MySay: Strengthening the Malaysian civil society

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 3, 2018 - December 09, 2018.
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In the wake of the stunning outcome of GE14 six months ago, a strong belief has developed in Malaysia that civil society had played a crucial role. It is argued that political leaders can no longer hold on to state power or govern on the assumption that society does not matter or that they know what is best for society. They argue the need for input from society. This has led to idealisation of civil society as the moral conscience of society and it is projected as crucial for democratic transition and consolidation.

That civil society may have played an important role in the victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, however, is not the point here. The goal is to foster further democratic development by strengthening Malaysian civil society. To do so, it is important to understand civil society broadly.

Civil society is the space between the state, political society, market (pro-profit sphere) and the private space of society at large. It is populated by organisations that seek to influence the nature of the state as well as the formulation and implementation of state policies, and is a site for communicative action, governance and service delivery. Although the tendency is to think of civil society in terms of an agency, it is important to register that it is primarily a space that is populated by agencies.

All kinds of agencies (pro-democratic and anti-democratic) may populate that space. The usual ones are, among others, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media, including social media, universities, think tanks, ethnic and religious organisations, sports organisations and labour movements. In Malaysia, it also includes groups like Perkasa, which is closely tied to Umno. Civil society usually reflects the power struggle in political society and society at large.

Civil society in Malaysia does not have a long history. Its recent rise to prominence may be traced back to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s attempt to reform the political system in Malaysia (the Reformasi agenda). As his party, Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), was still in its infancy, Anwar appears to have viewed civil society organisations as crucial in articulating the reform agenda and in mobilising support for it. This partly explains the fusion of the PH coalition and civil society.

It is pertinent to note here that Bersih — the coalition for clean and fair elections — was launched in 2006 by five opposition parties and some NGOs. The nexus between civil society and parties previously in the opposition developed in the context of the near impossibility of unseating the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. The participation and support of opposition leaders for anti-government rallies and protest further enhanced that fusion.

Such fusion is understandable in the context of unseating an entrenched government but to continue with it after the ouster of the entrenched government is a cause for concern as it can obstruct the development of a vibrant civil society. That is the present situation in Malaysia. To strengthen civil society, it is important to distinguish it from political society. The former is organised primarily to aggregate and articulate the interests of specific groups while political society not only aggregates and articulates such interests but it is also organised to compete for state power and govern if it wins the contest.

Separation of civil society from political society allows the former to adopt a more neutral stance on government. It need not perforce to be pro or anti-government across the board. Its orientation towards government can vary by issue. In practical terms, undoing the fusion of civil society and political society in Malaysia requires the separation of Bersih from the PH coalition.

Civil society in Malaysia has recently been epitomised by Bersih. Initially, Bersih targeted the Election Commission, which it believed was unfairly manipulating the election to the advantage of the incumbent BN. Subsequently, Bersih was used to target the alleged “kleptocratic behaviour” of the BN government under Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Although it was relaunched as a purely civil society organisation in 2010, Bersih has not overcome its close association with the previous opposition and now the incumbent government.

The prominence of Bersih has also drawn undue attention to mass rallies and protests. Although they are dramatic and capture the political imagination, mass movements, rallies and protests constitute only one dimension of civil society. Undue focus on mass rallies and protests may overstate the strength of civil society, obscuring the strengths/weaknesses of other actors (domestic and international) and fissures in government that may also have contributed to political change.

Excessive focus on mass rallies and protests may also obscure the more mundane functions of civil society that may be just as crucial in entrenching and sustaining democratic rule in the country. The role of civil society can be expected to change with the phase of political development. While mass rallies and protests may have been more relevant in delegitimising and ousting an entrenched government, other functions would become more important in fostering consolidation and the further development of democratic rule.

A tendency has also developed in Malaysia to conflate civil society with democracy. Civil society is a space that may be populated by all kinds of organisations, not just those inclined towards democracy. The distribution of power in civil society would also reflect that in society at large. Thus, those who envision civil society as playing a central role in the consolidation and further development of democracy cannot assume or simply equate civil society with democratic forces. They must deliberately seek to strengthen pro-democratic forces in civil society through legislation and other means (possibly including the setting up of a foundation) to tilt the balance of power in civil society in the direction of democratic rule.

In non-democratic societies, it is common for civil society organisations to fuse with political parties as they share the common objective of ousting the incumbent government as well as seek an increase in governance independent of state jurisdiction. Once the incumbent government has been replaced, then civil society enters a new phase in which its primary functions are to entrench democratic rule and foster further democratic development.

The function details will vary by locale and state of political development. The key is to recognise the new phase and take action to develop civil society to enable it to perform functions that are necessary to check and balance the government in power, advocate alternative policy options and increase its role in communicative action, governance and service delivery, all with a view to foster further democratic development.

As a first step in strengthening civil society, it is important to survey its field to ascertain the types of organisations that populate its space, their spread as well as roles in democracy consolidation. The first order of business must be to strengthen civil society by introducing appropriate enabling legislation, which must begin with the Societies Act of 1966 and its subsequent amended versions. Incorporating relevant clauses from these Acts, it must be less punitive and more development-oriented, recognising civil society as an essential component of political rule.

There should be one overarching primary legislation focused on civil society. There will, of course, be several related laws but they must be grounded in and feed off the primary legislation on civil society. The additional laws must not negate the primary provisions of the enabling legislation. Civil society can only be as strong as the government as the latter has to institute and enforce the rights and obligations of civil society. Apart from this dependence, civil society must be independent. It must not be seen as an appendage of other institutions or agencies. A vibrant private sector that supports the development of civil society is also crucial.

As stated earlier, the role of civil society will vary with the phase of political change. In the liberalisation phase, civil society may fuse with political society to oust non-democratic governments or to liberalise governance, shifting more areas of governance to the domain of civil society. In the transition phase, with crossovers of personnel and organisations to political society, civil society should seek to become more independent.

Once the non-democratic and/or corrupt government has been ousted, civil society must assume consolidation roles. Its orientation must be to check the new incumbent government and its policies. Its focus must be on transparency to expose abuse of power and on government policies to ensure desired direction and effectiveness. In South Korea, for example, a civil society group has taken upon itself to expose the attendance and effectiveness of parliamentarians.

Civil society can and should play an active role in norm setting (communicative action). In Malaysia, civil society groups must play an active role in articulating and naturalising new political norms, especially those pertaining to the basis for the Malaysian nation, corruption-free governance in government and public corporations, service delivery and access to the state.

Civil society should also seek to limit the role of government in the lives of citizens by assuming increasing roles in governance and service delivery. It is essential to examine areas in which civil society can play governing roles. Not all areas should come under the purview of the government. Likewise, civil society must review its role in service delivery. Where government policy is not contested, its attention can be on the effectiveness of delivering services to the people or facilitating access to the state. For example, it can play an important role in delivering legal aid to poor urban and rural citizens.

Civil society roles in governance and service delivery can rid society of the dependency mindset that has developed over the last 70 years. Right now, the government is involved in almost every sphere of life, from birth to death. The goal must be to reduce the role of government in the lives of citizens by increasing and strengthening governance beyond the jurisdiction of the state and by encouraging NGOs to play an active role in service delivery. Both these roles need further review and development.


Datuk Dr Muthiah Alagappa is distinguished scholar in residence in the American University, Washington, DC. He is author-editor of Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space, published in 2004 by Stanford University Press. From February 2019, he will also be visiting professor at Universiti Malaya.

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