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Watching Malaysia change

Updated 22 June 2009, 5.16pm

Ambiga between Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama

US first lady Michelle Obama (right) and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hand Ambiga the Secretary of State's Award for International Women of Courage, on 11 March 2009 (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images North America, Source: Zimbio)

DATUK Ambiga Sreenevasan’s reference point for how aware Malaysians are about issues is the taxi driver. The respected lawyer and former Malaysian Bar president is no stranger to being scolded by taxi drivers while she is dressed up in her courtroom garb.

“‘Aiya, this judiciary, can buy,’ one told me,” Ambiga says. “They are very critical, and are very clear on what is right and wrong.”

The Malaysian taxi driver is one of her gauges of public awareness, and the senior lawyer is convinced that nobody should underestimate the Malaysian public’s understanding of issues.

Indeed, Ambiga’s seen quite a lot in her own life. The Nut Graph talked to her on 26 May 2009 at her office in Kuala Lumpur about growing up through 13 May 1969, watching the 1988 judicial crisis unfold, and the changing attitudes of Malaysians.

We are all pendatangs. Where are you from?

My father was born and bred in Malaysia. My mother was from South India, and my father married her and brought her to Malaysia.

My paternal grandfather was also from South India. I think it was a question of looking for opportunities, for him. He was an assistant commissioner for labour.

My parents have three children. I was born in Seremban, on 13 November 1956; my father, who was a doctor, was posted there.

My father, Datuk Dr G Sreenevasan, was one of our pioneer urologists. He was the main person behind the Institute of Urology and Nephrology in Hospital Kuala Lumpur. I remember him spending longs days and nights planning this.

Ambiga's father and the staff of the Institute of Urology Nephrology on his retirement from government service at the age of 52 (Courtesy of Ambiga Sreenevasan)

Growing up, I remember that my father was very inspired by Tunku Abdul Rahman, and his call for all races to unite. My father had many opportunities abroad, but he decided to stay here; he wanted to build something up in Malaysia. And he did.

All my father’s friends and colleagues were like that. Those people who lived through independence really had the spirit of nationalism in them. The drive that they had — unfortunately we’ve lost that now. Comparing them with Malaysians today, I understand when people of that generation tell me: you don’t know what it is to want to build up our country.

What was school like?

I went to Convent Bukit Nenas from Form One to Upper Six. I remember that my friends and I had a strong sense of “Malaysianism”.

This was after 1969. It’s true that 13 May destroyed a lot of trust. But then there was the Rukunegara, which we all had to learn — seemingly real attempts to bring people together. We were happy to strengthen our command of Bahasa (Malaysia), for example.

It felt as if — in my school, at least, where the student body was mixed — there was a coming together of the races. It was a healing period.

Let’s backtrack. What was 13 May like?

I was 13 at the time. On the day it happened, we got a message from the school authorities: Go home early. My mother came to pick me up.

Father G Sreenevasan and mother Visalakshi (Courtesy of Ambiga Sreenevasan)

Well, we lived in Kampung Baru, at the time. On Jalan Putra — now Jalan Raja Muda 1. This was not far from the then-Selangor menteri besar’s home. We were there because it was close to the General Hospital, so it was easy for my father to get to work. Ours was the last house on the row. My father was overseas at the time, so it was just mother and us children, my uncle and aunt, and the household cook.

At 6pm we saw people running past, wearing headbands. Soon after, we heard screams. Later, there were cars being burnt in the field. The house behind us was burnt. We were always safe, though. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because we had lived there so long, so everyone knew us. Or maybe it was because we were Indian [Malaysian].

When my father got back, about a week after 13 May, he helped out at the hospital, treating people with injuries. He said: “I read about the riots, but I never imagined it would be this bad.”

It was bad. We had never before seen anything like that. For a long time after, whenever I heard fireworks going off, I would feel nervous.

What was university like?

