Updated 22 June 2009, 5.16pm
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.