Member of Parliament & Activist
Maria Chin Abdullah’s legacy is nothing short of amazing. Aside from being a Member of Parliament for the Petaling Jaya constituency, Maria identifies herself as a feminist and a human-rights activist. Determined and strong willed, Maria has been an integral part of Malaysian women’s movement for over 30 years. Maria’s efforts in women empowerment have not gone unnoticed, as she has worked on gender, development and democracy issues in women’s rights groups such as the All Women Action Society, the Women’s Centre for Change, and the Women’s Development Collective.
It was when Bersih was revamped as Bersih 2.0 in 2010 that Maria began to be at the forefront of the calls for electoral reforms.
In 2016, on the eve of Bersih 5, Maria was arrested and detained for 28 days. She was blindfolded the entire time with it being removed only during interrogation.
“I thought it would be the usual detention,” says the former Bersih 2.0 chairperson. “That I would be out after the rally. But when I was told I was detained under Sosma (Security Offenses (Special Measure Act), I was shocked and became uncertain.”
During the 2016 rally, the authorities clamped down very hard. Maria even received death threats against her and her family, as did Ambiga. There were moments of fear, she admits.
“It is certainly not easy,” she says, referring to overcoming those fears. “But what’s important is the support around you. In Bersih, we have built a strong group. I don’t move forward by myself and that gives me the confidence.”
The 28-day detention, however, brought with it feelings of insecurity. During interrogation, there were suggestions that there would be consequences for Maria’s family.
“I was worried but I knew I had to stay strong.”Maria Chin Abdullah
At the time Maria was certain that her detention would last more than 28 days, but thanks to the “people’s power,” Maria was released. During her detention, the “Free Maria Campaign” was launched resulting in crowds gathering at Dataran Merdeka nightly to demand for her release.
“You have to cross it as you go along,” she says about the detention.
“It’s not about me as the leader. People will not stop moving even if I am arrested. That was what I was very confident about.”Maria Chin Abdullah
Maria assumed the position of Bersih 2.0 chairperson from Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan. It was a tall order, she admits, as the bar had been set high. But what she also observed at the time was that the people were ready for change.
At the last general election, Maria contested the Petaling Jaya constituency, winning with a majority of 57,000. While she stood as an independent, she contested under the Pakatan Harapan banner. Now that she is part of the government, Maria is still focusing on pushing through the reform agenda.
Activism was something Maria was exposed to as a student in London. At the time many issues had come to the forefront, including those about South Africa and Palestine had started to garner international attention.
“That is what shaped my ideals and principles.”
It was at this time that Maria also came into contact with other like-minded women who focused their attention on Malaysia, highlighting concerns about women’s rights. Upon her return to Malaysia in 1985, the group organised a forum, attended by a thousand women to talk about violence against women.
“It was the first time so many women came forward to talk about rape, battery, sexual harassment,” she states. “That played a part in my journey as well.”