9:59AM Jan 14, 2014Can Maria Chin live up to Ambiga's standard?

INTERVIEW When Maria Chin Abdullah took over Bersih’s helm, questions emerged as to whether she can live up to the bar set by her influential predecessors Ambiga Sreenevasan and A Samad Said.

However, Maria (left) appears to be unmoved by these concerns, stressing that what is important for any people’s movement is its activities, not the personalities behind it.

“I feel that the Bersih movement is not just about individuals. I admit that Ambiga and Pak Samad (as Samad is popularly known) have done excellent work but the movement is about moving forward with Malaysians, in terms of how we want the nation to actually function.

“So, I think it is not just about me but also the new steering committee members, and how we are going to prove that we are able to take on the agenda again and move it forward. Time will tell,” she told Malaysiakini in an exclusive interview on Jan 8.

Prior to her involvement with Bersih, Ambiga was already well-known and internationally recognised for her work as prominent lawyer and as Bar Council president.

As for Samad (right), he is renowned among Malay literally circles and was conferred the title of ‘national laureate’ by the government.

Their involvement in Bersih as co-chairpersons propelled them into even greater prominence. The two stepped down on Nov 30, last year, with Maria winning the post of Bersih chairpersonuncontested.

Maria also heads the NGO Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), which is one of many NGOs that make up the Bersih coalition. Its main work is to advocate for greater gender equality and greater women’s participation in politics.

Influential not because of prominent people

She also said Bersih did not become influential because it was led by prominent personalities, but because it had came in at the ‘right moment’.

When Ambiga became the movement’s chairperson in 2010, Maria said, people were already gearing up for the 13th general election and there was widespread dissatisfaction towards the system.

“I don’t think this (lack of reknown) is a disadvantage, because I think people feel more for Bersih (movement).

“But I think we should start moving people away from personalities, because it wasn’t so much personality, it was actually the momentum (of Bersih), and the people felt fed up at that time,” she said.

Previously, Ambiga had expressed similar sentiments, and gave reassurance that the movement is in good hands.

"I have great faith in the next leadership. I have worked alongside Maria Chin Abdullah. She was my right-hand in the running of Bersih and she has rightfully earned the leadership role.

"Rest assured, Bersih is in good hands… It has grown in the hearts and minds of people, it is a movement which is ground up, rather than top-bottom and therefore, it will always have appeal,” Ambiga (left) told Malaysiakini last year, just prior tostepping down.

Nevertheless, Maria conceded that social movements do need icons, but added, “Can I be an icon? I don’t know.

“But whether I can or cannot be one, I will try my best not to be icon, but to deal with this electoral reform.”

She pledged that she, along with the other newly-elected steering committee members, and soon to be elected regional coordinators, will do their best to push forward the campaign for electoral reform.

Yesterday: Bersih: Rallies just one of many solutions

This interview was jointly conducted by Kow Gah Chie, Ahmad Fadli KC and Koh Jun Lin.