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Malaysia recently concluded its fifth peaceful democratic protest last month to call for a ‘cleaner’ electoral system in the country. Organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih, or ‘clean’ in the Malay language), the rally aimed to raise awareness of systemic corruption in government institutions and of the current polling process. Most notably, the non-governmental group “believes [Prime Minister] Najib should be made answerable to the billions of dollars allegedly swindled from the state-owned investment fund he heads, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).”
In 2015, accusations surfaced against Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak of embezzling nearly USD 700 million from IMDB, a “government-run strategic development company.” One of the messages of the Bersih fifth rally was calling for Prime Minister Najib to step down. According to Bersih, “attacking systemic corruption at its source” would be a step towards restoring democracy.
However, a day before the rally, Maria Chin Abdullah, leader of the Bersih 2.0 movement and organiser of the event, was arrested under an anti-terrorist act (the Special Offences Security Measures act or SOSMA) for the offense of attempting to “commit activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” This act allows Malaysian police to detain anyone for up to 28 days before filing any charge.
After the rally ended, a number of other activists, assemblymen, party members, and rally leaders were also arrested. Maria was held in detention without trial for 11 days, in a small cell without a window or a bed, and was eventually released on 28 November.
This news story about Maria caught my eye because of the ‘Abdullah’ at the end of her Chinese surname. It’s a common practice in Southeast Asia that often indicates a person has converted to Islam. Born in the UK with the name Mary Chin Cheen Lian, she married exiled Malaysian activist Yunus Ali (who passed away in 2010) and moved to Malaysia. They have 3 sons aged 19, 21 and 22.
Another thing I noticed about how Maria is written about in online media: it’s overwhelmingly positive. Take for example, the title of this sub-heading, which was taken from website Free Malaysia Today. In their piece, along with other Malaysian women activists and politicians, she is described as a “true leader,” “remarkable,” and a “[a giant] in the land.” FMT continues,
“Women like Irene Fernandez, Wan Azizah, Maria Chin Abdullah, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Zainah Anwar, Cynthia Gabriel, Marina Mahathir, Noor Faridah Ariffin, Ivy Josiah, Anis Syafiqah, Siti Kassim, Zuraidah Kamaruddin, Teresa Kok, Hannah Yeoh, Mariam Mokhtar and others are now household names across the land.
And when the authorities raid a women’s rights group aimed at encouraging women’s participation in the political process and threaten to charge them with activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, you know that these women are becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Thank goodness for these remarkable women who inspire and encourage us to press on. Our nation is stronger, and better, because of them. They deserve our respect, admiration and gratitude.”
Most of the articles about her appear to describe her political background and circumstances factually, without any judgment about her appearance or morality. However, there are mentions of her age, like in this article from Malaysia Kini (“I could not comprehend how a woman more than twice my age and with three children could have so much energy”) and The Straits Times last year described her as “a kindly auntie.” One could arguably say that while these are ageist descriptions, they do contribute to a positive image of Maria.
As for negative opinions of Maria, these seem to be more based on her politics, rather than age. For example, in this article by Malaysia Outlook she is labelled as an “enemy of the state,” based on her alleged political connections and activities. The comparison is especially stark when compared to the representation of former Malaysian ambassador to the Netherlands Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, who was threatened with rape after her public comments on the rise of religious extremism in Malaysia.
Two Malaysian sexagenarian women, one Chinese and one Malay. Perhaps race plays a factor? Do Malays feel less ‘responsible’ for the morality of a convert as opposed to one raised Muslim? Or perhaps the content of their work plays a factor? Maria works on an issue that is free from religious or racial connotations, while Datuk Noor Farida commented on religious extremism that has a disproportionate impact on women and other marginalised communities.
While it is difficult to fully unravel the motivations behind such different representations of two Malaysian activists, it is important to keep questioning such differences. Only by naming a phenomena can we begin to understand it.