Civil society and democratisation in Malaysia: between resistance and co-optation

Guest article by Khoo Ying Hooi

A historic change after six decades

For decades, democracy in Malaysia has been a contested term, with a reality marked by authoritarianism and rigged elections. Hopes have soared since the historic election on 9 May 2018 that witnessed the fall of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government after 61 years, with various reforms now under way. This is a surreal moment for all Malaysians, including for the civil society groups that have spent decades fighting for democracy in the country.

I recall writing numerous times on how protests can bring change and about the role of the electoral reform movement - the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) - in influencing the political discourse in Malaysia. Here, I quote from one of my previous pieces of writing:

“Amidst the growing protest momentum, there is a bigger question - will it actually change anything in the country? Protests highlight the ability of ordinary citizens to make their disapproval heard, but do these protests matter?”

Very often, my optimism was met with scepticism, but 9 May bore witness to how Malaysians exercised our people power through the ballot.

Civil society in Malaysia has come a long way. The Reformasi movement in 1998, which witnessed a series of protests following the dismissal of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, the ‘political tsunami’ in Malaysia’s general election of 2008, when the BN government lost its two-thirds majority, and the five separate Bersih street rallies were events that triggered many changes in Malaysia, including a tremendous growth of social movements, as part of wider civil society. The number of civil society organisations (CSOs) throughout Malaysia has increased substantially and it is no exaggeration to say that in recent years, the country has witnessed a rising era of politically motivated social movements and civil society.

It should be noted here that in Malaysia, the definition of civil society is very often misleading. Some see it only as a synonym for non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But the definition of civil society should also refer to the entire range of organised groups and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary and at least to some extent self-reliant. By this definition, it also then includes mass media, think tanks, universities and social and religious groups.

It is important to mention Bersih when talking about civil society and democratisation in Malaysia, as it has brought a new dimension to the role of civil society in the growth of popular mobilisation for electoral reform and democracy as a whole. In the past, many argued that Bersih achieved little in demanding that the government make meaningful reforms. But this election has proven that the movement has influenced Malaysians’ ability to challenge the government in many ways. Bersih’s popularity made it an important social force in Malaysia, where the movement has positively influenced the attitude of Malaysians towards elections regardless of their political inclination.

Civil society’s role now

What does the change of government after 61 years mean for the civil society?

Now that things are slowly being put in place, civil society groups are all adjusting to this newfound democracy. While Malaysians celebrate the rebirth of the country, there is a continuous need for civil society groups to offer checks and balances to the new government led by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) party.

The current government, under the administration of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is pressing for good governance, which comprises elements such as transparency, accountability and openness. What’s important is that it has brought the issue of bureaucratic reforms back into the headlines, with an urgent need for a major revamp.

In the context of South East Asia, which includes Malaysia, it is generally observed that civil society groups have had difficulty in overcoming the old structures and in moving beyond simple opposition politics. Civil society groups are used to offering resistance strategies, but now that the opposition political parties have taken over the government, the need is to ask how civil society is adjusting to the new political landscape.

The role of civil society in Malaysia is amplified and needed now more than ever. It is crucial not to lose the momentum of active participation in wanting a better-governed country.

Relations with the government

The complicated nature of the Malaysian government’s relationship with CSOs is the key to understanding the possibilities that exist for agencies operating here to have a meaningful role in developing broader democratic space in Malaysia.

Engagement and cooperation between civil society and the government are crucial, but we need to be cautious about the potential political co-optation of civil society. CSOs in Malaysia know that being politically co-opted is dangerous for democracy and development and weakens their ability to operate as independent civil society. The question of how civil society groups maintain their independence and neutrality and avoid government co-optation is debated very often in current civil society discourse.

Of course, civil society groups should be encouraged to establish and strengthen ties with political parties and the state, but they must retain their independence, and most importantly, they should not seek political power for themselves. In highlighting this, it is important to stress that civil society is not simply in tension with the state. In the past, the government and civil society shared a love-hate relationship. Both entities were often seen as antagonistic to each other, whereas they should complement each other in promoting a wider democratic space. CSOs should be one of the key players in influencing government policy-making; however, they are most often seen as opposing the government’s national interest or perceived as a threat.

The relationship between CSOs and the government in Malaysia continues to be marked by some dubiousness, and there are challenges in the public policy discourse. One reason for this is that the Malaysian government has in the past imposed numerous restrictive laws, which limit the freedom of CSOs to exercise their fundamental rights. There is also a lot of frustration expressed by CSOs about inefficiencies in ministries. On the other side of the coin, CSOs have not developed a standard operating style or way of working in a unified spirit; rather their structural weaknesses along with other issues hold them back.

Now that discourse on closing civic space has become a much-debated issue, its causes and impacts are widely discussed among activists, academics and human rights defenders. There is a need for blunt conversations on how to preserve political openness where it exists in order to avoid missed opportunities, and at the same time, how to restore space in the cases where it has been most disrupted. Both of these need to be grounded in a mutual understanding of the principal causes of today’s global acceleration of counter-democratisation strategies.

Civil society has gained ground in contemporary political discourse in Malaysia because of its perceived relevance to the quality of governance, empowering public participation and sustaining a healthy democracy. The new government under the PH coalition has opened up new opportunities for Malaysian civil society groups to participate in establishing rights, institutions and mechanisms of accountability in a society where citizen involvement in the past was restricted and discouraged. The challenge now lies in how civil society groups can capture the imagination of people from all walks of life: politicians, activists, intellectuals and others.

The spectacularly growing number of CSOs is fundamentally changing the balance of power, and this stems in large part from civil society’s potential contribution to democratic governance. Nevertheless, the credibility of CSOs can sometimes be at risk, which can be caused by their structural weaknesses and over-politicisation and the risk of being co-opted. Just like other agencies, CSOs should practice a participatory approach in making decisions and adopt a non-partisan approach in order to gain the confidence of the general public and thereby legitimacy.

CSOs, to a great extent, must find a balance where they rely on their own experience and initiative to assist people, while respecting the legitimate role of the government and working to build its capacity. A more respectful and clearly defined partnership between government will improve the effectiveness of their efforts.

For a democracy to thrive, there must be participation by the people. Civil society actors walk a fine line between the struggle of opening up space for effective resistance and simultaneously becoming a target for repression. Can civil society in Malaysia after the historic elections have better access to the state and mechanisms to be able to defend itself against infringement from the state? Can civil society have enough political strength to force the government to adopt genuine social and political reforms? The reality is that to hold state power to account takes both energy and courage. But a dynamic civil society should not be silent, even though this may consistently entail dissent and criticism, as well as discourse and agreement.

About the author

Dr Khoo Ying Hooi is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.