they hold the electoral roll in trust for the people. If anything happens that is polluting the electoral roll, EC has a public duty, a constitutional duty, to do something about it.

Right now it’s “I see no evil, I am not going to do anything about it, I am not the one another agency is involved so I am not going to do anything”. To me, considering their position under the Federal Constitution, that’s not acceptable.

Q: But why has Bersih not gone after NRD?

A: We are critical of NRD but that’s the government. We say if NRD is doing something wrong, why is EC not lodging a police report?

You are right. Our focus is more on the EC because we think the EC is ultimately responsible. I think NRD is very much a part of this but I feel we are not just attacking the EC but we are attacking the whole system and this includes the NRD.

There are systemic problems with the elections. When we want to clean up, it includes the NRD doing the registration. For me, it’s treasonous if you are giving away ICs to people who are legally not entitled to it. Despite the fact we and everyone says it, what is the response of the NRD? Silence. What about the response of the government? Silence.

Before people jump at us and say no foreigners voted, please listen to the evidence coming out from the RCI (Royal Commission Inquiry into the illegal immigrants in Sabah) in Sabah it’s a fact that foreigners have voted in our elections. If it happened in Sabah, it can happen here.


Q: In 2011, some in Umno and Barisan Nasional said Bersih’s cause for electoral reform is good and they would have supported the cause if you had brought in ex-judges and neutral personalities because who doesn’t want free and fair elections; but your neutrality was called to question when you sat with Anwar Ibrahim for a joint press conference before the Bersih 2.0 rally?

A: That’s rubbish. I don’t believe them not for one minute. Look at the attacks against me and Bersih in the lead up to the rally. They called us foreign agents. They still do.

We tried to engage the EC too but we were getting fobbed off with all these non-answer answers. I know I got a lot of criticism for that press conference where I was with the Pakatan leaders (2011) which was the day of the (Bersih 2.0) rally itself. But by the time rally came, there were grave concerns over our security. I myself got death threats. They did everything to try and stop the rally.

Because of security reasons, the Pakatan leadership said you better be with us’ because they had the security. So that is why I was at that press conference with them. I made that clear even at the press conference that we were left with no choice.

Pakatan was not the one attacking us it was Barisan Nasional so it was for security reasons that I was there and that is also the reason I don’t believe these people, nobody tried to engage with us. Who tried to engage with us?

Q: Some Umno MPs including Kota Belud MP Datuk Rahman Dahalan said back in 2011 that you didn’t try to engage the Barisan Backbenchers?

A: I did. At every event we had, we invited both parties Pakatan and Barisan. If they were really interested in electoral reform, what’s the difficulty in calling me? Are they waiting for me to call them? Is that what the issue is? But they can call me too.

Q: But why you didn’t call them. Is it ego?

A: No, not for me because we have invited them. We always have. And actually I have spoken to some of the Barisan people it’s not like I haven’t. But they always use the excuse like they say you are pro-opposition, then that is a reason for them not to engage you.

Q: But that was only after the 2011 press conference with Anwar (July 9 2011) Before that, Bersih was seen as somewhat neutral, why didn’t you engage them then?

A: But did you see what they were doing to me? How do you engage someone who is attacking you daily? They wanted to take away my citizenship. The PM called me anti- Islam how do you deal with a PM who said that? Then there were death threats and they threatened the ISA on us. They declared Bersih illegal how much more do you want? The attacks were almost on a daily basis. It was non-stop. Tell me how do you engage people who do that to you? It shows me they don’t want to engage. They are not interested in engaging.

Q: But now Bersih is seen as being hijacked by Pakatan Rakyat?

A: They will always say that. What can you do with perception? Listen to our message. What is wrong with our message?

Even if it comes from Pakatan Rakyat which it doesn’t if what they are asking for is good, shouldn’t the government respond accordingly?

And it’s time for them to become mature politicians, to accept the opposition as people whom the rakyat have elected. If the rakyat have elected them, they have to respect that. They treat the opposition as the enemy of the nation. Nowhere in a mature democracy is it taken to this level. Here, now you have both sides attacking each other on a daily basis.

Q: But ours is not a mature democracy. Isn’t ours a young democracy?

