The face of Bersih 2.0, Ambiga Sreenevasan, begins touring Australia’s east coast today, hoping to fuel a new and profound Malaysian hope for that fundamental tenet of democracy, the citizen’s right to a free and fairly conducted vote. The woman who heads the coalition of Malaysian NGOs that inspired tens of thousands of citizens to take to Kuala Lumpur streets on a fateful July 9 says she is in Australia to say, “thank you”.
“Global Bersih is one of the greatest achievements of Bersih”, Ms Sreenevasan says, referring to the worldwide solidarity movement that sprung up to support KL’s historic, public show of defiance against a government that had banned the march and declared it “illegal”.
“I know of no other movement that has pulled Malaysians and other supporters from all over the world quite like this. And we (Bersih 2.0 KL) did not organise this…you all did.”
Similar modesty is likely to be cast to the winds as the Bersih 2.0 chair embarks on university lectures, meet-and-greet functions and media interviews to hammer home the point that fair and free elections in Malaysia can only come about with wide-ranging legislative reform. Considering Prime Minister Najib Razak is forecast to call the federation’s thirteenth election any time between now and March 2012, the former president of Malaysia’s Bar Council and her group have set themselves a daunting, formidable task.
“I feel a huge responsibility to Bersih and the people”, Ms Sreenevasan says.
“I fear sometimes I am not up to it.”
The avowed non-politician adds: “Then I remember the people are very forgiving.” She is speaking, of course, totally unlike a politician. “Provided you are honest with them, and sincere.”
The recipient of France’s highest honour, the Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour), then says: “Fate has brought me here, just as fate has brought us all together.”
Ms Sreenevasan, who two years ago was also one of eight recipients of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s International Women of Courage Award, has caught the world’s attention for Bersih 2.0’s fight to address fraud, inequity, discrimination and corruption in Malaysia’s electoral system. She is also well regarded as a staunch defender of women’s rights and religious tolerance.
In Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, she will meet Malaysians and supporters of democratic reform and focus on convincing them there is much to be done, from Australia, to pressure Putrajaya into instituting real change in the electoral process.
David Teoh of Melbourne, a young Malaysian who now heads Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia Australia (SABMoz), needs little convincing. He helped spearhead Australia’s role among the global rallies that were held that same July Saturday in a show of support for the KL marchers.
“What transpired on 9 July awakened the sleeping giant,” Mr Teoh says.
“On that day, in 40 cities around the world, we were one, united people sharing a common dream – beyond standing for clean and fair elections, we all took a stand for the integrity of this great nation to be restored.
“That such a movement was treated with so much contempt by the authorities only served to fuel our legitimacy.”
Placing it firmly in the context of Australia’s recent attempt to achieve the Malaysian Solution – offshore processing of boatloads of refugees sailing for Australia – Mr Teoh says: “This visit will serve to remind the Australian government and its citizens that a close regional neighbour and trading partner administers a system that wilfully denies hundreds of thousands of Malaysians the right to vote from abroad.”
The Australian roadshow will not reach an estimated 100,000 Malaysians and former Malaysians living in an adopted country, and not all the roughly 23,000 students among them, but Ambiga Sreenevasan and Bersih 2.0 have hopefully started a movement for democracy that can only keep moving.
Bersih 2.0 has its origin in Bersih (a Malay word for ‘clean’), which was founded in November 2006 as a coalition of 62 non-governmental organisations. An estimated 40,000 people took part in its first rally on 10 November 2007. This first Bersih rally is said to have played a major role in helping Malaysian opposition parties break the government’s two-thirds parliamentary majority at the ensuing election.[Note: Dr Wong Chin Huat, another member of the BERSIH 2.0 steering committee will be in Perth to also discuss electoral reforms. Their programmes in Australia is available here]