Maria Chin Abdullah has been an activist for four decades and she shows no signs of slowig down. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, November 30, 2013.Nearly four decades after starting out as an activist during her student days in London, Maria Chin Abdullah is still at the heart of it after being elected the new Bersih 2.0 chair at the electoral watchdog's elections today.
At 57, most women would be winding down and spending more time with their family or on leisure, but Maria confessed that she has little free time these days, saying instead that her three sons who live with her have to manage the chores.
"I'm lucky they are very independent and we try to get together on Sundays, but even that is tough. We try to take a family holiday once a year," she said.
Maria's entire adult life has been entrenched in activism. When she started out as member of the Federation of the UK and Eire Malaysia Singapore Students Organisation in the mid-1970s, it was mainly to make friends.
But this need to form friendships sowed their mutual concerns over what was going on back home, both politically and socially.
"There was corruption and ethnic policies that were coming into play in Malaysia and naturally we were concerned," she said.
During her time in London, Maria was aware of a Maoist sect there, particularly its bookshop in Brixton.
She was referring to recent media reports of Siti Aishah Abdul Wahab, who was among three women rescued last month from a home in London, after they were allegedly enslaved by a Maoist cult. She said that she did not know Siti Aishah.
Maria then returned to Malaysia in 1985 and dived straight into women's advocacy work, where she and several others set up Awam (All Women's Action Society).
When she returned here, she got closer to a London mate, another student activist, the late Yunus Ali. They got married in 1993.
"We had a lot in common, especially over what was happening in the country then. And he was interested in women's rights, which was quite rare then.”
Maria said that when she set up Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), which works for marginalised women and youth, she roped in Yunus to conduct gender training, adding that “the participants took to him quite well”.
"He was committed to justice and for the need for people to be more transparent and accountable. During the 1970s,when he was with Hisham, they were committed to making sure they could bring about change," she said in reference to activist Hishamuddin Rais.
Yunus was involved in election monitoring for foreign countries, while Maria got involved with Bersih, along with political analyst Dr Wong Chin Huat, on electoral reforms.
"Election monitoring of the voting process in other countries and electoral reforms were two different issues, so we were effectively doing different things.”
Maria said that her priority is to give Bersih 2.0 a proper structure with its own elections to facilitate its growth in the different regions in the country.
"We have grown and have established seats in a few states. We want to strengthen Bersih and emphasise that it’s not just about Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. While we have a small committee of five members at the national level, there are six members in each region. We want to present Bersih as a movement for ordinary Malaysians who have risen up to the occasion.”
Maria said that the non-governmental organisation movements have come a long way here. Many groups have sprouted since Bersih started, such as championing voter education and taking up environmental causes, for example, Himpunan Hijau.
According to Maria, the NGO movement in the country is being strengthened and Bersih is having a ripple effect on many other advocacy and social groups.
"After GE13, many young people have picked themselves up and are moving with the same agenda as us but with a different approach. This gives a lot of hope for the future of Malaysia.
Having been an activist for 40 years, Maria is able to say that change is not simple and would take time, but vows to carry on, saying that Bersih will never compromise on its principles.
"It’s all about wanting a better Malaysia and wanting institutions to be more democratised.”
For the short term, its focus is on the redelineation process, saying that Bersih's position was that the Election Commission should clean up the electoral roll first before the boundaries could be redrawn.
"People cannot vote just using an identity card. In the days of the British, the IC meant that you were a citizen. Now if you have a MyKad, the question is how much you paid for it? A MyKad is no longer proof that you are a citizen.”
She said that although it has been an uphill battle, Bersih has scored some valuable points, citing the use of indelible ink in the May general election.
"It turned into a fiasco but the fact that they introduced it is evidence that the EC is reluctantly mindful of what Bersih and Malaysians are concerned about.
"Of course, they are throwing us crumbs and hoping we will be happy, but we are not. It’s not about individuals retiring, if they don't change the system, it’s still going to be a dirty election the next time.”
While on the topic, Maria also hit out at former EC chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, who recently stated that the three redelineation exercises were done to ensure Malays remained in power, saying that it raised questions over the commission's credibility.
"He's basically saying 'so what, we are doing it'. It is ridiculous. It shows how low they consider people's opinion," she said.
When asked whether she would engage with the EC as the Bersih 2.0 chair, Maria said she would adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
"When we first went to them and presented a 15-point memorandum, they said they would try and meet up with us at least quarterly. But since then, we have called them, sent them letters, and each time, they kept giving us excuses.
"It is not that we do not want to engage them, but they must give us reasons for the engagement. They say they will implement our basic demands, to level the playing field. If you don't have any intention of changing, why talk?"
"We want the EC to reform the system, and it has to start with the redelineation process. The EC has to step up and say that is it not going to do it to maintain a certain party in power. And they must consult the people.
“If they don't, they have to face the wrath of the people,” she said, adding that the redelineation will probably be brought into the next Parliament meeting in March next year.
The other cause Bersih is championing is a relook into the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, pointing out that the current format meant that even if a party got the majority votes, it could not form the government.
Maria knows the risks of being an activist and said that “arrest comes with the price of being one”.
"The Government does not understand this is our freedom to speak on human rights, so they use threats, slander or they put you in jail," she added.
Maria is ready to accept whatever else that comes with the job of heading Bersih.
When asked how will she react if a group of people unhappy with her staged a protest before her home, similar to what had happened to former Bersih co-chair Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, she laughed.
In May, members from a group claiming to be the Malaysian Armed Forces Veterans Association did a series of “butt exercises” in front of Ambiga’s house, in a so-called protest against the prominent lawyer for being “an enemy of the nation”.
Maria described working with Ambiga and former Bersih co-chair Datuk A. Samad Said as a wonderful experience.
"Besides Ambiga and Pak Samad, the whole committee worked very well together. Of course, we did have differencesbut we were able to discuss and make decisions based on our common cause."
She expressed confidence that it will be the same working relationship with the new committee elected today.
Maria agrees that Bersih's struggles are similar to that of Pakatan Rakyat, but said that it remains independent.
"We have invited Barsian Nasional to join us. Unfortunately, they see us as the enemy.
"We are giving them constructive feedback on how we can improve together. They do not accept it because it challenges their power base, so they resort to poor tactics. They defame you. They deny you media space. They brand you and they sue you. That is not the behaviour of a mature government.”
She also hit out at Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, for going across oceans to talk about human rights and equality, but at home, did nothing to that effect.
She said that after student activism in Malaysia was suppressed in the 1970s, Bersih was the start of a mass mobilisation of the people.
"After the suppression, nothing much happened until Bersih took to the streets in 2007. The people have empowered us to act.”
She said that people were now speaking their mind, and this was most evident in the forums and discussions taking place on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, adding that this was a sign of good things to come. – November 30, 2013.