Our Malaysians of the year: A lawyer, a whistle-blower, undergraduates and a civil servant

(The Malaysian Insider) – The dissent and demand for accountability shown by the Malaysian public has been greater in 2011 than at any time in recent history.

And that is why The Malaysian Insider has chosen as its Malaysians of the Year a lawyer, a whistle-blower(s), undergraduates and a civil servant.

They are Bersih 2.0 chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, the undergraduates pushing for academic freedom, the unnamed National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) whistle-blower(s), and Auditor-General Tan Sri Ambrin Buang.

While many other personalities also made the headlines this year, we believe that these four represent the impact of a Malaysia that is evolving into a society that no longer believes what it is told.

Regardless of political affiliation, of whether we support Barisan Nasional (BN) or Pakatan Rakyat (PR), or neither, Malaysians more than ever are taking ownership of their own country.

Here are the four we feel best represents the changes our country has seen:

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan

Lawyer-turned-activist, the 55-year-old hit world headlines symbolising Malaysian civil society’s dissent when she led 62 non-governmental organisations and thousands of middle-class Malaysians of all ages, gender, colour and creed into the capital city’s streets to peacefully march for cleaner and more transparent elections as 11,000 policemen shot chemical-laced water and tear gas at demonstrators.

The July 9 Bersih 2.0 march drew instant support as videos and online reports of the incident were beamed live worldwide via Facebook, Twitter and other social media, prompting similar gatherings abroad from overseas Malaysians and global criticism against the Najib administration for its heavy-handed measures and authoritarian rule.

Under severe international pressure, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak made a historic pledge on September 15, the eve of Malaysia Day, to dismantle the decades-old Internal Security Act, a law widely panned as draconian for stifling government dissent and setting up a bipartisan parliamentary panel to review the country’s electoral system.

The Election Commission has since announced several revisions to its rules for the next national polls expected soon, including using indelible ink to deter voter fraud. The government has also followed up its reform promises and is reviewing changes to a variety of other laws and policy.

The undergraduates

The awakening of middle Malaysia that started with the Bersih 2.0 march led to a youth uprising in the battle for academic freedom.

They gained leverage from an unexpected quarter when the Federal Court ruled on October 31 that Section 15(5)(a) of the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) that barred undergraduates from taking part in partisan politics was in breach of Article 10 of the country’s supreme law, the Federal Constitution, which provides for freedom of expression.

The government pledged to review the law but its resolve has now been put to the test after Adam Adli Abdul Halim, a 21-year-old student activist from Sultan Idris University of Education (UPSI), came under fire for purportedly lowering a banner bearing the likeness of  Najib at Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) during a peaceful student protest led by Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia and Gerakan Menuntut Kebebasan Akademik (Bebas) on December 17.

The incident has lit a fire among the undergraduates in Malaysia’s public universities and spawned more student groups. Some have styled themselves as pro-government activists. This vibrant growth has brought about a dynamic debate about student rights. As Adam Adli said in a recent interview, “Students are not fools or tools. They see, they learn, they acquire the knowledge, and they are ready to make our country a better place. In no time, I believe many more will come out.”

The unnamed National Feedlot Corporation whistleblowers

That PKR has been able to lead the charge against minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s family over the cattle-for-condos scandal is probably due to the person or persons who have furnished the opposition party with the alleged evidence of misappropriation of funds.

Shahrizat’s husband and chief executive of the scandal-hit National Feedlot Corporation (NFC), Datuk Mohamad Salleh Ismail, has admitted to having used taxpayers’ money to buy at least two posh condominiums units in the city, claiming it was meant as an investment while conveniently forgetting the fund was meant for the farm.

He has also blamed two former “renegade employees in a bid to sabotage the company” but did not name them. PKR has also refused to disclose its sources, saying it was dangerous to name them.

Despite initial resistance, the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission have started investigating the claims.

Whether it was out of revenge as Mohamad Salleh claimed, or otherwise, the anonymous whistleblowers took a major risk in providing the information that involves senior leaders within the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. They did not have to, but they chose to, showing that there is a limit to how much Malaysians can stomach before taking action.