ABC interviews Ambiga on the current state of play, and what has come out of the Bersih rally.
The leader of Malaysia’s movement for free and fair elections, Bersih says the government is dragging its feet in moving towards reform.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, who inspired over 20-thousand people to take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on July 9th, says while Bersih will meet next month with the Parliamentary Select Committee set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak, the government is moving slowly.
Malaysia is expected to hold early elections next year, and Dato Ambiga says one way of fighting election fraud is to encourage all eligible Malaysians to register and vote.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairwoman of Bersih, movement for free and fair elections, Malaysia. Dato Ambiga spoke to us the University of Melbourne Law School
SREENEVASAN: As far as the Parliamentary Select Committee is concerned, the members have been appointed. We have three from the Opposition, five from the government representatives and one person from the independent MPs. So that’s the makeup of the Select Committee and they have actually set dates for public meetings or hearings.
So in fact, on the 11th and 12th of November, we have asked to be heard those are a couple of the dates that they have given. So, we’re actually conducting some hearings around the country. As far as we are concerned, they really ought to complete the reforms that we have asked for, before the 13th general elections. And I believe that they can be implemented within the period of about six months, perhaps cleaning up of the electoral roll may take a little bit longer, but if it has to be done, it has to be done in six months. It can be done.
LAM: What would you say would be the top priority amongst the eight reforms?
SREENEVASAN: That’s a difficult question, Sen, because I believe that they all are important. But what is crying out for reform without a doubt, is the cleaning up of the electoral roll. My own view is we cannot go to the polls with the electoral roll in the state that it is. And so, there appears to be some response from the EC (Election Commission) cleaning up when people complain and this is the thing, because it appears as if the public have to the work of highlighting these issues and the the EC acts, they’re just reacting.
The other thing that is important would be the indelible ink, again a very simple demand that can be fulfilled and will actually reduce voter fraud and, of course, the reform of the postal votes. I think that is something that is important. It is important to enfranchise overseas voters as well.
LAM: Because at the moment, Malaysians living overseas cannot vote?
SREENEVASAN: Yes. I mean, the constitution provides I mean seems to suggest that everyone who’s registered as a voter can vote, but there are many Malaysians who live abroad, so yes, there’s no infrastructure in place for them to vote.
LAM: What is the political climate where the government is concerned? Do you think that PM Najib is taking a step in the right direction? For instance, recently he repealed the ISA or talked about repealing it, and also the printing presses act. Are those not good steps in the right direction?
SREENEVASAN: Yes, I agree, those are good steps in the right direction, so is the intended repeal of the Emergency declarations, that has been a long time coming. So those are good positive steps. As far as the ISA is concerned, the jury is out on that because they are intending…
LAM: This is the Internal Security Act that allows for detention without trial?
SREENEVASAN: Yes, that’s correct, preventive detention. So they’re intending to introduce two legislation in its place, so I think until we see what that legislation says as I say the jury is still out. But as far as the other issues, for example, the Printing and Presses and Publications Act, where the government has said that instead of yearly renewals, once a licence is issued, it remains until it’s revoked. To me there’s no difference, because you’re still expecting licensing and you’re still saying that you can revoke it at anytime. So to me, that’s not really much of a concession. But we still need to see some real change and when I say real change, for me it is the bring in the electoral reform, start with that.
LAM: Is the government dragging its feet as far as you’re concerned or do you think they’re going about it as quickly as they can?
SREENEVASAN: I think they’re dragging their feet. I’m sorry and we’ve started a campaign by the way, Bersih, called ‘Clean Before 13′. We want all the eight reforms implemented before the next general elections, but the government had immediately said even just as they set up the PSC, that they may still call the general elections before the PSC finishes its work. So to me that shows that the political will to see to reform before the 13th general election is not there.
LAM: So if elections were to be called, and the electoral roll has not been redone, the reforms are not coming. Does Bersih have a Plan B?
SREENEVASAN: Well, what we intend to do actually is to ask for a high voter turnout and that’s our campaign. Because if they call for elections and if there’s a short campaign period, you’re talking about seven to ten days and that’s one of our demands by the way, to lengthen that (the campaigning period), then the only thing we can do is ask voters to turn out in full force, because that is one of the ways in which you can mitigate fraud – by coming out in very large numbers. You can’t remove it entirely, but you can mitigate it, because how many phantom voters can you create in a constituency?
LAM: Is that partly what young groups like Undi-Malaysia that’s set up by young lawyers .. is that what it’s trying to achieve to make Malaysians less apathetic that they come out in full force to vote?
SREENEVASAN: I mean that’s one of the things and I think they’re doing a wonderful job. It’s all about democracy and getting the young involved in the process and I think that’s what Undi-Malaysia’s about, to build up awareness and to encourage people to come out and vote. And there’s a problem, because more than three million people are still not registered who are eligible to vote, are still not yet registered, now that’s a problem.
LAM: Is that due largely to ignorance or are the authorities actively discouraging people from enrolling on the electoral roll?
SREENEVASAN: To be fair, the authorities are not discouraging people from registering, they’re actually encouraging people to register. But the process is slightly involved. You can go to the post office and sign in very easily, by putting in your application, but there is a process after that, a short process. So that takes three to four months and sometimes I think that’s cumbersome and that is why one of the things we’re asking for is automatic voter registration and you immediately become eligible to vote upon attaining 21.
LAM: Foreigners point to the Arab Spring when they speak of the Bersih movement, but as far as I understand it, the Bersih movement is not hell bent on changing the B-N government or changing government. It’s basically calling for free and fair elections. Does it frustrate you that as you’re perceived as a kind of Opposition tool if you like?
SREENEVASAN: I mean yes, I think that’s inevitable OK, particularly if the government is against it, they’re going to use that line.
Now we are nothing like the Arab Spring. I mean the problems there were very vastly different from what we’re facing. We are purely asking for free and fair elections. If I’m not mistaken, one of the things in the Arab Spring was that they didn’t have free and fair elections and, of course, there was multitude other problems. So we are nowhere near the Arab Spring.
Of course, we say we’re tool of the Opposition, but it’s very predictable that the Opposition would support a movement for free and fair elections, because they feel that they suffered by a lack of free and fair elections.
But don’t forget we invited the government as well to join us. We invited everyone to join us, because I think it’s good for the country.
And let me say this Sen, as far as I’m concerned, I realised sometime ago that really we were failing the youth in this country. And I think with developments as they occur, you can see the youth are very excited about being part of it, they’re very excited about being part of change and they are also empowered by the information that they have. In the past, the monopoly of information was with the government. They could decide what we would read. Now, they can’t make that decision. That’s what has empowered our youth and they’re the ones who are savvy in this internet social media and I have a lot of hope for the youth.
And I agree that they don’t like racism, they don’t like the divisiveness, they’re in a different world, at which we must get in tune with.