A: It should be what we aim for. We should get used to the idea of an opposition. It is good for the people to have a strong opposition because ultimately people benefit. What Bersih is aiming for is a two-party democracy. We don’t care who those parties are because when it is a multi-party democracy, then we benefit – because whatever government policies are put forward, the opposition is there like a watchdog. That’s what we want. We don’t care who it is as long as it is a multi-party democracy. We must have the power to change them if we don’t want them.

Q: You know people wouldn’t be surprised if you stood as a Pakatan candidate for this election?

A: They were wrong.

Q: But Pakatan did ask you didn’t they to be a candidate?

A: “People” did suggest it but very early on and very quickly, I made it clear that I was not interested. And that was the end of the matter.

Q: But does it bug you at all when you are seen part of Pakatan?

A: It used to bother me initially but it doesn’t anymore because I am very clear in my mind and in my conscience that whatever I am doing is for the benefit of the country and not anyone in particular. And that my ultimate goal is a multi-party democracy. Barisan didn’t invite me to anything. If Barisan invites me to a function, I will go there and say the same things I do in a Pakatan ceramah.

I did get one invitation from Barisan just days before the election (from the Barisan-MCA Cheras candidate) and I went there and I said the same things. There are people in Barisan who are prepared to engage and who don’t use the silly excuse oh you are Pakatan and all that’. Perhaps they dare not because it will not be looked upon too kindly by their leaders.

Q: But like it or not, you are seen to be pro-Pakatan?

A: But not everybody says that. Some people are very clear what it is we want.

Q: Why did you keep silent on the discrepancies in the DAP CEC election?

A: Because we don’t get involved with party elections because that is under the Societies Act. Otherwise tomorrow, for the Selangor Club elections, they will ask why didn’t I say something?

There’s also a legal reason for it.

For party elections if members have an issue – only members can make a fuss and there is a mechanism within to complain to the Registrar of Societies (ROS). But if they don’t make a fuss, that is the end of the matter. So it is up to members whether they are unhappy enough to do something. But if they are prepared to accept whatever it is, if the society carries on, then it is not for us to say otherwise. It is entirely within the Societies Act mechanism.

And with DAP, members have gone and reported it and the ROS is looking at it. We can’t get involved. We are only concerned about the general election which affects the whole country.

We are not going to get involved with societies or political parties’ elections. If anything is wrong, then they have to answer for it. I am not saying the public shouldn’t judge them. That is the risk they run if there are discrepancies or whatever, then the public will judge them.

When they ask us (Bersih) to get involved in the DAP election, then they have to be prepared for us to get involved in every party election.

Do they want us to get involved in the Umno elections? I don’t think so. And I wouldn’t! That’s ridiculous! Those are party elections and the mechanism for members to challenge it is there. Our agenda is the general election, which affects the whole country, for goodness sake! And there’s already enough work for us to do!

Q: During the election campaign, you went to Nurul Izzah’s ceramah, and a Pakatan ceramah in Johor and Seremban, aren’t you endorsing those candidates?

A: Wherever Bersih was invited, we went, because that was a critical time for us to get the message across about voter turnout. That was the aim. And look, there was 85% voter turnout. I am not saying it’s because of us, because a lot of people did a lot of work to get people out including Barisan. So well done to everyone for that. For me, wherever I could go and get the message across, I did. Since mainly the opposition invited me, so be it.

Q: But people would say who are you kidding because you were clearly campaigning for these candidates?

A: Well, they can look at what I say and decide. But I did talk about corruption. I talked about good governance but I talk about that all the time wherever I go. I also made it clear that I wasn’t there to tell them who to vote for. That is their choice and their choice only.


Q: Bersih had a difficult relationship with the last Home Minister . Do you have plans to engage the new Home Minister or do you think it’s the same-old same-old?

A: Our focus right now is the election. The Home Minister is more involved with things like enforcement and the police, and there are no plans to engage the home minister yet. But so far, his reactions in telling people to leave the country if they didn’t like it here, is the same-old same-old. It’s repeating the mantra which goes against every principle of democracy. It’s hard to even start engaging if that is the attitude.

My engagement with the people in Malaysia has changed me and really opened my eyes.

It showed me how decent Malaysians really are. My sadness is that so many of our leaders don’t see that because they don’t see the good in all Malaysians.

