Sunday, 20 October 2013

Civil Society Organisations and Change: A Collaborative Approach

Civil Society Organisations and Change:
A Collaborative Approach

-         Zaid Kamaruddin -


[Editor’s note] This article is written by Mr. Zaid Kamaruddin, delegate and Vice President of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM) specially for “NGOs・Parliamentary Struggle・ Democracy and Human Rights” forum in commemoration of the 12th Anniversary of Sahabat Rakyat Working Committee held on 20 October 2013 at Cathay Restaurant, Kulai. 
1.0    An Overview
The dominant ideology today is Liberalism. It believes that man is naturally good and as such develops a system that is broadly based on freedom and less of control. The roots of Liberalism are:
1.      The Civil State: Representative Government
2.      Religious Toleration
3.      The Spirits of the Laws
4.      Government is a Necessary Evil
5.      Freedom through the General Will
6.      Natural Law and the Economy: The Doctrine of Laissez Faire
7.      The Doctrine of the Rights of Man
8.      The Belief in Progress
Though these fundamental ideas originated in the eighteen century we can still recognise them embedded in the system practiced today. Despite changes over the centuries, broadly speaking, we still have a system where the politics is Democracy, the economy is Capitalism (or Market or Open Economy) and the socio-cultural system is based on individual freedom.
2.0    Observations on Liberalism
For the system to work efficiently it relied on the good nature of man and the inherent equilibrium within the system. Both are suspects.
Man’s good nature is not nurtured within the educational and social system. In fact we can sense a dislike for things “moral”. Ethics cannot replace a good moral compass in man. How then can we explain the pervasive lack of integrity and rampant social ills? In the end society had to rely on legislations and enforcement. Huge resources had to be spent on law enforcement, judicial and penal institutions. And still society is not safe.
Democracy institutes a check-and-balance mechanism within the system. To start of with, we have separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judiciary. This is important in ensuring justice. In practice it is obvious that independence of each arm is difficult to achieve; it is easy for the executive to bear on others.
We may have the government and the opposition but that does not necessarily ensure good debate or scrutiny as the majority will always have their way. If we have a hung parliament, we may have paralysis.
Most telling on the community is the power of capital. Competition is supposed to provide better product and services and consumer power is supposed to act as a balancing force. It is pretty obvious that big companies with capital at their disposal much bigger than our yearly budget is not about to be rein in easily. Capital ranges freely and globally, had no nationality and no legislation can keep up with it. Legislation would sometime come after the harm had been done.
The Fourth Estate, the mass media is supposed to play and important role. However they are seldom for the people; more for the interest of their owners. The advent of internet may be the only glimmer of hope on the side of the people.
3.0    The Role of Civil Society Organisations
CSOs are potentially the closest ally of the people. Their activists are generally perceived to be more selfless and principle-centred. They can be the voice of the people. It can play a big role for change. Overseas, CSOs got rid of dictators and change systems. Even though somebody else usually ended up leading the country, the role played by CSOs is very important.
Even when they are not fermenting revolution they can provide relief and services to the needy. They may choose to advocate for justice, freedom and good governance (stewardship, integrity, accountability and transparency). The more people are involved in CSOs the more empowered the society becomes. It is becoming even more important to stand up for our rights now.
The problem with CSOs is that they are not big and not well resourced. Many are single issue organisations. Many are representing a single community or ideology. We have even NGOs formed by political parties or formed to support political parties. This scenario may lead us to cancelling each others’ good efforts.
Whatever the case may be, it is very important to improve our organisations. Some ideas for improvement are as follows:
1.      Consider a new mind-set; think like a Statesman, think Malaysian, go for mutual benefits.
2.      Rally the organisation; chart out our organisational values, role and purpose strategy.
3.      Position the organisation; in the middle ground, principle-centredness (peace, justice, freedom).
4.      Engage with others; build relationship (reaching-out, knowing each other, confidence building), solidarity and cooperation.
5.      Build a good organisational profile; good track-record
4.0    Collaborative Approach
Collaborative effort improves effectiveness. Some ground-breaking coalitions of CSOs from our recent past are as follows (list not exhaustive):
1.      GERAK     Formed in the after the sacking of DSAI from the government in 1998. Chaired by the then president of PAS. Members include DAP, PSRM and many NGOs. Its launching in Taman Melewar saw the biggest crowd at the venue thus far and recorded the biggest amount of donation collected. Probably paved the way for Barisan Alternatif and Pakatan Rakyat.
2.      GMI         Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA was formed by NGOs and political parties but generally run by NGOs. One of the longest operating coalitions. Can be credited with abolishing the ISA.
3.      Bersih 2.0           Started by political parties but later run by NGOs. Saw two very big peaceful protests in KL. Coordinated demonstration by Malaysian around the globe.
4.      GBM        Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia, a coalition of 25 NGOs, unique for its multi-ethnic, multi-religious and crossing geographical boundary. A microcosm of Malaysia. A structured coalition with an agreed 15-point charter. A coalition seeking a constructive approach to make Malaysia better.
5.      Bantah TPPA       Badan Bertindak Bantah TPPA was formed this year.
5.0    The GBM Experience
Most coalitions were formed to campaign for a specific issue or in order to face a specific threat. GBM stands out as a coalition that seeks to tackle a wide range of issues.
GBM’s Chairman, Mr. Tan Yew Sing sums up the GBM experience in his opening speech to the 2013 General Assembly,
“Our coalition is unique in that it was not formed to demand or fight for a specific issue. We congregate for a common cause “to make Malaysia better!”. Our components reflect the diversity of the Malaysian society in term of ethnicity, religion, ideology and geography. Amongst us are huge organisations and minnows, rich and poor, ladies and gentlemen, where everybody are welcomed, where each organisation contributes according to their ability.
Our 15-point Charter smoothens our path, our Rules and Regulations guided our operation and, our objectivity and sense of justice and fairness underline our actions. Our group is blessed with people who can transcend their organisations’ interest to go for the common good. On top of that we are gelling well and all meetings are productive and happy occasions.
In this past year we have learned that what is good for all is also evidently good for each of us and our community. What is good for a particular community can also be good for all.
We have also learned that we can achieve more by advocating together causes that may apparently concerned a particular community.
We have learned the importance of understanding each other, of our likes and dislikes, priorities, worries and things that makes us happy. Our next challenge would be to extend this understanding to our constituencies.
If we can make GBM work, it would be a great contribution to our country.
GBM works in the realm of the civil society. We are not for gains but there to serve. We are potentially closer and more sensitive to the needs of the people (rakyat). If politics can be very divisive, we can be the unifying factor.”
6.0    Concluding Remarks
CSOs have a big role to play in society. A vibrant civil society can be a third force for the good of the community. Working in coalition would enhance its effectiveness.
 


