It takes people with character like Ambiga to lead these movements to bring about effective socio-political transformation, writes Benedict Lopez.
Concerned citizens in any democracy continually speak out against any prevailing adverse official practices.
Coming to the forefront to draw attention to underlying wrongs and to spearhead calls for change requires leaders with courage and conviction – a rare commodity in any society. In some countries, an antagonistic political environment and fear of reprisals usually deter the majority from stepping forward against the powers that be.
Still, there are always the valiant who are dictated by their moral conscience and discard consequences and likely retaliation to come forward and lead with pride and dignity. One such person is Ambiga Sreenevasan, a fearless fighter for free and fair elections and passionate advocate for human rights and civil liberties in Malaysia.
Despite being a member of the legal fraternity for more than three decades, including a past president of the Malaysian Bar Council, Ambiga is renowned for her steadfast dedication and untiring quest for social justice and other noble causes.
Ambiga rose to prominence when she was the president of the Bar Council from 2007 to 2009. During her term of office, she spoke out on critical issues without fear or favour. On 26 September 2007, she led 2,000 members of the bar and ordinary citizens to the Palace of Justice and later to the Prime Minister’s Office to submit a couple of memorandums. The memorandums called on the government to establish a royal commission to investigate the status of the judiciary and to establish a judicial appointments and promotion commission.
In her remarks during the walk, Ambiga said, “Lawyers don’t walk every day, not even every month. But when they walk something must be very wrong.”
After her stint at the helm of the Bar Council, Ambiga was again in the limelight when she co-chaired Bersih, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections in Malaysia. She was was the prime mover behind the Bersih 2 rally in July 2011, which attracted more than 20,0000 participants. Bersih 2 highlighted the importance of free and fair elections, called for autonomy for our institutions and demanded an end to corruption. As these concerns had not been tackled after the first rally in 2007, a follow-up rally was inevitable.
Bersih 2.0 held spontaneous rallies in major cities all over the world, including Stockholm. At the time, I was the acting charge d’affairs at the Malaysian embassy in Stockholm and vividly remember meeting the Bersih 2.0 participants when they protested in front of our embassy. I requested them to submit their grievances in writing, to be forwarded to Wisma Putra, but they failed to do so.
Following her tenure as Bar Council president, Ambiga assumed the post of president of the National Human Rights Society of Malaysia or Hakam, a post which she still holds. Hakam’s founding members and past president included another distinguished past president of the Malaysian Bar Council, the late Raja Aziz Addruse.
Ambiga stressed the critical need for change, when she campaigned actively for Pakatan Harapan (PH) candidates, including Lembah Pantai MP Fahmi Fadzil, in the 2018 general election. She proposed a debate be held between BN and PH candidates for prime minister. Such debate, she felt, would provide an opportunity for Malaysians to evaluate and decide who would be more suitable as prime minister.
Following PH’s victory in the election, a Council of Eminent Persons was formed. This body subsequently initiated the formation of the Committee on Institutional Reforms, which aimed to assist the newly-formed PH government in highlighting structural defects to various key institutions that may have failed to function effectively.
Ambiga was appointed as a member of this committee, alongside retired Court of Appeal judge KC Vohrah, retired Court of Appeal judge and Suhakam commissioner Mah Weng Kwai, Patriot president Brig-Gen (Rtd) Mohamed Arshad Raji and University of Malaya law professor Shad Saleem Faruqi
International recognition has not eluded Ambiga. In 2009, she was one of eight recipients of the US International Women of Courage Award – an award bestowed upon her by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The citation for the award read: “Ambiga has pursued judicial reforms and good governance, stood up for religious tolerance and has been a resolute advocate of women’s equality and their full political participation. She is someone who is not only working in her own country, but whose influence is felt beyond the borders of Malaysia.”
The former head prefect of Convent Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur was also conferred France’s highest honour, the Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour). She was recognised by the French government for her commitment towards civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. The French ambassador to Malaysia, Marc Barety, presented the award to Ambiga at his residence in September 2011. In her speech, Ambiga dedicated the award to all Malaysians who had stood by her throughout her persistent struggle.
Focusing on social inequality requires principled people taking the lead in organisations supported by like-minded citizens to bring about effective change in a country. And it takes people with character like Ambiga to lead these movements to bring about effective socio-political transformation. Indeed, she is a towering Malaysian like Rafizi Ramli and Zunar.