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BERSIH Chairperson resigns, citing divisions within Steering Committee

The chairperson of the Malaysian electoral watchdog BERSIH has tendered his resignation.

He cited a ‘vote of no confidence’ as the majority of the endorsing NGOs of BERSIH rejected his leadership and efforts to evolve BERSIH into a People’s Institution.

BERSIH in a statement on Tuesday confirmed that a by-election be held as soon to fill the vacancy of the Chairperson.



MALAYSIA: Thomas Fann, the chairperson of the Malaysian electoral watchdog BERSIH (The Coalition for Clean and Fair Election), tendered his resignation on 19 November.

He cited a “vote of no confidence” from a divided steering committee that was pulling in opposing directions.

BERSIH in a statement on Tuesday (21 Nov) confirmed that a by-election be held as soon to fill the vacancy of the Chairperson.

In his resignation letter issued on Sunday, Mr Fann expressed his desire to shape BERSIH into a people’s institution for the future.

However, his newly appointed deputy chairman, Wong Yan Ke, aimed to restore BERSIH as a people’s movement.

Despite winning uncontested for another term as the chairperson in the Election of the New Steering Committee of BERSIH 2023-2025 on 10 November, the five contested positions of Deputy Chair, Treasurer, and three Committee Member posts were secured by all four candidates led by Wong Yan Ke.

They stood against the team proposed by Fann.

Mr Fann said it was clear to him that the majority of the Endorsing NGOs of BERSIH rejected his leadership and efforts to evolve BERSIH into a People’s Institution.

“The rejection of my team that was led by Ngeow Chow Ying (outgoing Treasurer) by the majority of the NGOs in this actively contested election that saw a record 50 out of 60 Endorsing NGOs participating (83.3%), was a clear message to me that my vision and direction for BERSIH was rejected. It was a vote of no confidence.”

“My team campaigned on continuity to evolve Bersih into a people’s institution while Yan Ke and those who campaigned for him, pushed for a restoration of Bersih to its roots as a people’s movement, presumably with organising protests as one of its main tools to connect with the grassroots, the people.”

“I see this as two opposing visions for BERSIH — one proffered by the chairperson and the other by his deputy.”

“While Yan Ke’s team with four seats in the nine-member steering committee does not necessarily represent the majority of the steering committee he does have the mandate of the majority of the endorsing NGOs who voted,” he said.

Mr Fann emphasized that he could not conscientiously lead a divided steering committee or oppose the will of the majority of the endorsing NGOs.

“Neither could I go against my own conviction and lead Bersih in its attempt to become a people’s movement again when I believe that Bersih’s future is for it to be an institution that is actively and constructively contributing ideas and solutions to strengthen our parliamentary democracy,” he said.

Gutzy Asia also reached out to Mr Wong to inquire about his vision to restore BERSIH as a people’s movement.

Thomas Fann advocates diverse avenues for reform beyond protest rallies in Bersih’s evolution

Acknowledging that organizing protest rallies has been a fundamental aspect of BERSIH’s roots as a people’s movement and a crucial democratic right, Thomas Fann emphasized that it’s just one among several channels available to advocate for reforms.

“In a changed political environment post 14th general election (GE14) after Barisan Nasional (BN)/Umno was toppled, other effective channels of engagement had opened up and BERSIH under my leadership in the past five years had utilised those channels effectively and achieved impactful outcomes.

“By definition, a people’s movement can only thrive if there is a groundswell of support for an idea by a vast number of the population, ” Mr Fann added.

“For Bersih in its pre-GE14 years, that idea was regime change, even if it was not necessarily the intention of all the Bersih steering committee members then. The yearning by a vast segment for regime change was satisfied when BN was defeated and Pakatan Harapan (PH) won in 2018. ”

“To many, the mission was accomplished. There was little interest in Bersih post-GE14, even among civil society actors. ”

Thomas Fann: Bersih’s shift from People’s Movement post-GE14

Thomas Fann believed that Bersih’s identity as a vibrant people’s movement ceased to exist on May 10, 2018, the day following GE14, when the Malaysian voters entrusted Pakatan Harapan with the mandate to overthrow the long-standing incumbent coalition, Barisan Nasional.

Adding to that, Fann said Bersih is just a tool of history, doing the right thing at the right season.

“That season is over and has been for a long time,” he said.

As he steps down, Fann said it is only fair for Yan Ke and his team of young and veteran leaders committed to ‘revitalising Bersih as a people’s movement’ to have a free hand to take Bersih to the direction they see fit in the next two years.

“For me, to serve in Bersih is to serve the interest of all segments of the Malaysian public regardless of their ethnicity, religion, region or party affiliation,” he said.

BERSIH forms ad hoc election committee for chairperson by-election

Separately, In a statement released on Tuesday, BERSIH announced its inaugural meeting of the new Steering Committee (SC) held the previous day.

The primary agenda was to navigate the path forward following the recent election of the new SC for the term 2023-2025 and the resignation of their newly reelected Chairperson.

“Fann explained his decision to resign and the SC understand and respect the decision of the Chairperson. It was agreed that a by-election be held as soon as is practicable to fill the vacancy of the Chairperson. ”

The Steering Committee conveyed that an ad hoc Election Committee (EC) would be established to oversee the election process. The EC will duly notify all our Endorsing NGOs about the Nomination, Campaign, and Polling periods in due course.

Mr Fann, who also chaired the meeting, assured his commitment to facilitate a seamless transition of responsibilities to the incoming SC and Chairperson.

He then went on to explain the operational structure of the BERSIH team, the roles of each SC members, ongoing programmes and advocacies.

Additionally, Executive Director Ooi Kok Hin affirmed that the Secretariat would continue its pivotal role in supporting the new SC to sustain BERSIH’s relevance and impact in advocating for electoral and institutional reforms.

“The new SC expresses its sincere gratitude to all members of the previous SC and Fann for the efforts they put in to steer BERSIH through the tumultuous political period since GE14 till now, overseeing four Prime Ministers in five years, one General Election and multiple state elections and by-elections.”

Over the past five years, BERSIH has commissioned over 20 research reports, published its inaugural book, spearheaded numerous campaigns, and fostered crucial alliances across the political spectrum.

These achievements lay the robust groundwork from which the new SC can propel BERSIH to greater accomplishments.

“BERSIH is where it is today because of the strong support of the Rakyat and the dedication of the various Steering Committees that have led it in the past. We stand on the shoulders of their labour, ” said the statement.

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