What does “civil society” mean? Many people associate it with non-governmental organisations and other bodies not linked to the government.
But, in all honesty, its definition is far beyond that.
Civil society is the third sector of society that manifests interests and the will of citizens, independent of the government.
At a recent lecture, jointly organised by Perak Academy and Institut Darul Ridzuan, through Majlis Masyarakat Sivil Amanjaya, speaker Dato’ Dr Muthiah Alagappa spoke on the topic, “Strengthening Democracy in Malaysia: The Role of Civil Society”.
Dr Muthiah is Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Kuala Lumpur.
The first half of the lecture was on how to go about strengthening democracy while the second, on the role of civil society in strengthening democracy.
The lecture began with a general discussion on the principles of democracy, relevant provisions in the constitution and the practice of democracy in Malaysia since Independence in 1957.
Dr Muthiah bared the constitutional weaknesses of Malaysia; two very glaring ones are the lack of a Bill of Rights, which spells out the political and civil rights of citizens, and its over-focus on Federal legislation, as opposed to State legislation, the power of the State.
Other weaknesses include the fundamental erosion of the judiciary system and the excessive concentration of power with the Executive.
Suggested measures to correct these weaknesses are through four main pillars namely, strengthening electoral democracy, strengthening democratic governance, democratise the state and strengthening civil liberties of individuals.
So, how does one go about strengthening democracy? The initial step is to reform the electoral process, including increasing the equality of votes and improving representation in constituencies.
The judiciary system also needs to be strengthened by rebuilding public confidence.
Ultimately, what is required is a mindset change, to reduce dependency on the government, and to move from an ethnic-based to a civic-based nation.
It is, therefore, important to ensure that democracy is the only form of governance in Malaysia. It is a legacy that should be cherished considering the turmoil in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia.