On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Stay within your scope, NGOs

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
common  ground.

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-man organisations.

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
anti-establishment  stand.

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.