10 things about: Ambiga, human rights defender

Picture by Choo Choy May
Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — After helming Bersih 2.0 and leading mass rallies of tens of thousands in the fight for free and fair elections, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan declares that she doesn’t like the spotlight “at all.”

The charismatic activist, who has since stepped down as chair of the electoral watchdog and is now president of the National Human Rights Society (Hakam), is no longer in the public eye as much as before, but says she still gets plenty of requests for speaking engagements.

In her fight for electoral reforms, Ambiga had stared down death threats, beligerent calls to revoke her citizenship, and army veterans who protested right outside her house by shaking their buttocks.

Now, she gets some relative peace and quiet in Hakam working on issues like freedom of religion and her pet project, disaster management. The human rights group organised a forum last month on human rights and religion and is now planning to hold a workshop on disaster relief.

“A lot of people wanted to help in the East Coast floods, but there was no co-ordination. When I went to Kelantan, I saw a lot of clothes strewn around,” says Ambiga.

The human rights activist, who’d won the US Secretary of State’s 2009 International Women of Courage Award, says she can’t function without sufficient sleep. She tries to get eight hours every night.

Ambiga, who has a 25-year-old daughter and a 29-year-old son, also runs 45 minutes on the treadmill every morning and goes for a walk in the park every Sunday.

She laughs when she talks about her “outings” with her children, where she takes them to public rallies and tells them to bring salt and water, and their identity cards.

“That’s an outing with mum for them,” says the 58-year-old former Malaysian Bar president.

Here, Ambiga talks about electoral reforms, democracy, upholding the Federal Constitution and politicians who just can’t get it right.

In her own words:

  • With all this going on, people must not lose focus that at the end of the day, the only way we can bring legitimate change is through a clean ballot box and through clean elections… Immediate attention must be given to the redelineation process and we must make sure they don’t steal the election from us through gerrymandering as they did during the last election. That must be our immediate focus. Don’t forget, cheating in elections doesn’t just happen on election day. It starts long before that, in the build up, in the processes, in the things they put in place, in people that they move around, in people that they register.
  • I remember joking, “I’m so envious. I was watching the British elections — they all go vote, sit at home, have tea or whatever, and watch the results.” Here, we cannot. We must go and guard, we got to stand there, we got to make sure that no foreigners come. I would like to be able to do that, you know. So really, if the systems work, people can just get on with their lives and earn a living and look after their families, which is what all of us want. We don’t want to be “jaga” of the government. We don’t want to constantly have to do that. We want a system that we know is working so we can get on with building this nation. That is the ultimate aim. 
  • In this country, there is a veneer of democracy, in the sense that leaders give the impression that they’re democratic, but in actual fact, there are many of our democratic institutions that do not work the way they should.
  • We can’t have the same government forever. Frankly, that’s what everybody thinks, I’m just saying what everyone thinks. It’ll push both parties to be better. I can tell you, a lot of people would have liked to have seen Barisan work because they had trust. But unfortunately, they had the trust of the people, but you squander it, then it’s your fault. Even our parents, for a long long time, they had a lot of trust, that spirit of nationalism was still there. Even our Election Commission in the old days was very, very independent, but now they’re so self-serving and corrupt. When you lose the trust, you don’t blame the people for losing faith in you. Even if Pakatan is there, there must be continuous changes for democracy to work. 
  • We either uphold the Federal Constitution or we dump it in the bin. We cannot choose; it’s all of the Federal Constitution or nothing.
  • This whole idea about the shariah court being equal to the civil court — that’s not what the Federal Constitution says. The High Courts, the Federal Court, all our courts, are set up under the Constitution, they’re provided for, whereas shariah courts are state courts. So why isn’t it clear to everyone that no, they’re not of equal jurisdiction and standing? This is what I’ve been finding alarming — when you allow undermining of the basic structure of the Constitution, then we’re heading for trouble.
  • There is a complacency among Malaysians. I think they’re way too patient, sometimes, with what rubbish, garbage is thrown at us. My worry about Malaysia is that we’re getting used to things like violence, for example. When it first happens, everybody’s like ‘woah’, like during the elections, then it goes on and on and on, and people start getting used to it. We start getting used to our rights being trampled on, what’s another piece of legislation, only the few voices will be shouting about it. We’re getting used to selective prosecution. People get detained over and over again and it becomes like a broken record and then we just accept it again. We get used to so many of these things which we shouldn’t be used to.
  • I can’t stomach the preaching by our leaders. I just find it so distasteful. They’ve got to start treating the citizens as adults, grown-ups. You’ve got to start treating us as if we have brains and stop talking down to us. We didn’t vote you in to do that. There’s a total lack of appreciation for their position and who put them there, and us.
  • Those who keep clamouring for Bumiputera rights and so on, basically saying that Malays continuously need help — now, how are you helping the Malay community by doing that? Isn’t the way to help your community by empowering them and giving them confidence? How are you giving them confidence by telling them they continuously need help? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no problem helping the poor. But I don’t see that happening. There are a lot of poor Malays around who are not getting any of these benefits.
  • When they leave the country, they’re the salt of the earth. They’re so democratic, [preach] ‘‘moderation.” The minute they come back, they treat their people so badly. That makes me so angry. So I have the ideal solution to our country’s problems — send all our politicians overseas, pay for their trip, pay for their accommodation, because we’re paying anyway, and keep them there. Stay in the United States, London, Paris and New York. Take your pick and just stay there. Don’t come back. We’ll run the country, we’ll fill our own potholes. Or rule from there, because they’re much nicer over there.

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