When I went to university in the UK, my horizons expanded and I learnt about freedom of thought and speech — and what these concepts meant in real terms. When I visited the Bar there, I saw how a functioning democracy operated. This time was a very important part in moulding my views on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

I came back and joined the Malaysian Bar in 1982. It was a wonderful organisation, even then. Being a young lawyer, I remember being petrified to appear before people like Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader — he would chew you up if you didn’t know your brief. He was so respected because he knew your brief, and the law, and was of the highest integrity and intellect.

Ambiga and Tun Salleh Abas talking

Ambiga and Tun Salleh Abbas

In fact, I’d appeared before all the judges who were later suspended in the judicial crisis.

What was it like, being a young lawyer during the 1988 judicial crisis?

It was a real shock to the system. Our first three prime ministers never touched the judiciary; probably this was because they were lawyers themselves. Our judiciary was a very respected institution.

I remember, as the tribunals were in progress, a group of us lawyers sitting at the back of the courtroom and watching. To see these men, who had so much self-respect, to be treated in that shabby way — we couldn’t believe it.

I remember going home and bursting into tears. It was like someone demolishing your house while you’re standing in it.

Things are getting better since those dark times. But, ultimately, when it comes to the judiciary, it is up to the judges themselves to act courageously, now.

When did you become aware about race?

Ambiga NEP pullquote

Race was always there. We were always aware of it, but it wasn’t as divisive as it is today. The New Economic Policy worked quite well, initially.

Then the abuses started: the enrichment of a few at the expense of the many who actually needed it. And these few became arrogant. Playing the race card suited them, because it solidified their positions.

I think, very frankly, that politicians are responsible for bringing so much racism into our society. I think it suited the politicians to play on our differences instead of what unites us.

But the arrogance that grew with this has been rejected by the people. I’m talking about the March 2008 elections. What we saw was a rejection of racist rhetoric. People were fed up. Previously, the 13 May bogey used to work — but that’s not working any more.

Where do you think we are going, now?

I like to think of Malaysian history as being divided into three phases.

R Gopal Ayer, Ambiga's grandfather (Courtesy of Ambiga Sreenevasan)

The initial years, during my father’s time, when there was this nationalistic feeling, this drive to show the world that we could be an independent and united nation.

Then a long period, during which things became more divisive. A time when we appeared to have economic prosperity, but also had so much corruption and racism.

And now, a third phase: the push for change.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of young Malaysians now feel no connection with 13 May. They don’t come from that past. There is a disconnect between the youth, and old politics.

My father’s generation adored Tunku. I don’t know whether we will get that feeling again. But you need this generation saying: the world has moved on, so let me move on, too. Favicon

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7 Responses to “Watching Malaysia change”

  1. D Lim says:

    I was a wee bit younger than Ambiga when 13 May happened. Fortunately, I lived in Ipoh where I heard the late Sultan (indirectly) protected Perak from the flames coming from the south because he refused to allow the soldiers to come to our state and warned against any problems. To this day, I hold respect for the late Sultan.

    I don’t really know much about Tunku as by the time I reached adulthood, he had long retired. But from the stories I heard from conversations, he was a much respected man among the non-Malay [Malaysians]. It was believed that he was pushed from power because he was seen to be too fair to other races.

    I do not know whether this is true but it is all from rumours and conversations. As you and I know, Malaysian history does little to present the facts. Yes, in conclusion, I agree with Ambiga. Tunku was respected and loved although he had lost all power. But it is when one faces adversity that one knows one’s true friends. A Chinese proverb says adversity tests your friends!

    It is sad indeed that 40 years after 13 May, the nation has not healed and learnt to weave its colourful fabric into a beautiful batik.

  2. dominik says:

    My father was born in Taiping in 1914. My great-grandfather came to Malaya for a brighter future for himself and my grandfather who was only 10 at that time.

    When 13 May happened, I was already working in Ipoh when I heard the news of shooting and killing in KL and the subsequent curfew imposed. I was so sad that so many lives were lost. But then life has to go on.

