Bersih Chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan gave a talk at the Third State of The Nation Dialogue on Saturday, organised by the Imperial College Alumni Association Malaysia in partnership with The Malay Mail, Redberry and the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
At the dialogue, she gave a 50-minute talk on the state of the country, pointing out the challenges that needed to be addressed by the government as well as the political changes that have been taking place in Malaysia.
Dubbed as the 'Iron Lady', Ambiga exuded a strong sense of optimism for a better Malaysia as she expressed her views on how Malaysians are shifting away from racial issues. She also expressed encouragement over the empowerment of citizens.
Moving away from racial issues
Ambiga feels that Malaysians are moving away from the worry of racial problems, mostly as a result of open conversations about issues that were thought to be thorny in the past.
Ambiga illustrated this point by using the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) video as an example. She shared that the racist undertones taken by the moderator saw her (the moderator) getting 'hammered' by all, 'not just by the Indians or Chinese'.
The UUM video went viral last week, involving a student and Parti Sosialis Malaysia member K S Bawani being publicly berated at a university forum by Sharifiah Zohra Jabeen, the president of Suara Wanita 1 Malaysia. The video sparked outrage amongst the online community and saw Higher Education Deputy Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin calling for Sharifah to apologise for her behaviour.
“I think there is a shift and it is going to be difficult for the government to use the racial wedge that they have used in the past. The youth of today don't think in those terms, not all of them,” she said.
“The attacks on the moderator were also sexist and nasty and that is unacceptable,” she added, referring to Netizens' attacks on Sharifah Zohra.
Ambiga pointed out that Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians like Saifuddin and Khairy Jamaluddin were quick to respond to the video because they were in touch with issues on the ground and they could see the danger of allowing such an issue to carry on.
To a question from the floor on the issue of racism and fears of racial riots in Malaysia, Ambiga felt that the Bersih movement took away those fears.
“There are some people who still want to keep pushing this point (racial riots) and that we are a tinderbox. But I didn't see it in Bersih or in the KL112 gathering. They were multiracial gatherings,” she said, adding that racist arguments do exist on the Internet but die down soon after, probably a result of a maturing Malaysian society.
Role of police and armed forces
She also expressed her optimism about the roles of the police and the army during the upcoming general elections.
"I think what is so promising about KL112 was that the police behaved exactly as they should, professionally and in accordance with the spirit of assembly,” said Ambiga.
She says she does not foresee any problems during the upcoming polls if the Inspector-General of Police stuck to the judgement made on January 12 - that the police have to be professional and non-partisan. She said the same of the army's role, as she believed it was not as intrusive in political affairs as in other countries.
“I don't see it happening. I hope I'm right,” she smiled.
Close to 100,000 Malaysians gathered peacefully in Stadium Merdeka last Saturday in a “People's Uprising Rally” and KL112, organised by various groups championing different causes including Bersih, the Abolish ISA Movement and the National Association of Felda Settlers' Children (ANAK).
The gathering was seen as 'historic' as many had expected clashes with the police as in previous demonstrations, despite the enforcement of the Peaceful Assembly Act.
Wishlist of reforms
In the talk, Ambiga highlighted a wishlist for Malaysia's next government to improve Malaysia's current state of affairs, regardless on whether it would be led by BN or Pakatan Rakyat.
First, she stressed, the new government must strengthen the rule of law, using the best legal experts and resources to review the country's laws.
She also said the next government must have the political will to 'attack corruption with a vengeance'. Ambiga had pointed out that Hong Kong tackled corruption in just three years and believed Malaysia could do it as well. She explained that Malaysia could look at asset recovery and make sense of anti-corruption treaties while dismantling the burden of dishonest contracts.
She also suggested a Truth and Reconciliation Commission be set up for Malaysia, similar to the one set up by the South African government to deal with problems from the apartheid system.
The commission could review the injustices of the past or breaches of human rights but not necessarily prosecute individuals.
“It is about allowing people to talk about it and to confront their accuser. It is a cathartic process and is good for the conscience of the nation,” she explained, adding that the May 13 racial riots, deaths in custody and crime rates could be brought before such a commission.
Ambiga also called for efforts to limit the terms of power for leaders and overhauling the elections system.
“There should be economic reform and politicians should stop deciding education policies, it should be educationists deciding these policies.”
“We have to stop racism, sexism and we have to look at women's issues more holistically, look at minority rights as well as migrant workers (rights). We should not underestimate environmental issues,” she cautioned.
Ambiga ended the talk by giving a response to the late American civil rights leader Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a dream' phrase.
“We (Malaysians) don't have to dream anymore. Our bright future is within our grasp. I don't think we need to wait for it to be done in 2020, it can be done in 2013, at least it can start being done in 2013. We should know that it is possible and that we have to make sure our leaders get it done.”