by Fathol Zaman Bukhari
The term “civil society” is often linked to freedom and liberty of the masses. As such, those who advocate civil society may not necessarily be the apple in the eye of an establishment that abhors free speech, free press and freedom of movements. Malaysians are only recently introduced to this term, thus many are still unfamiliar with its meaning. The concept of a civil society made its mark in American discourses only in the late 1980s.
The simplest way to define civil society is to consider it as the “third sector” after two oft-quoted sectors, public and private sectors. The distinction between the two is that civil society refers essentially to the so-called “intermediary institutions” such as professional associations, religious groups, labour unions, citizen advocacy organisations et al, which give a face and a voice to society in general.
The empowerment of these groupings not only enriches but enhances public participation in democracies. That, however, is the ideal. But can we achieve such lofty standards when proponents of a group that vouches for free and fair elections are being routinely hounded and demonised?
Since Dato’ Seri DiRaja Dr Zambry Abd Kadir’s ascendency to the Chief Ministerial post of Perak on February 6, 2009, talks were rife that constructive engagement with civil society would be the staple of the new government. The days that the government knows best were over, declared the Prime Minister and the sentiment was echoed by Zambry, nonetheless. Perakeans were thrilled that people’s participation in determining their destiny was becoming a reality.
Institut Darul Ridzuan (IDR), an independent think-tank formed in 2005 and given a new lease of life by Zambry, was tasked to prepare the groundwork for the much-awaited discourse. Overtures to non-governmental organisations, associations and advocacy groups were made. They were tempted with the prospect of being elected to the august Majlis Masyarakat Sivil Aman Jaya (Aman Jaya Civil Society Council). The council will consist of both BN friendly and unfriendly NGOs’ heads selected based on pre-determined criteria.
That idea was mooted in mid-2009 but became a non-starter largely due to inertia on the part of IDR. “There were simply too many hurdles to clear,” said a lady staff entrusted with its organisation. Finally when it took off the timing was way off the course and so was public interest. The invitation, that we from the media received, warned of limited seating capacity in the hall where the inaugural council meeting would be held. We were required to come early, as the invitation proudly proclaimed that “participants are strictly for those who have registered before the deadline”.
The first Majlis Masyarakat Sivil Aman Jaya meeting was held on Sunday, September 30 at the Operations Room of the Secretariat Building, Ipoh. Dato’ Dr Mah Hang Soon, standing in for the Chief Minister, officiated at the launch. Some 200-odd people were present to witness the ceremony, a far cry from what was generally expected.
The highlight was the appointment of 45 members of the council. The deliberation that followed was a tame affair, as members were prone to making recommendations which were unrelated to the subject in discussion. Initial jitters and unfamiliarity could be the reasons behind the hiccups.
What is most pertinent, however, is the timing of the meeting. Having it at the tail-end of the state government’s tenure in office and at a time when election fever is running high, is not the best of options.
“It’s better late than never,” said one observer. I feel otherwise. The state government has missed a golden opportunity to engage civil society in Perak on an even keel. This feeble attempt at interaction, done at the very last minute, may seem correct to some but, in all fairness, it is too little too late. The opportunity cost lost is immense, and so is the goodwill.