Ambiga: Free and fair elections bolster democracy

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GEORGE TOWN – More than 500 Penangites gathered at the Caring Society Complex to listen to Bersih 2.0 Steering Committee co-chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan’s thoughts on ‘Elections and Democracy’ in a forum organised by Aliran today.

ambiga sreenevasan
Ambiga at the Caring Society Complex in Penang

In a stirring address, Ambiga thanked the audience in Penang for their impressive turnout at the Bersih 3.0 solidarity gathering at the Esplanade. She also highlighted the plight of Suaram, after the group had exposed the Scorpene scandal and noted that the brouhaha about Suaram’s sources of funding mirrored Bersih’s own experience not long ago.

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?”

After the Bersih 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.”

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 fail to display party manifestos over television, keeping the public in the dark. “It’s a disgrace!” she said.

Meanwhile, 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.

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Free and fair elections are important because they bolster democracy and they encourage a respect for fundamental rights, she said. People are now more engaged and interested in what is happening now as they realise that the rot has to stop now.

“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 are not yet voted. “We need to reach out and draw these people in.”

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.

Both speakers 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?

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Earlier, 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. He 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.

The emcee, Aliran secretary Dr Mustafa Kamal Anuar, 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 today.

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 Wong 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.

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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.

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. – aliran.com

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