I really wish they could see Malaysians through my eyes and the eyes of Bersih. Then they wouldn’t say things like Oh we won’t look after the Chinese because they didn’t vote for us’ or things like We are going to take away the passport of overseas Malaysians because they spoil the name of the country’.

We must look at the overseas Malaysians and see them as people who really care about the country. Why do you need to look at them negatively and say they are spoiling the name of the country? Grouping the Chinese and saying ‘They didn’t vote for us’ (Barisan) is terribly racist. Why can’t they say Why didn’t they vote for us and let’s see if we can improve’ . When we go down and speak to the people, they really care about the country. I really wish our leaders would see that.

Just like those who voted for Barisan as well, they have their reasons. I would imagine what Pakatan should be doing is engaging them and finding out why they (Pakatan) fell short. What do we all want at the end of the day? Some want to make a lot of money but the majority want a good life and to be happy and safe.

Q: Bersih has been trying to see the Immigration D-G on a news report that some 6,000 or so passports of Malaysian overseas would be revoked for smearing the country’s name overseas, but the D-G has since clarified that he never said that and had been misquoted. So why the need to see him?

A: His clarification wasn’t clear We are still trying to see him and will follow up with a further letter if we have to. We got information recently from Malaysians overseas that based on what the D-G said people were threatening them. Malaysians overseas were told their passports are going to revoked if they went to the 505 rallies which is a way to try and stop people from going to these rallies. You don’t use extreme measures on people just because they are critical of the government or have a different political view. So some people were using what the D-G said to threaten people overseas not to attend.

Q: Any plans to go back to Sarawak soon (Ambiga was barred from entering Sarawak in 2011)? And while Sabah and Sarawak have the right to bar those from other states from entering the state, what can be done about this like in the case of Nurul Izzah who was banned from Sabah not too long ago?

A: I don’t know if I am still banned from Sarawak.

The states actually don’t have an absolute right. There is a section under the Immigration Act that if you are going in for genuine political activity, then you don’t need any permission and they are supposed to just let you in. But people forget that.

When they (Immigration) stops you, they really need to give you a good reason why you can’t enter. Just because they have the power, it doesn’t mean they can abuse it and use it for the most frivolous reason. That is where there should really be restriction.

It would be wonderful if there is case law which states what are actually the circumstances under which they can ban someone from going in. We have to keep challenging it in court. In the Sarawak case, I filed here (In Peninsular) because if I am not allowed into Sarawak how do I go in to hear my own case? But the court said no’.

I don’t know if Tian Chua or Nurul Izzah are filing suits (for being barred from Sabah) . Izzah should but I don’t know if she is.


Q: What do you think about the debate about popular vote vs the first-past-the-post system.?

A: It happens. You can win the popular vote and still lose the election. It has happened in other countries too. To me, the discrepancy is this – that despite winning the 51% popular vote Pakatan won only 89 seats whereas Barisan which won 47% got 133 seats. What that shows is the malapportionment of the seats because the discrepancy shouldn’t be so much.

Q: But that is the system we went into the election with? Why fuss about it after the elections?

A: Because no one thought it would happen. And there was no choice because that was the way the redelineation was done.

This is the first time the opposition has won the popular vote . It is significant because despite winning the popular vote, you can get so few seats. People always talk about popular vote because it is good to know how many people actually voted for you. It is something that you take note of.

Pakatan too should take note that more than 40 % didn’t vote for them. I personally think that parties should take note of people who didn’t vote for them and find out why and then work on it.

It doesn’t mean that by winning the popular vote that you are entitled to govern. Even with fair delineation, it can happen. But with fair delineation, with that kind of popular vote, Pakatan would have gotten many more seats and might have even won.

Redelineation can’t be done less than eight years before the last one. The last redelineation that was done was so unfair.

And now EC is carrying on sailing into the sunset doing another redelineation exercise, and they are going to base it on the present electoral roll. That is unacceptable because the electoral roll needs cleaning up.

For me, they must do that first, only then can they proceed with the delineation. But they are trying to rush and do the redelineation on this roll. And this is despite the RCI in Sabah going on and they can see the evidence coming out from there and they still want to go ahead. That is something people should be aware of.

Q: How does Bersih propose cleaning the electoral roll?

