A Reluctant Symbol for Electoral Reform in Malaysia

Ms. Ambiga, who is ethnic Indian in a country that is mostly Malay and mostly Muslim, said that the protesters “exploded many myths” about Malaysians, such as the notion that people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds could not work together and that the middle class was “too comfortable to step up to the plate.” 

Her photograph has been burned by ethnic Malay nationalists, there have been calls to revoke her Malaysian citizenship and she has been threatened, via text message, with death. The movement she leads, Bersih, an alliance of 62 nongovernmental organizations pressing for electoral reform, has been declared illegal, and a demonstration that brought thousands of its followers into the streets of this capital city last month ended with nearly 1,700 arrests.

But having stared down these challenges, Ambiga Sreenevasan, 54, a University of Exeter-educated lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, is now being hailed by many here as the “new symbol of civil society’s dissent.”

“She has not been afraid to speak the truth to power,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling firm in Kuala Lumpur.

Over peppermint tea in a busy cafe recently, Ms. Ambiga squirmed uncomfortably at the attention she had attracted.

“This focus on me is actually ridiculous,” said Ms. Ambiga. “It’s a true citizens’ movement, because the citizens have taken ownership of Bersih.”

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih — “clean” in Malay — got its start in November 2007. Members of the political opposition and civic groups defied restrictions on gatherings of more than five people without a permit and rallied for changes in an election system they said unfairly favored the governing coalition, which has been in power since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957.

The demonstrators were dispersed by tear gas, and some were arrested. They did not achieve their immediate demands, which included better access to the state-owned news media by opposition candidates and the use of indelible ink on voters’ thumbs to help prevent fraud. But their action was credited with winning support for the opposition and contributing to the governing coalition’s poor showing in the 2008 election, when it fell below a two-thirds majority for the first time.

Ms. Ambiga did not attend that rally in 2007, but earlier in the year she had led a march of more than 2,000 lawyers calling for judicial reform. And while she runs a commercial litigation practice, she has also devoted considerable time to pro bono cases involving the rights of squatters, indigenous people and women. In 2009 she became the first Malaysian to receive a U.S. State Department “International Women of Courage” Award.

Maria Chin Abdullah, executive director of Empower, a nongovernmental organization that promotes women in politics, said it was because of Ms. Ambiga’s “commitment, dedication and leadership in defending human rights and democracy” that she and other N.G.O. leaders approached her to lead Bersih 2.0, the second incarnation of the electoral reform movement.

Ms. Ambiga agreed, on the proviso that it be “civil society-driven,” and not simply a tool of opposition parties.

Again, Bersih pushed for an end to electoral fraud, media access for all parties and a minimum 21-day campaign period before any election. But Ms. Ambiga said she never expected the event to unfold the way it did.

What began as a call for reform morphed into widespread anger at the government’s handling of the activists. When Bersih was declared an unregistered and therefore illegal organization, barred from demonstrating in the capital, and more than 200 people were arrested in the weeks leading up to a July 9 protest, Ms. Ambiga said, the effect was to prompt even more people to join in the rally. Bersih estimated that there were 50,000 protesters; the police put the figure at 5,000 to 6,000.

As the demonstrators tried to march to Stadium Merdeka, the police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. Among those arrested was Ms. Ambiga, who, along with the others, was released that night.

“While I was sitting there the most wonderful things were happening in Kuala Lumpur, which I could only read about that night,” she said. “It brought tears to my eyes. I just didn’t for a minute expect Malaysians to rise to the occasion in the way they did that day.”

Even though the rally was blocked, she said, Bersih has heightened public awareness of the need for free and fair elections. “A number of people have told me that they may not have voted before, but they’ll definitely vote next time,” she said.

Even now, though, she does not call herself an activist.

“I think I’m an advocate for a cause,” she said. “In a sense it was a learning experience for me, pulling myself out of the comfort of the Bar Council and all its support that it had, including finances, coming into this organization that didn’t have a single cent.”

Ms. Ambiga, who is ethnic Indian in a country that is mostly Malay and mostly Muslim, said that the protesters “exploded many myths” about Malaysians, such as the notion that people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds could not work together and that the middle class was “too comfortable to step up to the plate.”

She attributes her willingness to get involved in public causes to her upbringing. She cites as an inspiration her late father, a doctor who helped establish the National Kidney Foundation.

“I suppose I’ve been brought up to always try and do the right thing no matter what the odds,” said Ms. Ambiga.

Haji Sulaiman Abdullah, also a former president of the Bar Council, said he was not surprised by “the breadth and depth of leadership she has brought to the Bersih movement.”

“Even the ordinary man in the street has come to appreciate what Ambiga stands for,” he said.

The events of recent weeks offer plentiful fodder for a compelling election campaign narrative, but Ms. Ambiga shoots down any possibility that a political career could be in the offing. “I don’t have the stomach for it,” she said.

In fact, it has been Ms. Ambiga’s ability to define the Bersih movement as a cause apart from partisan politics that has enabled her to unite Malaysians, said Mr. Suffian, of the Merdeka Center.

Bersih has pledged that its campaign would continue and has called for people to wear yellow on Saturdays, but no more protests are planned for now.

“People keep saying, ‘What next?,’ but, quite frankly, I think the citizens have taken it upon themselves to organize things around the country using the yellow theme, the theme of democracy. What I think Bersih has achieved is the awakening,” Ms. Ambiga said.

She said there have been positive responses from the Election Commission, for example, making it possible for Malaysians living overseas to vote. Its announcement that it would introduce a biometric fingerprinting system, she said, was an admission that there had been a problem of election fraud.

When pressed on how Bersih would respond if the government did not meet other demands, such as equal media access, before the next election, which must be held by mid-2013, Ms. Ambiga’s tendency to deflect the focus from herself resurfaced.

“It’s not me making the decision,” she said. “It will be the rakyat” — Malay for “people” — “making the decision.”