Rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah fighting for a ‘better Malaysia’

By: Daniel Besant - Posted on: May 23, 2016 | Current Affairs

Bersih Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah on the ‘arrogance of power and contempt’ over her recent travel ban, the 1MDB scandal and fixing Malaysia’s ‘defective’ electoral system

Maria Chin Abdullah is a long-term campaigner for women’s rights in Malaysia. She is currently the chairperson of Bersih 2.0 (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections). On 15 May, she was was barred from travelling to South Korea to accept a human rights award. No reason was given for the government’s decision, but it has subsequently come to light that the immigration department can impose a travel ban of up to three years on government critics.

Maria Chin Abdullah
Travel ban: Maria Chin Abdullah, chairperson of Malaysian electoral reform coalition Bersih 2.0 . Photo: EPA/Fazry Ismail

You’ve said: “If you are not aware, you will not know what to change”. What do Malaysians need to be aware of?
There are various issues in Malaysia, and often they are complex in nature. Awareness is the first step towards reform and change.

For example, how does the National Security Bill affect our rights as Malaysians? Does the 1MDB issue affect me? Instead of taking an apathetic approach and saying that these are matters that do not concern me as an individual, Malaysians must make the connection.

In the past few years, we have seen many new issues coming up. For example, the new wave of repressive [security legislation], the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, and amendments to the Sedition Act. Implications of these acts on lives of citizens need to be understood before anyone can comment on what to change.

For our readers outside of Malaysia, could you summarise the aims of your organisation?
Bersih 2.0 is a coalition of NGOs that works on electoral reform in Malaysia which started in 2007. The coalition was formed simply because elections in Malaysia were not free and fair. This is not a mere allegation, but based on the facts, evidence and experience gathered through the years. A defective electoral system means the ruling government could retain power without accountability, and checks and balances.

Over the years, we’ve evolved to become a peoples’ movement in Malaysia because of the four major rallies that we’ve organised. The last rally in August 2015 was attended by more than 500,000 people and it lasted for 34 hours.

The political crisis and weak governance has created a political gap in the country and people are in search of hope. Bersih to a large extent provides that hope for change and unites concerned Malaysians for a common cause.

Can you explain your role in the organisation?
A steering committee is elected by the endorsing NGOs, and I serve as the present chairperson of the steering committee. I work closely with the steering committee in providing leadership for the movement. This includes strategising and campaigning to continue fighting for our goals.

As we’re an NGO, the steering committee also plays an important role in keeping the government and political parties accountable. This means we often have to be the ‘voice of the people’ and speak out against issues that violate citizens’ rights.

You recently strongly criticised the Public Accounts Committee [PAC] report on 1MDB. Do you think the truth will ever come out over 1MDB and if so, how will it come out?
Malaysians would definitely want the truth about 1MDB. The 1MDB scandal was in fact first brought to light in 2009. It’s been almost seven years now and we are nowhere near the truth. Instead, the 1MDB multi-agency task force was disbanded, the former attorney general removed and the auditor general’s audit report is classified as an official secret. So, the PAC report was watered down as it didn’t connect the dots… Prime Minister Najib Razak is absolved of all responsibilities when in fact he is the advisor, director and the minister of finance overseeing the 1MDB, a government-linked enterprise.

The truth will only ever come out through pressure from the people. Malaysians need to continue to collectively demand answers and accountability .

What’s your reaction to the news that the Malaysian government has a law that bans travel for critics of the government? Were you aware of this law when you were barred from travel?
While there are laws on travel bans under the Immigration Act and, as pointed out by the Bar Council, they have limited restrictions, such as Section 104 of the Income Tax Act 1967 and Section 38A(1) of the Bankruptcy Act 1967. There is no express provision to bar travel under the Immigration Act 1959/63.

I was not aware of the restriction on my travel. I only found out at the Malaysian immigration counter in the airport upon checking in for my flight. No explanation was given to me, except that the instruction was from [the government].

This action is an infringement on my personal liberty and freedom of movement. It is politically motivated and shows a desperate government clutching on to power when it should be accountable and engaging with the rakyat [ordinary people] on key issues challenging this country.

The deputy home minister’s [Nur Jazlan Mohamed’s] response shows arrogance of power and contempt. He said the government need not explain the travel ban.

Do you intend to challenge the government on your recent travel ban? How would you do so?
Yes, I’ve begin preliminary discussions with our lawyers.

You said that the ban shows a desperate government clutching on to power. What lengths do you think the government is prepared to take to stay in power?
It’s anyone’s guess. What’s worrying is that the recent laws that were passed and those being proposed confer wide powers and discretion to the executive. Coupled with the lack of effective check and balances, we are highly concerned that they would be misused for political persecution.

The arrest and attempt to charge [fierce critic of the government and cousin of jailed opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim] Khairuddin Abu Hassan and his lawyer Mathias Chang under the [Security Offences (Special Measures) Act] last year for lodging reports on 1MDB to foreign authorities is a clear evidence of such misuse.

The Straits Times referred to you last year as a ‘kindly auntie’. Is that a description that you are comfortable with?
I didn’t agree with that description and informed the Straits Times. I am a human rights activist who wants to see change and a better Malaysia.

There is no doubting your energy and commitment. What’s your secret to staying focused and energised?
My energy comes from seeing the support that people give to Bersih and the fact that so many want change for our country as much as I do. And the fact that I have been involved for more than 30 years in, and seeing the growth of, the NGO movement gives me the confidence to move forward.

I see our involvement as a duty, especially when we see injustices happening. I do my part, and I’m thankful that there are many friends who are together in this. The spirit of solidarity is very important to keep us going.