A: You need to go through it. It’s like doing census, checking whether this person exist, passed away or moved, The UN did it in Bangladesh. It is actually good to invite the UN in to help us clean up the roll. Bangladesh actually stalled the election until their electoral roll was cleaned up. They now have a photograph of the person against his name, so there is a way to do it but it will take a couple of years. Given the evidence from the RCI now, we have to check this and that person and deal with the NRD as well to do a thorough clean up. It can and must be done.

Q: When (Datuk Seri) Najib (Tun Razak) became Prime Minister, he introduced the Public Assembly Act, he repealed the ISA, the EO and withdrew the proclamation of emergency, does that not amount to anything?

A: Those were good things and I credit him for that. I think people don’t appreciate how important it was to withdraw the Emergency but it is. So is the Peaceful Assembly Act although I don’t agree with all the provisions. But leaving all that aside, it was a significant change in mindset and that is what has changed the mindset of the police now. They actually handle public assemblies much better now. So in a sense, I feel the law has to lead the way. Those are good things to his credit. As far as Sosma is concerned, maybe there are issues it didn’t go far enough and so on – but it still a step forward. I credit the government for that. But you can have the best laws in the world – but if the enforcement is selective, unfair, incompetent or corrupt – then the system will still fail.

Q: The Suhakam inquiry on Bersih 3.0 found that the police did use disproportionate force in its handling of the 2012 rally, so what happens now?

A: The Suhakam annual report is supposed to be read in parliament but it isn’t. There is no respect for the Suhakam report. Everything is done by political will. Doing and shouting helps but you can only do so much.

The importance of the Suhakam’ inquiry is that the evidence comes up and findings are made. To be fair to the police, since then, I think they have made an effort to change how they handle public assemblies.

And I think it is because in every instance they were made accountable for what they did. The minute you start making people accountable, they change and don’t act with such impunity.

But if you don’t make them accountable – it doesn’t matter to who – to another body or someone – then they won’t change. So that is the strength of the Suhakam inquiries.

Q: Bersih 2.0 is supporting the Black 505 rally but the EC has already said they are not resigning?

A: We support the call for EC to resign and not do the redelineation exercise until they resign.

Under the Federal Constitution, the King appoints people who enjoy public confidence to those posts, so we need to actually make it clear that the public don’t have confidence in them. There are reasons why we are saying this and we need to keep saying it.

Q; Are you in favour of street demonstrations to topple an elected government?

A: No. We haven’t come to that point. Our leaders are paranoid about this but they don’t understand the nation at all. For me, we can still change the system without resorting to that.

I believe that change is more enduring if you do it through a way of empowerment and education. This is my personal belief in the sense that these results show me that perhaps not everyone is empowered as they should be and perhaps there are a lot of things that people don’t understand. And this is because information is not getting to them. So work needs to be done there. When you bring change that way, it’s far more enduring. We hope we can bring change that way.

Q: What about street demonstrations to force someone to resign like with you all demanding EC resigns and what’s the difference?

A: To me, that’s okay. That’s why I don’t agree with the Peaceful Assembly Act because it says no street protests but to me that is a fundamental right under the Federal Constitution but the condition is that it is must be peaceful.

Bringing down a government is far more serious because there was an election, however flawed it may be. You don’t need to change a government that way. It is far better if we can do it through the ballot box. If at all it comes to a changing of government, we want to do it through the ballot box. That is my personal view. But we must not be deprived of the chance to do it through the ballot box in a clean election.

Q: There were peaceful rallies like the Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat at Stadium Merdeka in January and the Pakatan 505 rally after the elections at the Kelana Jaya stadium which were in enclosed areas. Why not just have these rallies in stadiums because that way you can ensure it will be peaceful and you guys can shout all you like from morning till night?

A: The government would love it if we went to a stadium to shout there because they can ignore us But a stadium can’t contain everybody. And the whole point of a street protest – which is a fundamental right in mature democracies – is that you need to be visible.

In between elections, one of the ways to make yourself heard – if the government is not interested in engaging you – is by showing your disapproval on the streets. That is why in our constitution – it states freedom of assembly – it doesn’t state freedom of assembly in a stadium!

Q: But what about the right of others to go shop and go about without disruption?

