Maria Chin — an activist on a mission

She chooses to be part of an electoral reform movement, to make her voice heard on the streets and help be the inspiration for others


Maria Chin Abdullah has never fathomed that her life will take her on such a route. If it did, she would not have imagined it to this extent. Any other mother would seek solace within the protective walls of their brick domain.

Instead, she chooses to be part of an electoral reform movement, to make her voice heard on the streets, lead a movement to demand for clean elections and help be the inspiration for others.

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or popularly known as Bersih, has stamped a mark in the country’s democratic movement. Its sea of yellow rallies have been featured around the world.

“My life has never been serene ever since I joined Bersih. For 10 years, it has never been serene,” said the former Bersih 2.0 chairwoman to The Malaysian Reserve.

But there is no regret in the voice of the 61-year-old, who was a student activist.

After all, she has seen and experienced most of what a reformist will ever endure in a lifetime — from facing the authorities on the streets to the hardship felt by her three boys, to the arrest under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012.

Her three sons — Azumin Mohamad Yunus, Aziman Maria Mohamad Yunus and Azemi Maria Mohamad Yunus — are with her throughout the journey.

“They made their own decisions to join the last three Bersih rallies, and it was quite an experience for them in Bersih 3.0 when they got shot by tear gas,” she said with a smile.

But she and her children endured all the trying times. Coincidentally, Chin’s late husband, Mohamad Yunus Lebai Ali, was arrested under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) in 1987.

But those episodes had made her more determined than ever. She believes the most effective way to bring changes is to be part of the political circle that can evoke the reforms.

Under the Pakatan Harapan alliance, the human rights activist will contest for the Petaling Jaya (PJ) parliamentary seat in the upcoming May 9 14th General Election (GE14). And the newcomer to the national politics is looking forward to the fight.

“We believe no one should be left behind. Hence, my campaign slogan is ‘Dignity for All’ and we want to restore the diversity and respect to the country.

“Electoral and institutional reforms are still my main focus. Secondly, it’s the women’s political participation and thirdly, the youth’s education,” said the activist, who has been involved in such movements for more than 20 years.

Her Bersih campaign days provided much of her outlook to capture the PJ seat.

“When we decided to take over Bersih, we started with simple, straightforward lobbying. We didn’t expect it to turn into such a huge movement.

“In my opinion, Bersih now is no longer just an NGO (non-governmental organisation), but an organic movement that has a huge support and has become a vibrant voice for Malaysian citizens,” she said, adding that the agenda has always been to connect election reform with institutional reform.

“We need to bring the agenda to the Parliament because at Bersih’s level, there are very little changes despite massive efforts.

“Although a big wave of Malaysians are getting more aware, the parliamentary seat is another opportunity for us to push even more reforms,” she said.

“I’ve decided to take the seating because I see that as a strategy and platform for me to forward the Bersih agendas which I’ve been working for,” she said.

Fighting for a seat in Parliament is also her way to show women’s empowerment in the political circle largely dominated by males.

“In our traditional political structure, the candidate selection process is decided mainly by men. Therefore, women don’t feature so much in the political field.

“Another challenge is that they put women against giants in elections, while not giving them resources to fight a fair battle, such as what happened in GE13,” Chin said.

Based on figures, women political empowerment in the Senate and Cabinet are 22.4% and 8.6% respectively, while 10.8% is in the Dewan Rakyat.

“If you want women to be more actively involved in politics, the electoral system has to change to allow a mixed proportional representation,” she said.

Many early surveys and reports showed that Barisan Nasional (BN) is expected to win GE14. But Chin feels that Pakatan Harapan has a fighting chance, based on the excitement created by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“Last year, if you asked me, I would’ve told you BN will win big, even a landslide. “But the responses from the ground towards Dr Mahathir seems to be paid off now, and perhaps Umno might not get two-thirds in this upcoming election.

“Although the turning up of the crowds in Dr Mahathir’s ceramah is not necessarily translated to votes, we’ve never seen such an excitement from the rural people,” she said.

It was ironic that she speaks highly of the former prime minister who had put her husband under the ISA.

“I won’t deny what Dr Mahathir has done before, especially the ISA detention, as well as some changes of the Constitution. But we need to look at the bigger picture.

“We can’t forget, but to move forward to democracy. Dr Mahathir is the one who is able to bring in the Malays’ votes because they are the majority,” she said, admitting that the Opposition was defeated in the 2008 and 2013 elections because they failed to capture the Malays’ votes.

“It’s now depending on the voters as we need a good 85% of the people to turn up and vote for Pakatan Harapan for a home run.

She said it is crucial for the party to woo the almost 15 million voters, especially the youths and first-time voters.

“The Malays’ votes take up about 60%, if not more, while the majority of the non-Malays are expected to vote for the Opposition.

“So, the deciding factor is the Malay voters which are now divided into BN, PAS, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Amanah and PKR.

“During GE13, they didn’t give Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim that vote, and today, will they give their votes to Dr Mahathir? I think the urban Malays are ready for the change.

“Therefore, the battleground will be the rural Malays which have always been the case in every election of the country,” she said.

GE14 will be a tough battle, expected to be the closest in the country’s history. For Chin, it is her next phase in life, a new chapter which she looks forward to with earnest.