Rethinking the role of civil society in the New Malaysia

In this article, I wish to present my personal thoughts on how civil society should play a complementary role with the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. The latest developments in Malaysia have shown a certain impatience and intolerance of civil society that, to me, will not bring about the solution to the most serious problem – still – in Malaysia: the racial and religious bigotry of one particular ethnic group.

It is most severe because this group does not comprise “orang kampung” per se but both “orang universiti” and “orang dah belajar kat universiti”. It is because of this simple truth that civil society must not be impatient about changes initiated or intended by the new government. They must understand the quicksand that they can find themselves in, as with the ICERD or LGBT issues. These are not large matters but with the right WhatsApp message, they can be set aflame like a spark blown by a dry wind that can engulf a town in minutes even if the forest fire is still a good mile off.

We must understand that there are three “political groups” in this new government. First, there are those who are trusted by the people because of their long struggle to bring us where we are today. These are the people we must trust as much as possible.

For people like Anwar Ibrahim, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Maszlee Malik, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the two Saifuddins, Dzulkefly Ahmad, Mohamad Sabu, and every DAP minister and MP, we must trust and analyse their actions with a wide margin of leeway.

Then we have Umno has-beens like Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Muhyiddin Yassin and all the PPBM people whom we should watch like a hawk, with a smaller margin of leeway. These people should know that civil society will watch every move and speech they make, inch by inch and word by word.

The third group is what Khairy Jamaluddin has called “the cartel”. Strangely enough, it was part of the early reformasi struggle. It appears primarily concerned with political survival and does not care which side it takes. Of the three, this group is the most dangerous and difficult to read.

Having established this, I would like to move on to what we, the civil society, should do in order to avoid being trapped by the drama of these three groups. Civil society must become the fourth group in the government. The Malays have a saying, “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah.” It means that the people will always suffer the most when the political elite fight among themselves.

That is the old political construct. My new saying is, “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, civil society tersenyum di tengah-tengah.” We, civil society, must determine the rules, the play and the end-game scenario for those in power in order to meet the nation’s needs. This is the strategy.

At the moment, civil society cries like a baby if the ICERD is not ratified or other issues are not given due attention. I call this the baby approach because it mirrors that of the young students who foolishly called for Maszlee’s resignation.

These “tantrums” that arise from expecting things to change overnight are immature and unconstructive. Principles must be seen in the realpolitik context, not a socio-political vacuum.

I applaud the PH government in the ICERD issue because the prime minister and Cabinet were concerned about the safety of non-Malay citizens. Meanwhile, civil society quotes the “sacred text of civil liberties”. I would forego any principle I held if I thought it would prevent lives from being at risk.

Civil society must redraw the social and political narrative outside of Parliament. I think with Maszlee’s admirable efforts to eliminate the UUCA and other acts which stifle free speech, civil society must draw academics into the media limelight. They must be encouraged to make public statements about issues affecting the nation. When other academics see that their colleagues are not kissing ministers’ hands or posing for pictures at conference openings, they will begin to understand the weight of responsibility that they carry.

Together with academics, we, the civil society, must redraw the game play and narrative into something akin to the 17 sustainable development goals of the UN while understanding the racial and religious context of the different ethnic groups.

Maszlee sounded the first call for this in his recent speech about universities for society. An academic of worth who is the vice-chancellor of a private university mentions in one meeting that the university must be in the community and the community must be brought into the university. This would mean a total revamp of the present KPI for academics’ promotion from the not-so-useful direction of high impact journals to high-society-impact papers and programmes initiated by these academics.

Secondly, civil society must act like a “friendly opposition”. The present opposition of Umno and PAS is totally useless, and the loose Barisan Nasional has-beens are the same. Leaders like Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Hadi Awang do not have the credibility to lead an effective opposition. This is why civil society should consider a shadow Cabinet of its own, a virtual parliamentary Cabinet. We do not have to have all 20-something ministries, but we should form a strong 10-ministry entity that combines the most important structures of the government.

This shadow Cabinet could conduct forums and form a plan of its own for the country’s development. Civil society could then call in the relevant ministers to discuss these issues in a public forum. Perhaps the Cabinet could then adopt and adapt certain views, strategies or plans developed by the civil society. Even if it doesn’t, at least the public would be able to see a quality discussion on the issues.

Civil society must also form groups that can complement any effort for change by the PH government. It could form or restructure existing groups to follow the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. Each group would be funded by the PH government; this way, the lazy civil servants who seem to be Mahathir’s bane in his efforts to change things in the country would be routed. PH can change policies and appoint people to this committee or that, but it cannot ensure real change if it does not come from the masses themselves.

Finally, I would like to reiterate that civil society must have patience. We have been awarded with a small opening in civil liberties in the new government. Let’s not force their hand and offer up an excuse to close it by our impatience and low understanding of the realpolitik of racial bigotry. This is an uphill battle; throwing tantrums will only worsen the situation and throw Umno and PAS a badly needed lifeline.

Patience, a change in narrative and a virtual shadow Cabinet are the keys for us to play a pivotal role in changing Malaysia.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.