FMT LETTER: From Stephen Doss, via e-mail
Earlier this year the Prime Minister launched the National Service Volunteer Brigade (BSKN) which according to him will promote volunteerism among Malaysian youths. There was also the launch of the 1Malaysia Corps is supposed to spur interest and light the spirit of volunteerism among youths.
Since early this year the Prime Minister has launched various new initiatives with various catchy names to promote the spirit of volunteerism among Malaysians. How effective these initiative will turn out, only time will tell, whether these initiatives are a flash in the pan ideas that only look good on paper or when it was launched or whether these initiatives will grow to withstand the test of time.
Experienced social activist the world over will tell you the key to a social initiative surviving its announcement in the public sphere and outliving its political patron is in how sincere its founders were and their successors are.
This is the same with the many NGOs that are mushrooming around the country today, a look at the background of the more established NGOs in the country will prove that the ones that survive are the ones who are not in it for political objectives, ,media limelight or personality driven.
If the government is serious about social work then the answer is not in launching new initiatives or new NGOs, but in taking care of the ones that already exist, ensuring that that are empowered and can carry on the good work that they do.
It is pointless to reinvent the wheel by constantly forming new initiatives through glitzy ceremonies and fiery speeches extolling the virtues of volunteerism when we do not appreciate nor nurture what already exist.
A non-governmental organisation (NGO) is a legally constituted organisation created by natural or legal persons that operates independently from any form of government. The term originated from the United Nations (UN), and is normally used to refer to organisations that are not a part of the government and are not conventional for-profit business.
In the cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding government representatives from membership in the organisation.
The Registrar of Societies Malaysia places NGOs under broad categories, which also indirectly depict the functions that it carries out in consonance with its characteristic features. The 13 categories as classified under the Registry of Societies are:
Social and Recreation
Mutual Benefit Societies
Organisations categorised under ‘general’ include consumer associations, environmental associations, old boys/girls’ associations, residential associations, ex-police and ex- servicemen’s associations.
Other not-for-profit (NFP) organisations that constitute NGOs include advocacy and lobbying groups, for causes such as women’s rights and the environment; service organisations for disaster relief, humanitarian aid and economic development; and policy institutes, think tanks and specialised educational organisations focused on international affairs.
Registration is mandatory for all NGOs in Malaysia. The main statutes dealing with establishment & regulation of NGOs are the Societies Act 1966, the Companies Act 1965, the Income Tax Act 1967 and House to House and Street Collection Act 1947. Some NGOs may register under specific acts (e.g. the Sports Commission Act or the University and University Colleges Act 1971). Otherwise, they must register under the Societies Act or Companies Act.
Because most NGO depend on charity to survive, most NGOs are run by a handful of full time workers who are poorly paid, have no job security, no proper health benefits and the only reason they can still continue in their jobs is because of the job satisfaction that comes with the territory of being in a position to help people. Many of these workers continue in their work due to their own altruistic personality.
The turnover in workers in NGO are high, many having to leave not so much because of the working conditions but because of family obligations. There are those too who work for NGOs while waiting for something better to come along. Thus NGOs have to also spend a lot of time and money training new blood as the old ones leave.
What has the government done to make a NGO work an attractive career option? How are volunteers expected to be attracted to volunteer work when even those who form the backbone of organisations that manage volunteerism like NGOs are not appreciated by a government that is tasked to manage resources on behalf of society.
The government routinely splashes out money to businesses, to various individuals and settlements, but what about NGO workers? Those who dedicate their lives to helping others. And how are NGOs going to attract the best and the brightest if they are not able to offer at least security of work. Never mind attractive salaries.
Currently NGOs depend on public charity and a little government grant (which over the years has slowly dwindled) to do their work. It is only natural that NGOs spend what little they have on the target of their work or recipients of aid, NGO workers come last in the pecking order.
Most NGO workers receive low salaries, almost no allowance, work seven days a week, almost no significant health benefits, which is why woe befall those who are stricken with a debilitating illness, for the NGOs will not be able to afford to help.
To add insult to injury, these NGO workers who themselves survive on charity are not exempt from paying taxes, although the NGO themselves may have tax exempt status, the NGO worker have to pay taxes.
I look forward to the day where the NGO worker is exempted from personal income tax, provided free healthcare which government civil servants enjoy or even a pension as a way for the government to appreciate the help and good work NGO workers contribute to nation building.
The government is about to unveil a new budget for 2012/2013, will we finally see signs of a government serious in promoting volunteerism by taking care of those who form the back bone of managing volunteerism?
Stephen Doss is a social activist and a political observer. He is president of the International Social Media Chambers and secretary-general of the Malaysian Interfaith Network. He can be followed on twitter @stephendoss