Challenges and Opportunities Facing Civil Society Organisations in the New Malaysia

Posted on December 2, 2018


The political mega-quake that hit Malaysia on 9 May and which ended the 61-year rule of the dominant National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) coalition was a scenario many in civil society were unprepared for.

In the decades of struggle against the hegemonic BN, where many civil society organisations (CSOs) and the opposition shared the same causes, the line between the two were often blurred. Many CSOs were labelled and perceived as pro-opposition entities, and many of their leaders joined the opposition parties and some even ran for office.

The political landscape in Malaysia took on a new hue, as the new Hope Alliance (Pakatan Harapan, PH) government now has a comfortable majority of 126 in the 222-member parliament. PH also controls eight out of Malaysia’s 13 state governments.

Not only was the transition of power unexpectedly peaceful, but also the new opposition is in disarray. The new main opposition, BN, is both discredited and weakened with the exodus of component parties and lawmakers.

A month after the election, BN’s state chapter in Sarawak pulled out to become the Sarawak Parties Alliance (Gabungan Parti Sarawak). The Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) remains a standalone party in the opposition.

Notwithstanding the changed political landscape, the new government is haunted by the toxic legacy of decades-old ethno-religious politics.

Post-election criticisms of Malay rulers by some PH figures and the appointment of non-Malays to the key positions of finance minister, attorney-general and chief justice were used to fan up fear that the ethnic majority Malays would lose their preferential position under PH.

The PH manifesto’s promise to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate, a standardised examination for Chinese-medium community-run high schools in Malaysia, has also been twisted into a challenge to national unity and to the status of Malay as the national language.

With a friendlier government, a weakened opposition and toxic identity politics, CSOs must recalibrate their focus to remain relevant and effective in pushing their own agendas. While they lose activists to recruitment by the new government, CSOs also get opportunities to build on what they have achieved so far.

The PH’s manifesto made numerous references to empowering and engaging CSOs in the law-making and policy-forming process. It even promised to appoint representatives from civil society to be commissioners in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and in the Election Commission.

CSOs must hold the PH government accountable not only to these CSOs-related promises, but also to all 60 promises in the coalition’s manifesto. Monitoring the fulfilment of the manifesto is not a mere fault-finding exercise. Unfulfilled or broken promises will erode the integrity of the new government very quickly.

CSOs need to position themselves as credible and constructive critics to keep the PH government in check. They can also play the role of being a bridge between the new government and the citizens. After decades of having to deal with a largely unresponsive government, many ordinary citizens have very high and sometimes unrealistic expectations of the new government. PH’s delays in fulfilling such expectations, whether due to inexperience in government or in having to deal with legacy obstacles, can quickly turn hope into despair and from despair into anger.

Grassroot CSOs or individuals could take ownership of their communities and organise themselves into problem-solving groups to engage with their elected representatives and municipal councillors. They could gather feedback from the people, categorise the issues and propose solutions to their elected or appointed representatives, thus acting as community brokers. In the event of communal conflicts or tensions, CSOs can play the role of peacemakers by bringing the groups together to foster greater understanding, trust and respect.

With a more open media environment, CSOs should also seize the opportunity to undertake public education on key public interest issues such as democracy, human rights, social inclusion and sustainable development.

The idiom ‘make hay while the sun shines’ is true for CSOs during this period of openness and access to governments at the federal, state and local levels. The important roles that CSOs play in society must be recognised and formalised. Resource persons and experts in civil society can be consulted or drawn on board by governments through avenues such as legislative caucuses, committees and task forces.

CSOs must cease to be viewed as vehicles or incubators controlled by their friendly political parties. Instead, they should position themselves as an independent, constructive and proactive positive force in nation building. And there is no better time than now for CSOs and all stakeholders to come together and build a truly just, harmonious and prosperous New Malaysia for all.

Published in The Roundtable: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs

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