A: Then the same thing should apply when they shut places down for the Olympic run, KL Marathon or any other purpose. For Bersih 3.0 (2012), everything was fine and the business was roaring until the tear gas was fired. There are advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, people have to put up with some level of discomfort to accept the exercise of a fundamental right. This happens all over the world.


Q: For Bersih 3.0, why didn’t you tell the people not to breach the barricade no matter what, because that would only give the police an excuse to act?

A: We did. We passed the message. It was on the website and most people didn’t breach it which is why the rally was peaceful for hours from morning. We don’t agree with the breaching of the barricade.

Q: But Bersih lost control of the rally?

A: We lost control after they fired tear gas. The mayhem was caused when tear gas was fired then we lost control.

Q: No. Control was lost the minute the people breached the barricade?

A: I disagree. When the barricade was broken, the police could have dealt with those people who breached the barricade and that would have been the end of the matter. They could have formed a tight cordon in front of barrier. But the police actually moved. It was almost as if they knew it (the breach) was going to happen and let it happen. If they really wanted to block, they could have. My view is that whoever broke the law have to face the consequences. We don’t condone violence. It was the police’s call. They could have contained it. They had the resources to do it. The ruckus was caused when the tear gas was fired and when the assaults started taking place.

Q: In retrospect, what would you have done differently?

A: We would have had a better sound system. We were supposed to be on the (Dataran Merdeka) field and we had a sound system arranged for that but because the court order was served just the day before (not to allow Bersih 3.0 to use Dataran Merdeka) , we couldn’t make any quick alternative arrangement except for those wretched loud hailers which I think were not enough. It was very last minute. We could have also used big signs to communicate with people. We could have done that and a few other things better.

We have also learnt from the experience. Ultimately, the responsibility of security is not ours. It is the police’s but the responsibility of ensuring as far as possible a peaceful rally is shared between us and the police. We do whatever we can and we did.

We had 5,000 over people there helping ensure security and we had ambulances – we arranged those ourselves. But it is the police who have the means to enforce security. And it is a pity that we didn’t work together. That is what we wanted. If we had worked together, it would have been fine. We could have said we would like so many police here, and so many police there and there’ – it would have been fine. What was funny too was there was this massive number of police to stop us from going into a small patch of green (Dataran Merdeka). It was not like we were going to the Palace. It was just a patch of green, which by the way is open to the public everyday of the week. How ridiculous is that?

Q: But the opposition has hijacked Bersih’s agenda?

A: They have no means of hijacking the agenda. We are dealing with very strong minded civil society leaders. No one is going to hijack what we do. How do you hijack an agenda?

Q: Anwar spoke on the Bersih 3.0 rally and I saw some tweets from people who were there who were unhappy that it had turned political. They came because of Bersih, and were fine with Anwar being there as just a participant but not to speak?

A: I know a lot of people felt that. It was not in the programme for him to speak. But having said that – once any leader comes – whether they are parliamentarians from Barisan or Pakatan and there were people who want to hear them, then people have the right to hear them. It is difficult to say oh no you can’t speak’ when people were chanting his name and wanted to hear him. So it does happen. But it was a Bersih event and it wasn’t in the agenda for him to speak.

Q: Some say Bersih and Pakatan have a relationship of mutual need – Bersih needs the opposition to bring in the numbers for the rally while the Pakatan needs Bersih because it needs a cause?

A: It is not a question of need but it is a question of sharing the same cause. Of course, Pakatan would support clean and fair elections because they think the elections are not clean and fair and that is why they lost. No one should die of shock from that! It is absolutely predictable.

It is also predictable that some people in the government won’t support it because they want to keep the status quo. That’s predictable too.

To say we share the same agenda on clean and fair elections – yes of course. We share that agenda with a lot of people, even in Barisan, who do also believe in that. At the end of the day, I wonder why people spend time on this when they should be more concerned about the partisanship of the EC who are supposed to run the free and fair elections. No one talks about that – the bias nature of the EC. But they’ll go on and on about Bersih and being pro opposition – there you are.

Q: The lines between Pakatan and Bersih have become blurred and recently Tian Chua (PKR) and Mat Sabu (PAS) have said they want to organise Bersih 4.0? Are you comfortable with that?

