Human Rights and Good Governance: Strengthening the Partnership of Civil Society and Elected Representatives in Upholding Principles of Human Rights in Malaysia  

 - presented
 at "The Vital Role of Malaysian Parliamentarians in Strengthening Human Rights and Democracy in Malaysia" Seminar  Organised Organised by ERA Consumer Malaysia
by Teresa Kok Suh Sim

(Kuala Lumpur,  Saturday): In a democratic society, NGOs or civil societies, are seen and recognised as pressure groups. Pressure groups are important as they play a vital role in pushing for social reforms and changes in the political system.
Civil societies and political parties, although sharing the same goals, for example fighting for the betterment of society and champion causes which they believe are necessary, operate at different levels.   

The main differences between civil societies and political parties are, but not limited to:

i) Political parties strive to make changes through getting a mandate from the masses so that they can represent the people in the highest decision-making bodies, i.e. Parliament and/or the State Assemblies. In a more democratic environment, unlike what we have here, grassroot politics at its purest could be seen when the public have the right to vote for their own town councillors, district health board reps etc etc. Civil societies have the luxury of not having to go through the painful process of having to gain a mandate through the ballot boxes to push a cause;

ii) Political parties and elected representatives are generally "Jacks of all trades, masters of none" as they have to attend to, and handle, all sorts of complaints from their constituents. NGOs, on the other hand,  are generally more focused: most concentrate on a particular field and/or subject, for example: women's rights, environment, human rights, police watch etc. NGO activists also have the expertise to specialise in a particular field. Most elected reps are not career politicians and, thus, few have specialist knowledge.

iii) Political parties have structure, a fairly large membership, and a hierarchy. Leaders and elected representatives of political parties have to spend heaps of energy and time handling organisational matters. They are also sometimes forced into internal politicking to canvass for support as political parties operate on the principle of consensus. NGO activists are largely free from such hassles as they do not have mass membership and complicated structures. This allows them more time to concentrate on the issues they are pursuing. In other words NGO activists can be more freely motivated by universally worthy ideals rather than restricted by standing party
policy subjected to political correctness in varying degree.

iv) Politicians and their parties have to resort to various means to raise fund for the parties or their service centres. Opposition parties, unfortunately, do not have the patronage of wealthy donors. Unlike some countries where there is central funding for parties -- whether in power or the opposition --- based on membership and/or numbers of elected representatives, there is no such system here. In Malaysia, receiving donations from foreign funding agencies could easily lead to accusations of being foreign stooges, agents and moles. NGOs need not worry over such labels as they need not contest for the hearts and minds of voters; and,
v) Politicians have to be seen as politically correct while NGOs specialise in the promotion of various causes, that when viewed in a single dimension, could be misinterpreted as politically incorrect. NGOs can also serve as a reminder that the truth of a matter is not always confined within the common paradigm of the political correctness of the day alone but perhaps beyond it.

Before I was first elected to parliament in 1999, I was a NGO activist. I now see myself as being a little of both. I have my responsibilities to my constituents yet the fire of activism still burns in me. As an elected rep, I can, while being just a NGO activist, cannot:

1) Voice the people's concerns and plights at the highest law-making domain, Parliament, and be an effective public watchdog;

2) Question Ministers face to face;

3) Obtain official data and information which are of importance to NGOs, the media and the public;

4) Be in a better position to communicate with official channels, agencies and departments; and

5) Hold the government of the day accountable.

The DAP was, perhaps, the first to recognise the importance of having a close working relationship with NGOs that share some common ground with our party's objectives. It is worth noting that unexpected events such as the detention of our leaders and elected representatives, and the gang rape of human rights during Operation Lallang 1987 resulted in the initial cooperation between us.  The Executive then saw the DAP and some NGOs as common enemies; we, however, saw that our destiny was the same as we have quite a lot in common. The government took that chance to cripple us; we took that chance to be born again in a special relationship that remains stronger by the day.

The  appreciation of the DAP towards NGOsí activists is also reflected in invitation to Sdr Ahamad Nor, the
trade unionist as well as Chinese educationists like Dr Kua Kia Soong and Lee Ban Chen to join the party and contest in the general elections. In 1996 the DAP cast that relationship in stone by establishing the NGO Affairs Bureau.
Our working relationships with various NGOs has had some degree of success. Our MPs, working closely with
NGOs, have been actively debating issues ranging from children's rights to oppression of freedom in Burma. Amongst our achievement thus far are our MPs have whole-heartedly supported in Parliament in debating
NGOsí issues like the bill which successfully lobbied by womenís groups, i.e. the Domestic Violence Act
which was passed by the Parliament in 1994.  Similar cooperation also evident in the debate of Child Act,
freedom for East Timor, rights and dignity of migrant workers.

We hope NGOs understand the problems faced by us. As parliamentarians we have an obligation to work across
a broad spectrum of social-economic issues. While NGOs have specific interests, we deal with all the issues
raised by the various NGOs and hundreds of other issues which are not adopted by any NGO. Frustrations do arise when certain NGOs expect more attention than others. We hope they understand that while our goals
are unlimited, our resources are limited. Everyone knows there's an acute shortage of medical professionals in the country, but how many actually stand up to say we are also facing an acute shortage of quality Members of Parliament? You have to stand by us for us to work with you. Getting more of us elected means having additional resources to fight causes dear to your heart, and ours'.
I hope some NGO activists can face realpolitik. They may mean well, but this is Malaysia, and we have to approach and deal with issues in ways that are perceived to be acceptable by the public. The roadmaps to democracy, justice and freedom are different for different societies. What may be common and acceptable
in South Korea, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines may not be the same here, and some
tactics adopted by some NGO activists actually backfire. The Malaysian public is not into loud mass demonstrations, but it may be necessary at times to prove a point.
This sums up the strength and limitations of being either a NGO or political party. In summary, their continued existence and relevance are dictated by their ability and inability to scratch each other's back to perpetuate the success of any cause, issue or agenda.

In short, in a democratic environment both must co-exist as neither could be effective without the cooperation of the other.    


* Teresa Kok Suh Sim, DAP Publicity Secretary  & MP for Seputeh