Appendix: GBM Charter

GABUNGAN BERTINDAK MALAYSIA (GBM)
Building a Better Malaysia
Preamble
Since the independence of Persekutuan Tanah Melayu in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963, the nation has evolved into a dynamic multi-ethnic nation with progress in many sectors.
We salute the sacrifice, tolerance and accommodation of all communities in the developmental phase that has brought about stability, progress and peace to our nation.
Moving forward, the nation should aspire for human progress based on the principles of peace, justice, fairness and freedom that will transcend ethnicity, colour or creed.
Cherishing our constitutional rights of fundamental liberties, we shall create an inclusive nation that is founded on justice and fairness.

Commitment
We are committed to work together for reform and improvements in the following areas:

1. Good Governance
Promote good stewardship, integrity, accountability and transparency in the public, private and civil society sectors. Ensure zero tolerance of corruption.

2. Politics
Politics must be seen as a service to the nation and its people. People in power must be elected through a clean, free and fair election by informed electorate. Strict separation of party and government must be observed.

3. Judiciary
The total independence of the judiciary is paramount in ensuring justice.

4. Federalism
Political and economic power must be decentralized so that the States have greater autonomy and control of resources.

5. Local Government
Enhance participatory democracy at all levels including elections for local authorities, mukim and villages.

6. Public Services
Public Services must be delivered to the highest standards of integrity, professionalism and efficiency to earn the respect and trust of the People.

7. Economics
Economic growth must put people before profit and must be environmentally sustainable. There must be equitable distribution of wealth to eradicate poverty, end marginalization and ensure the welfare of the People. Any affirmative action should be based on needs and not ethnicity.

8. Environment
Strive towards a society in harmony with nature and where there is environmental justice for all. Promote development that is socially just, economically viable and ecologically sustainable.

9. Education
Reaffirm the need for a holistic-educational system that produces knowledgeable persons with integrity; ensure mother tongue education and equitable and just treatment for schools of all streams in the educational system.

10. Women’s Rights
Affirm gender justice based on international instruments that provide substantive equality to women, with opportunities and access in nation-building by eliminating discrimination and systemic prejudices.

11. Indigenous People’s Rights
Recognise the rights of the indigenous people to their land and resources and ensure that they practice their culture freely.

12. Culture
Respect diversity of cultures and encourage inter-cultural engagement.

13. Religion
Uphold freedom to practice religion as provided for by the Federal Constitution. Promote understanding and harmony amongst adherents of all different religions.

14. Media
Provide greater media freedom where the media is unfettered by over regulation. Responsible and diverse perspectives must be allowed to be aired. There shall be freedom of expression and freedom to access and publish information.

15. National Unity

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