PUTRAJAYA - Activists aiming to open up democratic space in South-east Asian countries met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday (Aug 30) to invite him to open a conference next year on the issue.
The group, which included Malaysian political and social activist Hishamuddin Rais, fugitive and former Singapore student union leader Tan Wah Piow, academic Thum Ping Tjin, and three other Singaporeans whom Tan said did not want to be identified, met Tun Mahathir at the Perdana Leadership Foundation in Putrajaya.
The Straits Times understands that the three were Singapore activists Jolovan Wham, Kirsten Han and Sonny Liew.
Dr Mahathir regularly uses his office at the foundation, an institution that holds information on the work of Malaysian prime ministers, for his meetings.
Tan said after the 80-minute meeting that they discussed Pakatan Harapan's win at the May election, which he said "brought hope that change is possible in our lifetime through the ballot box".
"Personally, I am grateful for this open, democratic space that Tun Mahathir's government has now opened, and is now a beacon for many struggling for democracy not just in Singapore, but also in other parts of South-east Asia," he added.
Mr Hishamuddin, who lived in self-exile abroad for several years, and Tan, who fled Singapore in 1976 after failing to report for national service enlistment and was stripped of his Singapore citizenship in 1987, belong to a group called Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia.
They also presented Dr Mahathir with a document titled Peoples' Charter For South-east Asia. Details of the charter were not made available immediately. Dr Mahathir and the Prime Minister's Office have not commented on the meeting, or whether he accepted the invitation to the conference.
But Tan said the Malaysian leader agreed to attend so long as a suitable date could be found. He added that the conference aimed "to help the promotion of democracy in other parts of South-east Asia".
"It is giving opportunities to other countries in South-east Asia to learn and to see how much of the Malaysian template... can provide an example for other countries."
Mr Hishamuddin, who initiated Thursday's meeting, said there was a need to manage and defend the success of what was achieved at the May general election.
"We see how People's Power in Manila ended in (Filipino president Rodrigo) Duterte's win. We saw in Indonesia there is government change, but not much change. In South-east Asia, NGOs and people see Malaysia as an example. We have to defend this... In the blink of an eye, it can be lost, as we have seen in the Philippines. The conference will talk about experiences in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia, so that Malaysians can learn from these," he added.
Asked if the Malaysian general election that toppled Barisan Nasional will influence voters in Singapore, Tan, who is based in London, said: "I hope so because Malaysians have pointed the way to Singaporeans that change is possible, change is not frightening."
The meeting with Dr Mahathir was one of several Tan has had in Malaysia in recent weeks, going by his Facebook posts. He was at a panel discussion with Mr Hishamuddin and Dr Thum, among others, on Aug 18 in Johor, and visited Penang, Pahang and Kelantan.
In 1975, the year before he fled Singapore, Tan and two others were found guilty of unlawful assembly, criminal trespass and rioting at the Pioneer Industries Employees' Union, and sentenced to a year in prison.
Dr Thum posted on Facebook about his meeting and said he asked the Malaysian leader to "take leadership in South-east Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information".