Civil society keeps the state under watch – Khoo Ying Hooi

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Source: The Malaysian Insider

BY KHOO YING HOOI

I believe a stronger civil society is always part of the answer for social justice and accountability from all institutions during turbulent economic and political times.

In this challenging period that is facing Malaysia, ranging from leadership crisis to deterioration of public institutions, civil society becomes indispensable in the process of liberal democratic political reform.

Civil society is the major driving force behind democratisation and the containment of the state. Its popularity and relevancy rest on its ideological base, as separate from the state, in opposition to the state, as well as the source of liberal democratic values.

Crudely speaking, civil society is crucial as watchdog to strengthen and enhance democratic governance.

Last week, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (Civicus) released their 2015 State of Civil Society Report, which also includes Malaysia.

The report highlighted that although civil society was recognised as the first responder to humanitarian emergencies last year, they faced dire threats and a funding crisis around the world.

Civicus secretary-general Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, in the report’s launch,  said, “Despite the incredible work that civil society does, it remains under attack.

“In 2014 alone, we documented serious violations of ‘civic space’ – the freedoms of expression, association and assembly – in a staggering 96 countries around the world. Taking the size of these countries into account, it means that 6 out of 7 humans lived in countries where their civic freedoms were under threat.”

In the report, Malaysia’s “battle” with the Internet was highlighted. The Internet is now a key frontier in the battle for the freedom of expression, and one that constantly requires not only committed, but sustained, civil society engagement.

I quote, “Malaysia…, where a long tradition of state expression is meeting an enthusiastic government commitment to new technology. This means that the state now strongly polices social media, which once offered a relatively free space for discussion, compared to the offline world. Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police now uses Twitter to warn critical voices to be quiet and threaten them with arrest…

“Oddly, this patrolling of social media combines with an increase in the application of archaic laws of sedition.”

What it means is that the numerous restrictive laws imposed by the government halt civil society’s freedom to exercise their inherent rights.

The emergence of civil society in Malaysia coincides with the increased participation of middle class groups with stronger demands for greater political participation and transparency.

For many, the civil society has become a slogan that connotes an alternative centre for political initiatives.

In the issue of 1MDB for example, think tanks, student groups, and NGOs such as the Centre to Combat Corruption & Cronyism (C4) and Centre for a Better Tomorrow (Cenbet), have voiced out critically for a transparent investigation.

Globally, the Civicus report found that the trajectory of contemporary protest movements generally takes an identified pattern of growing from small local issues to larger, more profound matters, such as inequality and lack of voice, which is exactly what we are experiencing now.

The reality is, to hold state power to account takes both energy and courage. But, a dynamic civil society should not be silent even though this may consistently mean dissent and criticism, as well as discourse and agreement. – July 13, 2015.

This is the personal opinion of the writer