In July 2011, a reported 50,000 people, defied authoritarian threats, and took to the streets as a show of discontent, demanding for electoral reforms and a just government. The protest moved to a global level with Malaysians taking to the streets in different capitals around the world. Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan who was Bersih 2.0 chairperson at the time, is quite dismissive of her role in galvanising the crowd, till reminded of those protesting in Melbourne wearing masks of her face.
She laughs, remarking, “They did that didn’t they…”
Ambiga first entered public awareness when she became the Bar Council president, organising the Walk for Justice which saw some 2,000 lawyers walk from the Palace of Justice to the Prime Minister’s Department. 2018 was a year of change for Malaysia, and Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan played a big part in making it happen. Chairing Bersih 2.0, the lawyer and human rights advocate played a big part in the rally in Kuala Lumpur that showed how united Malaysians were in the pursuit of a brighter future for the nation.
A former president of the Malaysian Bar, Ambiga is the founding partner of Sreenevasan, Advocates & Solicitors. Carrying over three decades of experience with her, she has the distinction of numerous reported cases at the High Court, Court of Appeal and Federal Court. Her plethora of achievements serve as a distinction as to her ability to make it in yet another field that has always favoured men.
Her convictions, she attributes to her father, the late Datuk Dr. G. Sreenevasan.
“He was very clear cut about these issues, about justice, peace, doing the right things. During dinner, he would talk to us about everything that goes on in the country, so we were all very aware of things going on around us.”
Taking on an activist role, however, brought in challenges that were initially unanticipated. Initially, Ambiga was quite unfazed about taking up the position of Bersih chairperson. “I thought free and fair elections, nobody could possibly oppose something like that but I was completely mistaken.”
It was then that fear began to set in as the “whole machinery of the State was thrown against Bersih.”
But Ambiga quotes the late Nelson Mandela, “It is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it,” adding that she is still unsure whether she has fully triumphed over it.
However, the massive turnout for Bersih 2.0, she stresses, must be looked at as a Malaysian story, as it showed that Malaysians regardless of age, race and gender, overcame their fears to stand up against the State. Ambiga was arrested during the protest. It was something that she had expected and was prepared to take the risk.
It is not easy but it is the knowledge that you cannot back off and you cannot weaken because the moment you as the person who is leading the movement does that, the whole movement is weakened. So it is a responsibility and it is that responsibility that kept me going.Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan
“It is not easy but it is the knowledge that you cannot back off and you cannot weaken because the moment you as the person who is leading the movement does that, the whole movement is weakened. So it is a responsibility and it is that responsibility that kept me going.”
Ambiga hopes to see women playing a greater role in government. “We own half the sky so it should be equal, shoulder to shoulder. There is no reason why it cannot be (that way). We have some excellent women leaders – Yeo Bee Yin, Zuraida Kamarudin, Hannah Yeoh – who are just getting on with the job.”
For her part, Ambiga sees herself as continuing to be a critic, calling authorities out when there is a failure to act. A recent example is the controversy surrounding child marriage.
“We really need to push the narrative that we need to value the childhood of our girls and the federal government must step in. We cannot allow our children’s youth to be taken away from them.”