A: Everybody loves using Bersih. What about the lot outside my house (who held an anti-Ambiga and anti-Bersih 3.0 protest) – they said they were Bersih 4! What can you do? You can’t stop people from using the Bersih name.

But I think it is important that if it is a Bersih organised event that it will only be called by Bersih. I think most people know that. Everybody wants to take ownership of Bersih- not just Mat Sabu and Tian Chua.

Q: How did you feel about the butt exercise and burger stalls outside your house?

A: It was disgraceful conduct. Without doubt ,there was elements of racism but there were also elements of sexism. People shouldn’t underestimate the attack because I am a woman. I felt anger but you can’t show your anger sometimes. After all of it was over, I was angry that people dared feel that they had the right to come to my gate, my space, and give me a memorandum telling me to get out of the country!

(Bersih co-chairman Datuk A. Samad Said) Pak Samad was there and accepted the memorandum and he asked them “Why didn’t you come to my house? Why are you picking on her?” That’s why I say don’t underestimate the sexism and racism there.

It was like a war zone – there were hundreds of people on motorbikes outside on the road to my house to harass and intimidate me. The police were there to control the crowd and they didn’t tell them to buzz off and our deputy IGP who is our present IGP said there was nothing wrong with it. That bothered me too because they were breaching a number of laws.

Q: During that time, did you tell yourself why am I doing this and that it’s not worth it’?

A: In 2011, when some of those attacks happened, that flashed through my mind. But since then no. Honestly when I saw the support I got from people, it’s overwhelming. After those (butt) exercises outside my house (in 2012), you should have seen the flowers that arrived outside my house. People I didn’t know would drop by, come and say prayers with me and make their kids sing for me. The number of people who came were unbelievable.

Some dropped by because they were so angry with what had happened. It was spontaneous. When you see that, you realise why you are doing what you do.

I also had a lovely surprise when I came into the office one day and I received a big glass jar filled with over 100 coloured notes that youngsters had written. They wrote the most wonderful things just to cheer me up. I read every single one. It was just incredible how Bersih has touched the hearts of so many. That’s why I say I wish our leaders could see Malaysians through our eyes when we see the best in them. That’s what keep you keep you going.

Q: Would Bersih be able to forge a relationship with Barisan Nasional?

A: We are always open to engaging with any party. Yes, it is possible but it needs a mindset change in the government because they need to stop treating us as the enemy. I think it is difficult for now. At some point ,we want to get Bersih registered as a society. I suppose that will be a first step on engaging with us. The difficulty lies in a real difference of opinion as to the core values of governance. I would not want to engage just for show.


Q: What do you think of EC reporting to a parliament select committee?

A: We object to it on principle. The EC must be free from political interference. They should be completely independent of parliamentarians because they need to set the rules for parliamentarians. It is the parliamentarians and the government who should be scared of the EC. If you look at India, all candidates are petrified of the Election Commission because they know that if they don’t fall in line, they will face action. That is the position of the EC under the constitution. They are like judges their status is like that of a federal court judge. But when you make them report to parliamentarians who are potential candidates in the next election, it’s wholly unacceptable.

It is better to get good EC commissioners. They should be independent and accountable to the public not parliament. But parliament can remove them for misconduct like it can with the judiciary. A parliament can move a motion for a tribunal to be appointed to look into misconduct. That’s all. Then an independent tribunal takes over. And this is only to restricted circumstances if there is misconduct. That’s good enough.

Q: Who should sit as EC commissioners?

A: For starters, no ex-civil servants because they have a loyalty to the government which they can’t seem to shake off. There should be a process like the appointment of Suhakam commissioners or appointment of judges through Judicial Appointments Commission, a process where the recommendation is made to the King. It should be free of the PM like a committee made up of civil society and others. You can’t completely eliminate (political influence) but you can do your best.

– The Star

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1 Response to Injecting new blood into the Bersih struggle

  1. vong says:

    I hope our political masters embrace this too. – End of quote
    Ambiga, Ambiga!!!
    By saying that, you have highly over rated the scums!!!!1
    They are but our servants!
    Civil servants, although most of the time, they aren’t even civil!
    Because they want to guard their gravy train at all costs!!!!!
    Don’t think that they are fighting tooth and nail to stay in power for the sake of the people!!!!
    Remember, the owners of this country WANT to dismiss such servants!!!!!!!

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