COMMENT | Maria Chin Abdullah’s decision to quit as Bersih chair and contest in the 14th general election (GE14) is the best news possible for reform-minded Malaysians.
By simply choosing to try and become one among the people’s opposition representatives in Parliament, Maria has breathed new life into the election environment, and given hope to the informed voter.
It does not matter if she stands as an independent, or under the banner of PKR, DAP, Amanah, Bersatu or PSM. Maria contesting in GE14 is a clear signal that the campaign for wide-ranging change will find a true and genuine voice in Parliament.
It would be short-sighted, at best, to say Maria’s decision to enter the political fray makes a lie of the claim that Bersih is a non-partisan organisation. You would be looking at a tree and missing the forest.
You’d be choosing to play the man, not the ball, forgetting what the game is all about in today’s Malaysia, especially as we head towards GE14.
I have a deep and abiding faith in Bersih. I believe its unrelenting campaign to push for electoral reform, accountability in government, independence of public institutions, an apolitical judiciary, protection of human rights and other pressing issues have transformed the country and its politics like nothing before.
Bersih has been the earthquake Malaysia’s political landscape needed. Bersih dialled a wake-up call for apathetic citizens, and it’s still ringing in our ears. More of us registered to vote for the first time because of Bersih.
I believe the often acrimonious debate – does Bersih support the opposition or is it truly a non-partisan NGO? – is one of Bersih’s own making. I would suggest the claim was only concocted to counter the very real likelihood that Umno would accuse it of being pro-opposition.
And what else would we expect of Umno? The BN bully also demonises DAP as the party most likely to damage the aspirations of the Malay community and strip Islam of its constitutional status as the national religion.
If the informed voter will not buy that blatant untruth about DAP, why would we expect him or her to believe what Umno may say of Bersih? Most online news portals clearly do not support the BN government, but we nevertheless accept them as representatives of journalism.
The game of change
If part of the answer is Bersih’s own claim to non-partisanship, I submit it was a totally unnecessary and ultimately futile exercise in branding.
The public record shows Maria has criticised PKR and the wider opposition, encouraging all parties to move beyond 1MDB and Malaysian Official 1 (MO1) for its election campaign, to focus on education, public health, the racial and religious divide and affirmative action for all.
Bersih wants wide-ranging reform of Malaysia’s public institutions and the systems that should underpin the democratic ideals enshrined in the constitution.
Umno will never support any move in that direction because that road can only lead to its demise. Put another way, Umno leaders would only find themselves in a van rolling down Jalan Harapan, which, irony of ironies, leads to Sungai Buloh Prison.
The informed voter knows very well that wide-ranging change can only come with a change in government, when and if Malaysia’s opposition manages to win a federal election.
The informed voter knows what the game is about: change, which irrevocably means changing the government.
Nevertheless, a fine line indeed separates the campaign for change from supporting the opposition.
Non-partisanship is not the issue for the informed voter. From the beginning, Bersih should simply have referred to itself as a politically independent NGO – one which welcomed all who would support its agenda for reform and change, be it a political party or individuals.
Maria herself made this point very loud and clear when Dr Mahathir Mohamed chose to attend the Bersih 5 rally in Kuala Lumpur. In so many words, the Bersih leader said welcoming Dr M to the rally should in no way encourage the rakyat to think Bersih supported his agenda.
A renewal of hope
On a broader front, the assertion that Bersih may now very well sink into irrelevancy, or that the NGO may lose credibility as a result of Maria’s decision, also speaks of how easy it is to forget and miss the big picture.
The very embodiment of everything Bersih has achieved came to me recently, when a young Malay farmer, his business partner (my very good friend) and I sat together in my backyard.
The young man spoke English haltingly and was generally quiet as my friend and I just talked about whatever came to mind.
But, as soon as the topic moved to Umno, he fired up. He began talking about “accountability” and “transparency” in government. And it came home to me: this was a child of the reform movement, this was a man schooled on the streets of rallies, in Bersih’s language of change.
Bersih has given us all the vocabulary of democracy. This has been its singular achievement and it is now free to move on to other, higher places. Bersih’s work is far from over, and if Pakatan Harapan comes to power, the NGO will undoubtedly exercise its freedom to hold the new government to account.
So, I am totally in support of Maria Chin Abdullah as a candidate for GE14. I believe her candidacy also means the conviction that Harapan may actually win is growing – “Ini kali lah” all over again, with renewed hope.
I believe, even if Harapan does not emerge as the new government, Maria has every chance of winning over the informed voter, if enough of them reside in the constituency she may seek to represent.
The informed voter will surely hope that her win will also mean less racial and religious politics in opposition.
The informed voter, I am sure, will welcome Maria Chin Abdullah. He or she will know this is the real stuff. If she wins, Maria will be one politician with absolutely no political baggage, only a proven track record of fighting for change, and going to jail for that conviction, not as a politician but as an ordinary citizen.
We should all welcome her, because Maria is one of us.
The informed voter will only see it as a sign that things are improving for GE14. He or she will see it get even better if Maria’s predecessor, Ambiga Sreenevasan, also chooses to bring the same impeccable credentials from civil society to bear on Malaysian politics.
WILLIAM DE CRUZ is former Global Bersih president.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.