IF there is one word that best explains and describes the virulent reaction towards Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, that word, for me, would be fear. That’s right. Fear.
In fact, it would seem from the continuing attacks against the Bersih 2.0 chairperson that this fear is such that she should be detained without trial under the Internal Security Act and/or denied citizenship. There is so much fear of the menace that Ambiga purportedly is that she, more than any other social or public health issue, has dominated headlines since Bersih 2.0 was launched.
Indeed, Ambiga seems to be public enemy No. 1. And her decision to open a four-day human rights festival for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT), known as Seksualiti Merdeka, has elevated this public-enemy status.
Question is, who exactly is afraid of Ambiga Sreenevasan? And what are they so afraid of?
The power of Ambiga
Before Seksualiti Merdeka became the new cause for Ambiga’s continued vilification, the senior lawyer and former Bar Council chairperson had already been threatened with gang rape and death for being an “accursed infidel” (“kafir laknat”). All for leading the call for free and fair elections through Bersih 2.0. Apparently, calling for electoral reforms that could only strengthen Malaysian democracy constitutes being an “accursed” unbeliever. And being an unbeliever – in this case an unbeliever of the Malaysian electoral system’s integrity – deserves punishment by either rape or death.
Since it was announced that Ambiga would launch Seksualiti Merdeka, which the police have since banned, the personal attacks against Ambiga have resumed with vengeance. This time round, she is a threat to the nation for purportedly violating the Federal Constitution and the “natural order” of human relations, and for insulting Islam while tempting Allah’s wrath.
Ambiga must sure be one powerful woman if she really is capable of doing as much as her detractors say she is. Indeed, it would seem that Ambiga’s actions and the causes she supports don’t just have an impact on public order and national security. It would seem that Ambiga’s agreement to open a festival that helps a marginalised community learn about their rights would also shake the heavens where Allah must reside.
What’s the real problem?
What really is the problem that Ambiga’s detractors have with her? And it must be her they have a problem with, because the truth is, Seksualiti Merdeka has been an annual event since 2008. Up until now, it has not been considered such a danger that the police had to threaten arrests if the festival went ahead as scheduled.
The way I see it, those who vilify, threaten and cast all manner of unsubstantiated allegations against Ambiga are saying only one thing: that really, they’re afraid. They are afraid of having an electoral system that is free and fair, and has more integrity and transparency than it has now. They are afraid that people with different sexual identities and preferences should and do deserve equal rights as Malaysian citizens even if the choices LGBTs make run counter to our hetero-normative culture.
And why would organisations the likes of Perkasa and the police be so afraid of Ambiga? After all, she’s clearly stated she does not have the stomach for politics. She’s a woman in a country where we can’t even meet the government’s quota of 30% women’s participation in public leadership roles. She’s identified as being Indian Malaysian, a minority racial group that cannot wield the same kind of clout a Malay Malaysian leader could. And yet, she is deemed such a threat to the status quo that she must be destroyed, if not her reputation then her very person, including through deliberate misreporting and factual inaccuracies by the Umno-controlled media.
For all intents and purposes, Ambiga is nowhere as powerful as she’s made out to be. Despite this, she has been able to galvanise thousands of Malaysians inside and outside the country without the need for a political party. These Malaysians cut across ideologies, age, race, religion, region and sexuality. And as the 9 July 2011 Bersih 2.0 rally demonstrated, these Malaysians are not afraid of the state’s threats of violence against them. Is that perhaps why Ambiga is such a threat – that she has become an icon for principled and honest leadership that this country is so in need of?
As Ambiga has rightfully pointed out, what is most shameful hasn’t been the personal threats against her. What has been shameful has been the bile and hatred that has been spewed against the LGBT community, which already faces regular threats of violence and injustice including from state and religious authorities. All done in an effort to further demonise Ambiga.
That is the nature of the beast, isn’t it? Those who dare to stand up and speak up for a more just and compassionate social order, and equal rights and protection for all regardless of who they are, are the ones who will most likely be targeted with violence and threats. Hence, while we cannot condone what the state and non-state actors are doing to Ambiga, Bersih 2.0, Seksualiti Merdeka and the LGBT community, we shouldn’t be too surprised.
After all, this wouldn’t be the first time human rights defenders and marginalised communities are demonised and threatened as being a menace to public order and religious or cultural norms. No less than Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad, women’s suffragists, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Gandhi, to name but a few, were all vilified in their time for speaking up against the status quo.
Within the current and local contexts, human rights defenders such as those in Sisters in Islam; opposition politicians such as Karpal Singh; and academics such as Prof Dr Abdul Aziz Bari have all been threatened with harm before. And yet, often it is the likes of these organisations and individuals who are internationally recognised for the value of their struggle and principles. They are the ones who, in time, will have contributed in real ways to the opening up of democratic spaces and to justice.
Hence, what we should be fearful of aren’t the likes of Ambiga or events such as the Bersih 2.0 rally or Seksualiti Merdeka. What we should be fearful of is the state – in particular the Umno-led Barisan Nasional state – and non-state actors who would go to all extremes to deny us a better, safer, kinder and fairer Malaysia.
Jacqueline Ann Surin isn’t afraid of Ambiga Sreenevasan or the LGBT community. She is more afraid of a Malaysian police force and a government administration that cannot protect citizens’ rights to organise, assemble and express themselves peacefully and safely.