The nexus between civil society and politicians — Khoo Ying Hooi
MAY 4 — Bersih 3.0 was one of the largest-ever political protests Malaysia has ever seen. On April 28, the third rally took place. This time, 10 other states in the country organised their own rallies on the same day. Not only Malaysians at home, those abroad also joined in for a single cause in such force. At this juncture, the rally is considered successful.
What started out as a peaceful assembly turned chaotic when demonstrators breached police barricades to enter Dataran Merdeka. The rally also witnessed tear gas and water cannons being fired by the police in order to disperse the crowd that had gathered. Almost 400 demonstrators were subsequently arrested by police.
On the other hand, critics are questioning Bersih’s close proximity with the opposition parties and that it is being used by the latter to achieve their political agenda — regime change. Since the first rally in November 2007, followed by the second one in July last year, it is no secret that the opposition party components mobilised their supporters to attend Bersih’s rallies.
Since then, the blame game starts. So what’s next?
Malaysia is at a political crossroads and a great awakening has definitely ensued, notably among the younger generation whereby they are slowly but surely finding their voice. Furthermore, the pattern of the confidence in government is obviously declining. Citizens are cynical and show distrust about their representative institutions, political parties and, most of all, their elected politicians. They believe that the system is capable of solving the basic problems confronting the country.
If the performance of political institutions is inadequate, then it must be improved. Political institutions must be made more accountable, transparent and responsive to the public will and in particular for the public good. So how does civil society come into picture when it comes to political reform?
Political reform in order to advance or establish institutions of accountability can generally come from four possible ways: from inside, from above, from outside and from below. Typically, effective reform of flawed political systems must be led from outside the system itself, but from inside the country, with civil society as one of the key players. The way civil society convey their message seems to be the decisive factor in determining whether their efforts could lead to democratic reform or the other way round.
The reason for this is crystal clear. On their own, political insiders lack the motive or at least the opportunity for reform. Most of them, in the positions of influence, are reluctant to push for change. It is understandable because those with power and privilege will fight to maintain their status quo, and they also have superior resources with which to defend their vested interests.
Thus, comprehensive political reform requires a leading role for civil society. Considering that there is almost a direct relationship between civil society and democracy, it makes sense that without a strong civil society, a democratic regime is unlikely to develop. As this particular segment of society has the independence to look at the political system critically and conclusively, subsequently to identify and campaign for the scope of reform that is gravely needed.
One should bear in mind that, at this point, in order to have a lasting political reform, we should not ignore the co-operation of parties and politicians. Civil society advocates of reform must for that reason be prepared to work together with concerned parties and political leaders, or else form their own alternative parties for a similar purpose.
* The writer is an academic member of the staff in University of Malaya. She is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and Civilisation Studies at Universiti Putra Malaysia. Her current research focuses on the civil society movement in Malaysia.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.