Letter from Empower’s Executive Director Regarding Attacks on Maryam Lee & #UndiRosak
I went to the public forum on “Undi Rosak: Kau nak apa sebenarnya?” on 25 January 2018 because I wanted to listen to all the four speakers. Only two made a strong impression on me. Edry Faizal from the political party, DAP, and Maryam Lee, who’s from Projek Dialog.
Throughout the forum, the word “change” was bandied about too often without anyone really knowing what “change” meant to each speaker and to each person in the audience. There seemed to be an assumption that everyone wanted the same “change”, in the same way. There was a very strong assumption that “If you want to throw BN out, you must want PH to win”. For those opposed to those who wanted to spoil their votes, there was no other change that was talked about, not even the tiniest hint. Rightly, one person from the audience asked the politicians at the forum, “why aren’t you speaking to us who want to vote?” Indeed, why are you so hung up with the 1% who want to spoil their votes?
Maryam made good points. Our experience of democracy cannot be that once-in-five-years vote, it cannot be limited to the polling box. Yet, in order to change the system, Edry pointed out, you would need to vote out those who are manipulating and exploiting the system to serve their ends, before the system can be reformed. Maryam reminded us, though, that the politicians must want our votes. They must convince us that they are worth our votes, that they will work for us. This is a crucial point, because almost all political candidates forget you after they are elected, whether they are BN or PH. They fall into this feudalistic mindset as if we should be thankful to them, that we should honour them, that we should respect them, that we should listen to them and obey them unquestioningly, and that we should expect to be bullied by their supporters of thug-like behaviour if we question them for both their actions and lack of it.
Maryam also reminded us how equally patriarchal both sides were, and how as women, we would still need to struggle, irrespective of who won. She questioned how the PM candidate for PH would bring about reforms when in effect, Malaysia as an authoritarian State only grew stronger in those 22 years, with most powers vested in the Executive, undermining the accountability and transparency of governance that was meant to be assured through the Legislative and the Judiciary.
As a fellow feminist, activist, and a human rights advocate, I have found that PH-led states are more open to engaging with civil society. They have brought about some change, imperfect as these are in implementation. They are certainly more serious about women’s political representation, but unfortunately, not that committed to gender equality. They did follow through in enacting the Freedom of Information Act at the state level, but without really promoting openness in governance. I was still thinking of what “change” has taken place, when I was rudely interrupted. Interrupted by the unwarranted and vile attacks on Maryam.
I have been extremely disgusted at how supporters of the opposition have directed their attacks at Maryam. They have used her picture without her consent, and have called her all sorts of degrading names, primarily by men but also by women. Their remarks have been rude and sexist, and wreak of misogyny. This includes people I know and used to respect. They lost my respect as soon as they engaged in the name calling, and other degrading acts against Maryam. These attackers also falsely accused her of working for Najib, and riled up their friends and acquaintances to do the same. I have always known that racism thrives among PH supporters as much as it thrives among the supporters of BN. Now, the more vocal of PH supporters have shown that they are equally sexist and misogynist.
For all those who attacked her, Maryam is an easy target. A woman, young, and without any influence and power. Those who have called people like Maryam, who want to spoil their votes, stupid, buffoons, and so on, have lost a voter in Maryam, and highly likely, in many others. Because if they had bothered to listen, it would be apparent that she was willing to be persuaded, she was still willing to hear what PH politicians would do to change the country, she was willing to hear which manifestos and people’s demands they would commit to. Because of the attacks on Maryam, PH supporters have probably guaranteed an even greater number of spoilt votes. While the audience at the forum may have been about 99 per cent men, young women make up about half of the young people who are eligible to vote. PH should educate their supporters on the right to dissent and particularly on women’s freedom of expression, because it is PH supporters who attack people like Maryam who have shown voters that PH may not necessarily be “the lesser evil” of two bad choices. The latter, a lame call to vote at best.
Edry’s call to vet the political candidates as best as we can was very welcomed, at least on my end. Because he suggested for us to read the Hansard, to carefully review what our elected representative has done for us, and then to vote. Indirectly, Edry reminded me, and it may not have been his intention, that I can reject the two party system. I can, if I want to, vote for the candidate, and not the party. I have not forgotten that PH politicians have also been harassed and arrested for doing the right thing by the people. These are by and large individuals who have demonstrated their integrity as elected leaders.
In the current political climate, denying the BN two-thirds majority may not happen, and I respect the right of the voter to do what they want with their votes. I especially respect the right of the voter to not choose either of the two evils. The challenge thrown by those who would spoil their votes, calls for restrategising. If spewing hate or standing by as if PH is innocent in all of this mess is all PH can muster, then PH fails miserably to live up to its name. The discourse has forced me to confront if voting out BN is the only change I want, without the promise of the change that matters to me.
Angela M. Kuga Thas
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)