Kindly auntie and street protest leader

Just three hours into the Bersih rally on Aug 29, the electoral reforms group's chief Maria Chin Abdullah had already given at least three speeches from the back of a pickup truck - surrounded by a heaving sea of yellow made up of tens of thousands calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Dripping with perspiration, she finally got off the "podium" to join her supporters sitting on the road.

"Been standing for hours, my knees can't take it," the 59-year-old told The Straits Times, before being swamped with selfie requests.

But her creaking body did make it through the entire 34-hour rally, which ended at the stroke of midnight on Sunday.

The crowds then ushered in Independence Day just outside Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, with one of the most resounding renditions of the national anthem in living memory.

Ms Maria, an ethnic Chinese who converted to Islam after marrying a Muslim, is not at all the kind of firebrand activist or politician one would expect to be leading a street protest.

She comes across as more of a kindly auntie, just like her predecessor Ambiga Sreenevasan, who has become one of the most prominent voices in Malaysian civil society after leading Bersih to two mammoth street protests before the 2013 general election.

But unlike Datuk Ambiga, who was already a top-notch lawyer and immediate past president of the Bar Council before leading Bersih, Ms Maria was just one of many civil rights activists in Malaysia, where activists are often viewed as troublemakers, if not enemies of the state.

Her elevation to Bersih chief in 2013 - and now with an unprecedented overnight rally under her belt - has thrust Ms Maria onto the national, if not international, stage, with journalists seeking interviews with her.

She is now at the forefront of a movement to unseat Datuk Seri Najib Razak, whom critics accuse of falling foul of electoral rules after he received US$700 million (S$997 million) in his private bank accounts, money that the government claims is "political funding".

In Malaysia's current political uncertainty, Bersih - a coalition of 84 NGOs - sticks out like a sore thumb among politicians on both sides of the divide manoeuvring to ensure they are backing the right horse.

"We need to fix the system, not just fix the prime minister. That alone doesn't bring the change we want. Politicians will have their own agenda. Both (the ruling) Barisan Nasional or opposition. At the end of the day, we want reforms to be done," she said at a press conference on Aug 31, Independence Day.

Estimates of the turnout varied from Bersih's own claim of half a million going in and out of the city centre over the two days, to the very conservative figure of 25,000 given by police.

But support for the movement goes deeper and beyond people turning up clad in yellow and enjoying the largely festive atmosphere during the rally in Kuala Lumpur.

In the month after Bersih announced it was holding the rally, it collected nearly RM2.5 million (S$830,000) in donations and from sales of 35,000 yellow T-shirts.

"The donation is reflective of the public's support for us and our cause. As a matter of fact, it is three times more than our collection in the last rally (in 2012)," Ms Maria had said when donations stood at RM1.2 million.

Before she took over the helm of Bersih in 2013 after an internal election, she was already a 30-year veteran in Malaysian civil society, largely focusing on women's rights.

She helped set up the well-regarded All Women's Action Society after returning from her studies in London in 1985, and is now executive director of Empower, a Selangor-based community awareness body that champions the rights of youth and women.

In 1987, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government launched the infamous Ops Lalang, a crackdown that saw 106 dissidents arrested under the now-repealed Internal Security Act, which gave the authorities the power of detention without trial.

Among them was the late Yunus Ali, a fellow activist whom Ms Maria had met in London and would later marry in 1993.

"We had a lot in common, especially over what was happening in the country then. And he was interested in women's rights, which was quite rare then," she had said of her husband, who died in 2010. The couple have three children.

Support for the cause being championed by Ms Maria is growing, and the mammoth crowd that Bersih's fourth rally since its first in 2007 drew has given Ms Maria reason for optimism.

Asked if there would be a fifth, she said: "There are two reasons, if we do this. The first is celebration that we actually got the reforms. If we do not have the reforms, there may be five, six, seven, eight or nine (more)."

This article was first published on September 7, 2015.
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