The NGOs in Malaysia have found themselves 'between a ROC and a hard place…', says Suaram's adviser Kua Kia Soong.
By Kua Kia Soong
While the Registrar of Societies may now feign innocence regarding their selectivity in registering societies by questioning Suaram’s registration as a business, let me remind the young generation and those with short memories about our nation’s shortcomings relating to the freedom of association in our recent history.
As you know, ‘Operation Lalang’ was Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s autocracy at its worst when he arrested and detained more than a hundred innocent Malaysians without trial in October 1987.
Upon the release of the last Operation Lalang detainees in 1989, several of these detainees including my goodself and members of the Families Support Group formed this human rights organisation known as Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia). Aware of the obstacles in registering a human rights society under the Registrar of Societies, Suaram registered as a business under the Registrar of Business.
At the time, another human rights organisation, Hakam had taken more than two years to be registered in 1989 even though it boasted two former prime ministers (Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn) as its patrons. It had tried unsuccessfully several times to register as a society in the eighties.
The Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International also tried unsuccessfully for five years to register as a society under the Societies Act. Two applications and an appeal to the Home Minister were also rejected.
Consequently, quite a number of NGOs decided that in order to carry out their services to society, they had no choice but to register as businesses.
So why is there a sudden interest in Suaram’s status after its 23 years’ existence? Is it coincidental that this has arisen out of our recent request to the French judicial system to pursue suspected commissions embroiled in the RM7 billion Scorpene submarine deals?
It is no secret
Given the difficulties created by the Societies Act, some non-governmental organisations, including Suaram decided to register as companies or businesses.
As the corporate gurus say, “If something is not working, do something else.” Or, as Deng Xiaoping famously said, “It does not matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the mice.” The mice, in the case of NGOs, are defending human rights, democracy and social justice.
NGOs registering as companies were certainly not a secret. In fact, in early 1997 the government threatened to force all NGOs to register under the Societies Act. Nonetheless, registration as a company has not completely protected NGOs from harassment by the government, as the recent intrusion by the SSM into Suaram’s accounts has demonstrated.
In 1996, the Institut Pengajian Komuniti (IPK), an NGO taking up the issue of rights of indigenous peoples in Sarawak was de-registered by the Registrar of Business over a legal technicality.
The ROC’s Tenaganita fiasco
In 1997, the Registrar of Companies raided the offices of Tenaganita, the NGO that had exposed inhuman conditions in immigrant detention centres, and confiscated their documents.
Tenaganita and two directors were subsequently charged in court in March 1997 under the Companies Act for late filing of audited financial statements of 1994. And most unusual was the fact that the charges were prosecuted by a Deputy Prosecutor from the Attorney-General’s Chambers instead of the usual officers of the Registrar.
The charges were subsequently withdrawn on July 9, 1997 when it was pointed out in court that the Registrar had already compounded the offences and accepted payment of a fine through Tenaganita’s accountants.
Then on Sept 5, 1997, the Registrar again issued fresh charges against Tenaganita and two directors on minor technicalities. This time around, the Registrar refused to compound the alleged offences for a fine.
After Tenaganita mounted a legal challenge to the prosecutions alleging mala fide prosecution, the charges were withdrawn on Nov 25, 1997.
As you can see, NGOs in Malaysia have found themselves “between a ROC and a hard place…”
PSM’s Greek tragedy
Opposition political parties have fared no better. Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) only obtained its legal registration as a political party in 2008, 10 years after it first filed its application. The entire saga endured by PSM in its struggle to be registered reads like a Greek tragedy in modern Malaysia.
And of course, the Registrar of Societies can feign selective outrage yet again: “Wasn’t the Malaysian Indian United party (MIUP), whose founding leader is S Nallakaruppan swiftly registered in October 2007, just five months after he quit PKR in May 2007?”
“You mean the party that pledged to work closely with, and give its support to, the ruling BN coalition? Yes, we believe the ROS acted expeditiously on their application…”
Restrictions to the fundamental right to freedom of association are also imposed on trade union officials through the Trade Unions Act. Today, less than 10 per cent of Malaysian workers are unionised compared to more than 60 per cent at the time of Independence. What a transformation indeed!
Inspecting the good guys
We stress that the entire charade by the government to harass Suaram through a complaint by some nonentity in the public and CCM’s ‘routine’ inspection is political and uncalled for.
We do not even know if the complaint was made officially to the CCM. It would appear that the CCM is acting on every single complaint (offical or otherwise) from the public at a highly efficient rate.
We question if there is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) within CCM that provides guidelines on receiving and acting on a complaint.
We also question whether or not the SOP requires the CCM to first verify the background of the complainant prior to receiving and acting on a complaint.
From the evidence in the Paris (Scorpene Scandal) Papers, one would have expected that the CCM would know its priorities and begin “routinely inspecting” the highly dubious activities and accounts of Perimekar Sdn Bhd and Terasasi Sdn Bhd, but have they?
Doing our best
Through 23 years of selfless work defending human rights in Malaysia, Suaram has established itself as the human rights centre of Malaysia. From Operation Lalang through the Reformasi period to the present day, many victims of state oppression have turned to Suaram for assistance in highlighting their plight.
The funding we get goes into nurturing young activists in human rights work. We employ a handful of dedicated young staff that has chosen this path of service in human rights work.
The elder members of the Suaram secretariat like me have always been non-staff volunteers in overseeing the running of the organisation.
Since 1989, Suaram has been the main coordinating secretariat for the Movement against the ISA and other detention without trial laws, the EO and the DDA. Our office serves as the refuge for those whose family members have been victims of state oppression. We send Urgent Appeals throughout the world whenever any detention or other violations of human rights happen.
Despite its small staff, Suaram publishes the only credible and detailed Malaysian Human Rights Report every year without fail and has been doing so since 1998. Such a report is an invaluable service to all the peoples of Malaysia irrespective of ethnicity, religion or creed.
Since its founding, Suaram has worked toward a healthy democratic movement in the country and we could well say that all the efforts by Suaram in the last 20 years have been instrumental in producing today’s two-front system and the political tsunami of 2008.
Throughout its existence over the last 20 years, Suaram staff and secretariat have been involved in human rights and environmental education, giving talks, organising seminars and providing training. Suaram has initiated campaigns against the Bakun dam and the Selangor dam to protect the interests of indigenous peoples, the environment and the interests of Malaysian tax payers.
We have also supported marginalised communities such as the urban settlers, estate communities and refugees when they have met eviction and state oppression.
Suaram has played a role in the “Stop the War Coalition” and has coordinated Anti-US demonstrations and protests against the US-led occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and Israeli atrocities in Gaza in recent years.
Suaram also played a key role in the last important peace conference for East Timor in 1996 together with other NGOs. We have been part of the campaign for democracy in Burma.
In other words, Suaram has always been in the business of fighting for justice, equality, democracy and human rights in Malaysia and spoken out against imperialism and militarism in the rest of the world.
For our efforts, Suaram was awarded the Human Rights Award for 2011 by the country’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam). The only dividends we have gained in this business over these 23 years are the appreciation of the victims of oppression and exploitation, nature lovers and Malaysian tax payers.
And to all our detractors and oppressors we can only say:
“Do your worst and we will do our best”.
Kua Kia Soong is Suaram adviser.