On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Unsung heroes or vocal villains?

But that does not prevent him from sending press
statements to so-called pro-government newspapers which he despises. Most of
his statements are published, even when some have no relevance to the movement
he is heading.

These examples give NGOs a bad image. Yet there are many in the NGO circle who
carry out their tasks quietly, doing their social work within a tight

Ikhlas, a relatively unknown NGO, carries out AIDS prevention work in the Chow
Kit area while Hospis provides counselling for the terminally-ill in hospitals
without fanfare.

The general Malaysian perception of an NGO is that it is vocal and, at times,
anti-government. In fact, of the over-8,000 NGOs in this country, only a
handful are said to be politically involved.

The recent involvement of NGOs in organising the Second Asia Pacific Conference
on East Timor (Apcet II) and in protesting against the Michael Jackson concert
has put them in the news.

Earlier, some NGOs tried to stop the broadcasting of the Miss Malaysia pagaent
finals on TV.

The NGOs involved in these three episodes are not related but some of them have
got together on other issues.

In all these cases, the much-used cliches of human rights and freedom of
expression have been spouted. In their attempt to stop the Jackson concert,
some NGO leaders claimed that it “will lead to social injustice.''

Left unspoken was the right of Malaysians to see the concert.

No one would condone the unruly action taken by the People's Action Front to
stop the Apcet II meeting.

On the other hand, the organisers should have thought about national interests
before talking about East Timor. Did they actually believe that the meeting
would resolve the problems there and did they ask themselves  whether the meeting would benefit

NGOs in Malaysia have come under scrutiny over the past few years as more of
them are set up. Some have had to register as a company instead of a society as
the process of getting approval becomes tougher.

Many of them are one or two-man outfits, although they profess to represent the
entire Malaysian population. The problem with some NGO leaders, even when their
intentions are good, is their self-righteousness.

They impose their beliefs and values on others, forgetting that what they are
doing is precisely against their very existence that people must have a choice.
This is what democracy is about.

Because they are louder than others, it does not mean that the silent majority
must accept their views. Here lies the oxymoron NGOs, the flag-bearers of free
expression, launching a campaign against an expression of another kind.

Many Malaysians believe the NGOs are doing a decent job, airing alternative
views in the absence of a strong Opposition.

Most NGOs try to be non-political and dissociate themselves from political
parties. In the case of Apcet II, the involvement of Parti Rakyat Malaysia and
the DAP Socialist Youth has put a damper on the claim that it was  organised solely by NGOs.

In the case of the Jackson concert, not all NGOs pushed for the ban.
Unfortunately, most NGOs remained silent, preferring not to offend their

Perhaps, the silent NGO leaders felt the concert was too trivial a matter but
they had failed to practise what they preach.

On its part, the establishment should not generalise that NGOs are a nuisance.
As the nation progresses and the people become more educated and
well-travelled, their voices for democratisation will be louder.

The push for masyarakat madani or a civil society, where the people can have
more participation in government, has no meaning if there is no wider democracy

NGOs can be agents of development, providing substantive input to development

NGOs keep the Government in touch with the people's needs and can ensure that
government programmes benefit the public.

For example, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, himself a product of an NGO as a former
Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) chief, set a trend after he became finance
minister by inviting NGOs to pre-Budget dialogues.

NGOs, through their grassroots contacts, are often in a better position to
provide views on economically and socially disadvantaged people and making sure
that these alternative views are reflected in the national political  agenda.

Many professionals, including academicians and lawyers, have sacrificed much
better paying careers to be involved in NGO jobs. The only perk that comes
along is perhaps all-expenses paid invitations to overseas seminars to present
working papers.

These professionals could have easily obtained lucrative positions in the private
sector, play golf on weekends, rub shoulders with the elite and preach lofty
ideals instead of dealing with the grievances of the underprivileged.

Their beliefs and practice may at times be questionable and even  objectionable but it is difficult to find
fault with their consistency.

Third World Network's Martin Khor, a contemporary of Singapore Deputy Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong in university, gave up teaching at Universiti Sains
Malaysia because of his belief in South-South co-operation.

The Penang-based group won the 1996 award for South-South co-operation,
presented by the Group of 77 and the United Nations Development Programme  (UNDP). The presentation ceremony in New York
on Sept 27 was held during a meeting of G77 Foreign Ministers.

But these unsung heroes in NGOs are not elected representatives although they
share the same aspiration, that of looking after the people's welfare.

Recognising the role of NGOs, the Government has increased its financial
allocation to NGOs from RM4.9 million in 1991 to RM13.4 million in 1995 a
record rise of 173 per cent. Many NGOs refuse to accept financial aid  either from the Government or foreign
institutions to maintain their  independence.

Those which depend on foreign grants have been accused of stirring up
anti-government sentiments to justify their existence. Press cuttings and clips
from television coverage are used as supporting documents in their  yearly application for funds.

As Malaysia progresses, and with more NGOs on the scene, let's see a convergence
of views rather than a divergence. Then, perhaps, they can be seen as
expressing the views of most Malaysians.