Civil societies must change roles and relationship in new Malaysia

Urwah Saari

International Development Analyst

The recently-concluded 14th general election (GE14) certainly provided hope to Malaysians who have been pursuing change over the years. Besides political parties, there are many civil society and social movement groups, or whatever terms we want to call them,who contributed towards this new Malaysia and this should not be neglected. They have been fighting for social justice, rights and democracy against pushbacks from the past regime, but with our new environment, what does the future hold for them? Some of their leaders are now within the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government either at federal or state level. Can these elected representatives represent their voices? How can these groups play their role effectively that their long-time, experienced leaders have now left to be in government? These are some intriguing questions, although it is premature to speculate without considering some important changes in the external and internal environments with regards to the said groups. Moreover, it is also vital to understand how these changes have affected the groups and the nature of their work. I personally believe that the future of these civil society movements is dynamically evolving and broadly expanding. In order to survive, they must change their roles and relationships.

Bersih 2.0 perhaps the first social movement in the list. From a successful coalition of leaders from civil society movements and opposition political parties when it was first launched in 2006, the movement had transformed into a fully non-partisan and social activists-led pressure group. With former chairpersons Datuk Ambiga Sreevenasan and Maria Chin having left the scene, Bersih 2.0 underthe leadership of Shahrul Aman, must ensure that the demands for free and fair election are met by the PH government. Bersih 2.0 shall not be overshadowed by their previous leaders, and election reform must be continuous implemented regardless of who is in charge. True to that spirit, ina recent statement in response to Prime Minister’s announcement on the individual members of parliament’s (MPs’) development allocation, Bersih 2.0 reiterated on the need for fairness in the government’s treatment of both government and opposition MPs. Bersih 2.0 insisted that the more fundamental underlying issue is the accountability and transparency of the allocation’s spending, which must be enforced on all MPs across the board. In parallel, two former chairpersons i.e. Maria Chin who is now the MP for Petaling Jaya and Datuk Ambiga who is currently a member of Institutional Reform Committee, must ensure that they remain independent, be steadfast in their principles, and accept be aware of the limitations they face now that they are in public service.

Some social movements have taken the central stage of the delivery of public services particularly in health, education, social mobility and welfare. In the past, this was perceived as undermining the government. Rather than insisting on the currently inadequate and increasingly ineffectual state-monopolised arrangement,the PH government should instead embrace the new reality, especially for the delivery of such services to isolated groups and marginalized communities. On the other hand, such groups should deliberately and systematically work in partnership with the government so that there is minimal redundancy and maximal synergy; and increase their advocacy works and capacity-building via education. They are certainly best-placed to increase our citizen’s awareness of their rights and to encourage them to keep holding primary actors such as the government, ministers and MPs accountable to the people.

In order to play more significant and effective role, civil society groups should proactively act as a negotiator, mediator, watchdog, validator, and promote innovations that encourage the scaling up of delivery of services vis a vis the government. A civil society movement can influence corporate behaviour through continuous, systematic advocacy, as well as establish and validate standards for the government and the private sector to adhere. In Malaysia’s currently very critical phase where opposition political parties are in disarray, civil society movements should act as an alternative people-centric pressure group to check any dominant political block, be it the PH-led federal government or any of the state governments.

The future of civil society groups relies on how effective they can interact with the state i.e. the government of the day to deliver changes that the market i.e. the people demand. This cannot run away from the 3 fundamental aspects i.e. political motivation, state institutionalisation and social aspiration. Civil society groups must also keep the political and social elites’ motivation at a sufficiently high level to ensure meaningful changes are implemented. Finally, civil society groups must participate in state institutionalisation in order to bring state machineries into cooperative response towards realising the social aspiration which are society’s desires and demands in the new Malaysia.

This article was originally published at The Malaysian Insight