Maria Chin Abdullah, head of the recipient of the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award, shares her views on democracy and the role of civic groups with Taiwanese NGOs. Olivia Yang reports.
“We are trying to define democracy in Malaysia, to say that it is all right for you to speak up, it’s all right to not fear them. Because once we show fear, we back down, we compromise.”
BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah is speaking at a discussion with Taiwan NGOs in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2017. The Malaysia-based coalition had just been presented with the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award earlier that day, and proceeded to share her experiences with Taiwan NGOS on how civil societies in Asia advocate for fair and clean elections.
While BERSIH 2.0 is well-known for its sea of bright yellow-clad protesters in the streets of major cities around the world, rallies are not the only approach the coalition takes in expanding civil political participation throughout Malaysia.
“At any time now we can confidently say we can bring 100,000 people to the streets, but it took us 10 years to build up this momentum,” says Maria Chin Abdullah. “The other thing we are saying to the government is that you have to respect rule of law. We are actually challenging them.”
To build more awareness among Malaysians on the importance of civil participation in public affairs, BERSIH 2.0 has come up with new strategies. These include organizing electoral observations, forming a Delineation Action and Research Team (DART), and holding boot camps that provide education on the basics of democracy, elections and mass mobilization.
But the coalition’s efforts have not all been carried out smoothly.
Maria Chin Abdullah says that “as we get more sophisticated in reaching out to people, the state also gets more sophisticated in trying to counter us.”
Pushback from the government is not unexpected; however BERSIH 2.0 is also seeing frustration from the civil society. Sometimes people want quick solutions to changing the government, which is very difficult due to the “uneven” system, says the BERSIH 2.0 chairperson.
“People think that just because they vote they should get the results they want. But it doesn’t work that way.”
While elections in Taiwan are comparatively clean and fair, challenges like vote-buying still exist.
Huang Shiow-duan is a standing board member at Transparency International Chinese Taipei (TICT) and chairperson of Citizen Congress Watch (CCW), a coalition of NGOs that monitors the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Parliament.
During the conversation with BERSIH 2.0, Huang gave examples of how the organizations she is affiliated with are fighting corruption in the island-nation.
From 2013 to 2014, TICT collaborated with the Tainan District Prosecutors Office to produce a series of anti-corruption animated education videos. Huang says it is crucial to start anti-corruption education from a young age, and children can also be more persuasive in communicating information to older generations.
CCW, on the other hand, supervises Taiwan’s parliamentarians by broadcasting legislative sessions and making legislative documents accessible to the public. It also evaluates legislators once every six months and the evaluation report is made public so that civil society, along with legislators, are aware of their performance.
“I don’t think the government will clean itself. It needs supervision. That’s why we need to create a system of separation of power,” says Huang.
Compared to TICT and CCW, Watchout Co. is a younger NGO founded in 2013 with a mission of lowering the threshold of political participation. Being a media platform, Watchout empowers the people by sharing facts and informed opinions in a way that is easy to consume. It also utilizes social media and technology to oversee the government.
But echoing Maria Chin Abdullah, Yu Chih-hao, design and technology lead at Watchout, says that “empowering the people is the ultimate solution — but it’s the toughest solution.”
The main challenges Watchout faces is coming up with methods to free people’s time and minds, and getting other media outlets to distribute its information so the facts flow between different eco-chambers.
Yu nevertheless emphasizes the importance of democratic countries defining their own democracy and learning from each other.
“Practicing democracy in Taiwan is our lifeline,“ says Yu. “It’s one of the factors that differentiate Taiwan from China, and it’s one of the factors that get Taiwan international recognition and respect.”
“Democracy does not happen overnight. Democracy takes time,” says Maria Chin Abdullah. “We are struggling. We are backsliding. But I still believe in the power of the people.”
Top photo: BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah speaking at a discussion with Taiwan NGOs in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2017. (Photo: Olivia Yang).