Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, renowned lawyer and human rights activist from Malaysia. Growing up in a nurturing and open environment, she enjoys speaking her mind and keeping up with the current issues. Her real forays into public interest and human rights started during her Malaysian Bar experiences, where lawyers are united to call on issues and bring it up to the government. She commended that Malaysian Bar is a wonderful place to groom future leaders and courageous lawyers.
What do you think is the biggest impact of Bersih in your experience?
I was not involved in Bersih 1.0 and I chaired Bersih 2.0. or the second Bersih and co-chaired the Bersih 3.0 with Pak Samad. For me I never expected Bersih to have such support, but I got to give it to the Malaysian. And it really showed you that people were fed up with what was going on. And I think it was in Bersih 2.0 because they were attacked so much, people feel angry enough to come out to show support. Despite the tear gas and all threat, people were there and that to me is very significant. In fact, Bersih 1.0 was very good, Hindraf was very good and it shows that there’s underlying unhappiness and it shows that people are ready to overcome their fear, when typically, Malaysian are scared. They don’t like tear gas and commotion, but they are prepared to face it and they overcame that fear. And that becomes one of the greatest challenges to the government, when people starts to overcoming their fear of standing up to them.
Bersih 2.0 did bring up some change, where we have the Parliamentary Select Committee now and set process in place.
The achievement I think is they are now used to rallies, they now know how to control, they now allow it and decided not to fight it because it will be worst when they fight it. Of course, there are still threats and the likes when it comes nearer to the rallies, and all sort of things they will psyched you. But I have to commend the police for doing a good job on the day itself and didn’t interfere. Of course, we are still blocked from entering a certain area, but now police knows how to deal with Bersih. It is a rallying point for everybody because Bersih is not political and everybody feel safe. The other impact of Bersih 2.0 is global Bersih. It started a network of Malaysian around the world. Now we have global Bersih network, which is registered in Switzerland and if you want to contact them you can actually email them and ask for details that you want. It is a nice network of global Malaysian under Bersih who are very caring and concern about what’s happening in Malaysia. And what Maria (Chin) is doing now is fantastic. They are doing a lot of work on the ground exposing the Election Commission.
Do you think Bersih along the way it will change its manifesto?
I think free and fair election will always come first. But they are also bringing in democratic reforms which are all part of the election and building a democracy country. People may think why we talked about the prime minister when we have this, but that is the burning issue and how come we didn’t address this. At the end of the day, the 1MDB issue will impact the election. I think the core will still be free and fair election, but they will add on democratic reforms, parliamentary reforms and so on.
You are active in political scenario, but you are not a politician. Is this becoming an obstacle for you to voice out issues which should have been championed by politician?
Well it looks that way. For me it is an advantage, because I can criticise both the opposition and the government which I do. As far as we are concern, we want a good system. Malaysia comes first in everything that we do, and I can do that. We don’t have those constraints that politician has, we can actually talk for everyone and speak for everyone. NGOs can do that and shows what we are saying make sense and so forth to the government. It doesn’t matter if people don’t listen to us, but somewhere along the line, the message will sink in. Don’t forget that people who were opposing previously some of them now has jumped ship, and they can see the values. It shows that it is important to maintain grounds, or principles and stances that we take.
Some of the much publicised issue in Malaysia that has been going on is concerning LGBT, which also touches on human rights. Whilst it is acceptable in overseas, in Malaysia it is labelled as culturally insensitive and not the norm of the society. What is your comment about this?
For LGBT, what I would say is, when you talk about human rights, you are talking about all human. What we need to ask is when we talk about humanity, are we talking about human beings? If the answer is yes, then all human rights must be accorded to them. A lot of people speak without having the real knowledge or background. They put everybody; transsexual, transgender altogether. You cannot do that, speak without medical knowledge and it must be more scientifically based on what you are saying. You may not agree with them, but we cannot allow them to be treated like animals. That has to stop. There’s something wrong with us if we allow violence towards these people, as we are all God’s creatures. We have no right to do that even in any minority community, we have no rights to abuse them or to ridicule them. I look at it from human rights point of view, do you have rights to treat them that way?
Even politician is not setting the right tone in addressing this issue. People are getting killed and things are getting out of hand. But this is not something people dare to take up as it nears to the election, things will immediately get spun. We can just ask a simple question, “Are they entitled to be treated like human being? Are they entitled to feel safe? Are they entitled to go outside without being harm?”, that’s it.
The answer is yes. Even anybody, even the migrant labour. People thought they could be treated differently because of that. They are all human being first. Let’s start with that and you tell me that it is okay to be cruel to them. If it is not okay, then that is the answer. Even JAKIM Dir. Gen Othman Mustapha has also posted on FB that Jakim had never agreed with discrimination and bullying against LGBT individuals. “The act of labelling, condemning, insulting and demeaning them can be considered extreme and going beyond the limits,” he said.
Are there any other pressing human rights issues in Malaysia besides LGBT?
We have quite a lot. To name a few, we have death in custody, of course bullying in school is a new thing, treatment to migrant labour, human trafficking. I know there’s a lot and I don’t even know where to start. When you brought things up, you’ll get shut up and it’s becoming an issue with freedom of speech as well. The human rights record is not good in Malaysia. And a lot of this has to do with the government feeling insecure about these things. So, insecure government lashed out in this way.
Based from your experience, which country portrays good human rights model that Malaysia should learn from?
I would go for some of the European countries, and the United Kingdom because they have the strong foundation on the rule of law. I would say that human rights is best in country that uphold the rule of law.
Your opinion on Tun Dr. Mahathir and his coming back to the political scenario. We were surprised to see you in a picture with Tun Mahathir for the Deklarasi Rakyat.
Well I was surprised myself as I spent more than half of my life fighting him, but that belongs in the past which I don’t forget. But recently he has been very vocal and I think he has been saying all the right things. I think he has an impact to the Malays who trust him especially the rural Malays. We need someone like that, who is speaking our language. For me the question is, is he speaking our language now? For any differences that we have in the past, that has to wait as the country needs dire saving. I put it in an example as a ship that is hitting an iceberg. Do you continue fighting with the divided crew or unite to steer the ship away from harm? That is the state we are in now. For me the country comes first. And as long as the reforms that we want are in place, we have to keep fighting and pushing for that. The country need all the help that we have right now.I’m afraid for the next general election, it is the Malay votes that will counts. Give him the chance to fix the system.
Your take on next general election?
I think the opposition can win. This is the right moment for change, with everything that is happening to this country. That’s what I feel. The opposition should stop fighting and follow what Tun Dr. Mahathir and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has been doing since last year, they have been on the ground reaching out to people. Tun has been able to reach out to rural folks with simpler language that people can understand. I’m against 3 corner contestants, instead Opposition should work on the seats negotiation wisely. Enough rubbish, the country must come first. Every opposition should ask, “Am I putting the country first?”. The skeleton cabinet must be named now so that people can be assured and confident with the alternative government. They must show that they are strong and can form a government. We need young, capable and intelligent people, what we called winnable candidate. I want to see a winning formula. I’m sure they can by the people that they pick for the next election. What is the agenda or manifesto besides just bashing on current issues? What can you offer to the people as alternative? I’m waiting for that.
Message to readers at LifeNews.Agency?
First of all, I’d say continue to be interested in the country. Don’t lose hope and do vote. The hope lies with the people. Therefore, people must vote. This is it!