Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan has made an extraordinary career as a legal reformer and lawyer, with accolades and accomplishments at home and abroad. She is now in danger of throwing it away.
The daughter of Dato’ Dr G. Sreenevasan, Ambiga has never been content to rest on her laurels. Obtaining her law degree (and later, an honorary doctorate of laws) from the University of Exeter, she has been a practising Advocate and Solicitor since March 1982. She subsequently founded her own firm, became only the second woman to sit as President of the Bar Council (2007-2009), and has sat on numerous committees and panels for the Bar since.
Her awards spring from a reforming spirit that, even if sometimes prone to carrying her off in the wrong direction, has historically been a commendable one. She has made a name for herself by taking hard cases, for those against whom she perceives the system to be antagonistic, and has led fights for a clean and fair judiciary, including her famous March for Justice and the Royal Commission that followed after.
The real secret to her success, however, has not been her pioneering spirit, or her willingness to put her health and safety on the line for the causes in which she believes. Mere physical bravery does not carry one very far in politics, and Dato’ Ambiga is very definitely a political actor.
Instead, her success is a tribute to her canniness and understanding that she must be perceived as being part of a third force, being willing to work with and against both the Government and the Opposition, depending on how her goals align at any given time. Thus it is that in the leadup to Bersih 2.0, she made clear her willingness to work with Opposition and Government figures; even in the wake of the march, she made clear her approval of the reforms being led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
But then, whether the mask slipped or she slipped, she made her first real error.
She spoke at the third Pakatan Rakyat national convention on Saturday. To her credit, she was arguably the only person present who set out policy for the Opposition, calling for a supplement to the Government’s current special task force on illegal currency outflows, and a truth commission for smaller players in corruption cases.
To her discredit, she offered Pakatan Rakyat policy proposals at their biggest political event of the year, thereby taking a side in the upcoming general elections. That looked like a mistake.
Apparently believing that in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound is the only way to go, Dato’ Ambiga has since gone on to accuse Najib of “endorsing” threats of violence against her. That looks like nonsense.
The allegations she relates, however, appear to be somewhat less threatening than she has suggested. First, she claims that Najib endorsed Pertubuhan Seni Silat Lincah Malaysia, an organisation of silat groups, that had “warned that it would take on Bersih 2.0 if the rally was not called off.” Najib’s “endorsement” of violence was, according to Ambiga, “I believe, if there are evil enemies who want to attack the country from without and within, ‘anak-anak lincah’ will rise to fight them.”
This is demonstrably silly, as a seasoned politico like Ambiga should know. “War footing,” “warlord,” “battle,” and “fight” are common political metaphors. No one thinks Umno is about to start beheading Pakatan voters, and no one thinks Lim Kit Siang will shortly stand with a bloodied spear on a mountain of skulls.
The rest of the alleged endorsed threat was this: According to Ambiga, “Najib had labelled her as a ‘threat to Islam’ when he said, ‘Who doesn’t know Ambiga. She’s the one who threatened Islam. And below her is Mat Sabu.'” That would be the same Mat Sabu who is currently the Deputy President of PAS.
The reason for this outburst is as yet unclear — perhaps Ambiga believes Pakatan will win GE13? — but its rationale is not as important as its effect. In the space of a week, the leader of Bersih 2.0 has transformed herself from a non-partisan actor capable of seeming to be above the fray and speaking as an honest broker to all Malaysian politicians, to just another Pakatan mouthpiece.
This will only strengthen her standing with the Opposition, but not with fair and balanced Malaysians. When Pakatan was trying to jump on her Bersih bandwagon, and she was far ahead of them, and above the fray, that was one thing. But if she directly aligns herself with Pakatan by joining their conventions and rallies, Ambiga herself will end up the loser.