    I heard our beloved Tunku was asked to step down as PM. It was a sad day to see and hear his sad voice announcing he was stepping down as PM. He was a righteous man with lots of principles. He wanted the best for Malayans and it had to come from education and that was why only the best were admitted to university then. Our education system at that time was outstanding. No one from that era will deny it.

    However, our education system was changed and that led to our education system going backwards by at least 15 years. This is only my opinion. That’s how I viewed it at that time and I still hold on to that view now.

  3. Azizi Khan says:

    I come from a family of lawyers. My siblings are lawyers as is my dad. I believe the judicial crisis took the wind out of a lot of lawyers. I still remember my dad coming back to us and taking about it.

    I was still in high school then. At that time we viewed the judiciary as beyond blemish. These days it’s available to the highest bidder. People are frustrated. The law is the one thing that protected the common [person] from [rulers] and tyrants. It gave the common folk [hope] that they can obtain justice. But that belief has been torn into shreds ….

    I would like to think that sooner or later justice will prevail. One way or another. 2008 started it. Who knows where it will finish. Maybe one day we’ll watch the “wayang kulit” as is and the real crooks are brought to justice.

    In the meantime I am glad there are people like Datuk Ambiga out there to show the meaning of integrity in Malaysia, even though the current judges have long forgotten it.


  4. Naoko says:

    “Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of young Malaysians now feel no connection with 13 May. They don’t come from that past. There is a disconnect between the youth, and old politics.”

    Thank you, Ambiga, for saying what needs to be said. I was born in 1984, long after 1969, and growing up, I never really understood what 1969 was all about. All I knew about it was what was in the textbooks, but when you grow up with friends who shared their food and drinks with you, that kind of reality seems far removed.

    I suppose that’s why 1969 has no relevancy to me, except as a political tool to divide the people. It helps too, that I’m of mixed descent, which means I can’t be “conveniently” categorised and asked to subscribe to the usual racial rhetoric.

  5. TinKosong says:

    “But, ultimately, when it comes to the judiciary, it is up to the judges themselves to act courageously, now.”

    If the Bar Council had emulated [the] Pakistani [lawyers’] strenuous and sustained support for their CJ, maybe our judiciary would not have been so badly mangled. You too have a responsibility for today’s sorry state of affairs. Stop trying to pass the buck!

  6. Justice says:

    To the young generation such as Naoko who feel little relevance or meaning in 13 May 1969, allow me to explain to you the emotional relevance today.

    That terrible day of confusion and chaos was a dark cloud over Malaysia but it is not mere history. As long as there are people today with political greed and racism in their hearts and minds, the spectre of civil war/violence is always there.

    Look at Thailand, Iran, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and perhaps soon the developed world pending the fallout of the economic recession.

    All these countries are going through political convulsions where you are not sure whether soldiers are there to protect you or harm you, where curfews are declared and the hushed nights of fear and waiting for peace seem endless.

    I was there … at the age of seven years old in Bukit Damansara. My family crowded closely together in the dark in one room, trying to hear the World BBC news about the country and watching a lorry full of men pass by across the road.

    If you have an inkling of this feeling of chaos and fear, then you would know how close humanity is each day to the abyss. And we have God to thank for that Malaysians have lived in a peaceful society, albeit divisive in many ways.

    Viewed objectively, 13 May should compel Malaysian citizens and leaders to be more sane, non-racist, united and trustworthy instead of being used as a political tool to divide and create fear with draconian laws such as the ISA.

  7. Catherine Wang says:

    “And now, a third phase: the push for change.”

    I was very much attracted by that phrase. Probably because many of us are also feeling the similar push. The need for change may be the one thing that will unite us Malaysians. As prominent figures like Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan and many other Malaysians are doing their best to bring about changes on a larger scale, the people on the other hand are also capable of doing so on a smaller scale, by first loving and respecting the person next to them regardless of race. If every Malaysian can see this simplicity, a united Malaysia is probably already a reality.

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