Ambiga on street advocacy, leading Bersih 2.0 and meeting ‘the bully boys in authority’ head on

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said that “s’treet advocacy’ was very different, as speaking at rallies often meant speaking to the ‘converted’ or those who were already supporting a movement. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said that “s’treet advocacy’ was very different, as speaking at rallies often meant speaking to the ‘converted’ or those who were already supporting a movement. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 22 — Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan today shared how she incorporated her experience as a lawyer into her advocacy for clean and fair elections as the leader of the Bersih 2.0 movement, and how she pressed on amid her family’s concern.

In an hour-long interview with “Advocates: The Podcast” released today, Ambiga touched on her experience as president of the Malaysian Bar from 2007 to 2009, and later as the leader of the Bersih 2.0 electoral reform group from 2011 to 2013 (with national laureate Datuk A. Samad Said later also co-chairing).

“There are two different kinds of advocacy. I call the Bersih advocacy, street advocacy. But don’t get me wrong, my experience as an advocate, my experience in formulating arguments based on fact and law is what truly, truly informed the way I lead Bersih and helped.

“Because when you argue on facts and the law, then it’s very difficult for your detractors to attack you. And I realise that is important and I hope that was something I brought into the activism of Bersih,” she said during the podcast.

Ambiga also said that “street advocacy” was very different, as speaking at rallies often meant speaking to the “converted” or those who were already supporting a movement.

“So you have to be punchy, you have to be short, you have to be crystal clear and extremely simple and straightforward. You cannot speak to 100,000 people and talk about law and the Constitution necessarily and so on, unless it is in soundbites.

“But it is still a matter of persuasion, because you also want to persuade the detractors. You want to bring more people on board with your cause, so there is an art to that persuasion,” she said.

Ambiga said there were clear similarities when it comes to advocating ideas in interviews, but said it would be different in the sense that one has to be “much more welcoming in the way you put forward your ideas, because the idea is to bring more people onboard”.

Peaceful and reading the mood

Asked in the interview how she managed to organise the massive Bersih 2 and Bersih 3 rallies with participants who behaved well, Ambiga said the credit should go to the experienced activists she worked with including her successor as Bersih chairman — Maria Chin Abdullah — as well as the Unit Amal or security unit of political party PAS.

“And we kept issuing statements as to how this was going to be peaceful, this was the way we were going to do this, we are not going to accept any violence, anyone who is violent would have to face the full force of the law.

“But people were generally well-behaved anyway, not only that they used to clean up the streets. It was a whole new way of rallying, of protesting, it was just being peaceful and making our voices heard and people were ready for that.

“And let me tell you something about timing, you need to make sure when you call such a rally, your timing is perfect. If your timing is perfect, in other words, you must be able to read the ground. If your timing is good, your numbers will come out. You can see every time the Bersih rally is called, the timing was right,” she added.

Asked how she judged the mood on the ground, Ambiga said this was done through talking to people and reading what is being written, noting: “And there is a general air of despondency, people are very fed up with the way things are being run. And of course when you have bully boys in authority, that’s a very good signal. When they need to push back on you so much, then you know you are doing the right thing.”

Ambiga acknowledged that one of the disadvantages in leading Bersih 2.0 was that she lost some clients as a lawyer “because I was seen as anti-government”, adding that she could only thank her colleagues in the law firm who helped carry it as they too were affected by such perceptions.

“But I did not, let me say this, in court, I was never treated differently by the judges, no,” she said, further indicating that the judges treated her “as per normal” when she appeared before them as a lawyer for court cases.

Never turning back

Ambiga said her family was “really, really worried” about her taking on the Bersih 2.0 leadership and they were against it, but she ignored their objections once she had taken on the duty of leading the cause.

“But, because, you see, once you take on something like this, you cannot turn back. Ever. You don’t do it otherwise. Because there are too many people who are depending on you.

“And the minute you show weakness and you turn back, the cause suffers, the authorities have won. So there is no way, once you are in, you are in 110 per cent. And actually closer to the time, you are in a different zone, you don’t even hear the voices that are telling you you can’t do this,” she said, adding that after a while her family just let her do what she wanted.

As for her time in leading the Malaysian Bar, Ambiga touched on the Walk for Justice in September 2007 where several thousands of lawyers showed up in Putrajaya to march from the Palace of Justice to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The lawyers had marched to present a memorandum to call for a Royal Commission of Inquiry on a video clip over a lawyer’s alleged interference with appointment of judges, and to also present another memorandum to call for the setting up of a judicial appointments and promotion commission.

Ambiga noted that the 2007 march was not the first time that lawyers had gone to the streets and that the Malaysian Bar always stood for what is right without fear or favour, noting that the Walk for Justice was held as the undermining of judicial independence was intolerable and unacceptable.

She said the lawyers had to decide whether they were just going to issue statements or memorandums or if they would have to do something more effective, adding that it was a Bar Council decision to hold the march and many helped to organise it.

She recalled that a group of lawyers had walked from their bus which stopped a distance away in Putrajaya from where the march took place, to join the rest of the lawyers at the march’s starting point.

“So the lawyers were really, really angry and I knew we had done the right thing when I saw that. Because clearly when you are fighting for what’s right, the lawyers really do rise to the occasion, so that’s what happened there.

“By the way, because of that, I feel it was one of the steps that led towards the setting up of the Judicial Appointments Commission, so something did come out of it. Of course it didn’t just start with that, it was many things, but something did come of it in the end,” she said, referring to the commission established in February 2009 to ensure a more transparent process for the nomination, appointment and promotion of judges.

In the same interview, Ambiga said she finds herself now focusing almost entirely on her professional work as a lawyer instead of also engaging in activism like previously, but said she would still be engaged in what is going on in the country.

“But being me, I can’t also stay out of what is going on in the country. Because, you see, having been bitten by the bug many years ago and having been a very small part of the process of change which actually you attribute to the people, and having been among Malaysians of all walks of life who are so passionate about this country, it is difficult not to still be interested in what is going on in the politics of the country. You can never not be interested,” she said.

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