Penangites flocked to listen to Bersih 2.0 co-chair Ambiga Sreenevasan speak on the crucial issues that surround the coming general election. Anil Netto has the story.
More than 500 Penangites packed the first floor hall at the Caring Society Complex in Penang to listen to Bersih 2.0 Steering Committee co-chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan’s thoughts on ‘Elections and Democracy’.
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In a stirring address at the forum organised by Aliran on 7 October 2012, Ambiga thanked the audience in Penang for their impressive turnout at the Bersih 3.0 solidarity gathering at the Esplanade on 28 April.
She highlighted the harassment experienced by Suaram after it had exposed the Scorpene submarine scandal and noted that the brouhaha about the human rights group’s sources of funding mirrored Bersih’s own experience not long ago.
But after the Bersih 2.0 rally last year, she said Bersih had been funded entirely by Malaysians, she noted. “In fact, I even get SMSes from ordinary Malaysians asking, where can I send money to Bersih; I want to help.”
Ambiga noted the irony of politicians complaining about sources of funding: “Who are they to question these groups about their sources of funding when they have practised dirty money politics for the longest time?”
The former two-term Bar Council chairperson complained that postal votes are easily manipulated and lamented the lack of integrity of the electoral rolls, which now cannot even be challenged in court. Even the media are not free and during election campaigns they fail to display party manifestos over television, keeping the public in the dark. “It’s a disgrace!” she said.
High stakes involved
The government is ignoring ‘the elephant in the room’: corruption. “All of you are here because you are concerned about the level of integrity in public life.”
At the same time, she pointed to selective prosecution, the most glaring of which was the one that eventually resulted in the death of political aide Teoh Beng Hock over an investigation into just RM2000.
Meanwhile, she said it is ridiculous that our politicians are not saying anything about political aggression or violence. “It shows me there is tacit support for it.”
On the other hand, the young woman who stepped on the Prime Minister’s image was handcuffed and publicly condemned.
Free and fair elections are important because they bolster democracy and they encourage a respect for fundamental rights, she said.
“Vote for people who will uphold the Federal Constitution, for those who will do something to curb corruption, for goodness sake,” Ambiga urged the participants.
Undemocratic governments will not be able to survive for long, as people have more access to information. But although three million have registered as voters since 2008, another three million have not yet voted. “We need to reach out and draw these people in.”
The next general elections are going to be very contentious, and people are getting more interested and engaged because they realise that the rot has to stop now.
“Dictatorships have elections too but it doesn’t mean they are democracies; but if you have clean and fair elections, you will be working your way to a vibrant democracy. If you have clean and fair elections, it makes your MPs more accountable and reduces corruption.”
Studies have found that the poor will also be better represented, she said.
Is there hope at the end of the day? Yes, there’s a lot of hope, she said, “because there are a lot of good right-thinking Malaysians who want to put things right. They are not going to accept second best or people talking rubbish.”
Ambiga referred to an International Crisis Group report, which noted the strengthening of civil society and pointed to the Bersih movement as a “game-changer”.
Also present was Bersih Steering Committee member Dr Wong Chin Huat, who highlighted discrepancies in the electoral rolls. He said Bersih had moved beyond an electoral reform movement to a movement to renew the nation. He stressed the importance of a high voter turnout to send a clear cut message that this country wants to move forward, not backwards.
Chin Huat then described how ordinary Malaysians cast aside their old fears and came out in their tens of thousands for the Bersih 3.0 rally. “You have more and more Malaysians coming out. You know you are not alone.”
“We need to renew our independence and reclaim our country.”
Focus on clean and fair elections, added Ambiga. “Everything we do from now will help, I promise you.”
Change is needed
Earlier, Aliran president Francis Loh welcomed the crowd and then Aliran secretary Mustafa K Anuar took over as emcee. He promised the participants that images of the audience would not be photo-edited to show a much larger crowd squeezed like sardines! The crowd roared knowingly.
A heavy downpour outside the hall did not dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm for the forum as they hung on to every word.
Before Ambiga took the floor, the immediate past president of Aliran, P Ramakrishnan, in his welcome address mentioned that the only way electoral reforms could be achieved would be via a change of government in the upcoming general election.
Rama pointed out that civil servants once had to retire at the age of 55. Now the ruling parties have ruled for 55 years. It is time for them to retire at the general election! The voters are the masters and the politicians are the servants, he said. Malaysians are the torch-bearers of freedom and it is our duty to bring about change.
He went on to outline the corruption and decay in Malaysian society, including education. He also lamented eroding national unity and the emergence of racist groups such as Perkasa.
Mustafa then introduced several video clips that were screened. One of them featured the Bersih 3.0 solidarity event organised by Aliran at the Esplanade in Penang on 28 April 2012 attended by an estimated 10,000 people including the Penang Chief Minister. Thousands signed a large yellow banner to show their support for Bersih. This banner was put up on stage in the hall .
Other video clips featured Bersih co-chairperson Pak Samad reading a poem, Unggun Bersih (Cleansing Fire), which he specially composed for the Bersih 3.0 Duduk Bersih event as well as snippets of an Aliran high-tea event in Penang the following day.
Ambiga was originally supposed to feature together with Pak Samad at that high-tea. But due to detentions – among those detained was Chin Huat – at the gathering in Kuala Lumpur, she was obliged to remain in KL to help out. Aliran had then promised the guests at the high-tea that it would organise a forum featuring Ambiga at a future date – a pledge that has now been fulfilled.
No tolerance for electoral fraud
Both Ambiga and Chin Huat then participated in a panel discussion moderated by Aliran president Dr Francis Loh and fielded questions from the floor. A burning question emerged. Would Ambiga consider contesting in the coming election? No, she is not interested, she said; moreover, it would undermine Bersih as she would be accused of taking advantage of the movement for personal gain.
Another participant pointed out that the elections as they stand now are not free or fair for voters with disabilities. Yet another asked, how do we reach out to people who have not yet registered as voters?
Chin Huat, responding to a question from the floor, stressed that election workers are not allowed to write anything on ballot papers before handing them to the voters.
He felt Malaysians would not take any electoral fraud sitting down. “One of the wonderful things about Bersih 3.0 is that we have seen ordinary Malaysians coming out, and Malaysians regardless of their ethno-religious background are standing by one another.”
Ambiga noted that the last three or four court judgments have given her hope e.g. the decision on whether Bersih is unlawful, the damages awarded to the ISA detainees, the decision in the Malaysiakini case and the quashing of the decision to ban a Sisters in Islam book. “I have hope because of this and maybe we are entering a new era. It feels as if many people are now getting more engaged.”
No untoward incidents occurred during the forum. Outside the hall, a whole team of dedicated volunteers had worked to register participants and ensure security during the event.
The forum ended with a presentation of Aliran T-shirts to Ambiga and Chin Huat. The speakers received a standing ovation amidst chants of “Bersih! Bersih!”
Participants showed their support by generously donating when boxes were passed around to defray the costs of organising the event. “It was more than enough to cover the costs – and to replace one of the computers stolen during the recent break-in at the Aliran office!” quipped Francis Loh.
Anil Netto is honorary treasurer of Aliran