While NGOs have long been a feature of other countries which emphasises civil society, they continue to be
viewed with suspicion here.
They are perceived, rightly or wrongly,
as being antagonistic and
confrontational towards the Government. They are seen to be quick to criticise the Government but turn mute when it involves the wrongdoing of the Opposition.
Human rights group Suaram, for example,
has been in the forefront in pushing for
greater democratic space.
It has actively sought to make the
development and governance process more
transparent and people-oriented.
Other NGOs which have taken similar
roles include Aliran, Hakam, Tenaganita and Abim.
It will be wrong for us to view groups
fighting for the cause of human rights,
environment, consumer rights, women's rights, minority rights and democracy as
enemies of the state.
Dissent must be part and parcel of
democracy. Divergence of views in a
rapidly expanding middle class will continue to be a feature of Malaysian
Important changes are taking place in
Malaysia and politicians will have to
accept open debate to seek consensus and
It is only natural that as society
becomes more exposed, there will
be more individuals with a critical
Having said that, some of our NGOs, too,
need to evaluate themselves before they can be accepted and, hopefully, operate in a more open environment.
The current stance of some NGOs, which
openly ally themselves with the Opposition, has not endeared themselves to the Government.
These NGOs lose their right to question
others when they work with political
parties either in the Opposition or the Government.
They lose all their claims of being non-partisan when they see themselves as pressure groups to foment discontent.
It's worse when they break the laws by
organising illegal gatherings.
Then, there are those who claimed that
their decision to set up NGOs was a
result of their disdain for politics.
But how do they justify their decisions to work with opposition parties?
Some NGO leaders are, in fact, actively
involved in opposition parties. They will have more credibility if they forge
coalitions against any particular issue
among themselves rather than with political
Confrontional strategies are
counter-productive. Worse, such
strategies have given NGOs a stereotype image.
NGOs can play a complementary role. They
don't have to be in collaboration with the Government but they need to adopt a more neutral
NGOs must be part of the democratic process. They must be seen to be strengthening our democratic
If they can stand out as being impartial, then they will be more readily accepted for being able to provide feedback, including criticism, to the
They can still play their role in making
the Executive more accountable to the public without the pretence of representing the people.
NGO leaders are not elected representatives; they should not have the illusion that they speak for the people. They don't have the mandate and many
of them are, in fact, no more than
One NGO leader, for example, demands
transparency from the Government but has
failed to submit the organisation's accounts for three years.
For the matter, the financial position of many NGOs remains a mystery to members of the public.
It is understandable that NGOs are often
short of cash but their position is
compromised when they seek financial
assistance from foreign sources.
Not all NGO leaders are paid but some
are said to draw handsome salaries in US
dollars through contracts with foreign bodies.
A major complaint among NGOs is the
limited coverage by the press, which
they said had led to the poor
understanding of their role by
It is often easier to blame others. The
press does have its reasons for not
using NGO press statements sometimes
because they do not have a blank cheque
to talk about any issue under the
It will be more appropriate for an NGO
registered as an environment group to stick to its scope of interest.
In the case of the Consumers Association of Penang, consumerism is its concern. It is registered for that purpose but when it gets involved in
Gerak, it becomes more complicated.
The rules are applicable to all. NGOs
are no different.
If you have a licence to run a coffeeshop, you don't turn it into a karaoke bar selling liquor. That comes under another set of rules.
Similarly, if Cuepacs or MTUC wants to
talk about other things besides workers' rights, it shouldn't go overboard.
As the MTUC found out the hard way,
workers may also be consumers but consumerism should be left to CAP and Fomca.
Our NGOs need to seriously re evaluate how their quest would help in nation-building.
For example, the newly-formed People's
Anti-Homosexual Volunteer Movement (Pasrah) seems odd.
It claims to be apolitical but it will
have to do a lot of convincing, given
the present political circumstances.
Pasrah has said it wants to curb
homosexual behaviour among Malaysians, which is fine, but it should not give any impression that it will go on a witchhunt against the gay community.
If it does, then it is no different from
the religious bigots.
Neither should Pasrah send any wrong
signal that homosexuality has gone out
of control in Malaysia.
NGOs should realise that they do not
gain automatic respect by adopting an
Those which are pro-government will lose their credibility if they merely echo government views without taking into account ground sentiments.
NGOs must always remember that while
they are for the people, they are not
necessarily of the people and by the people.