by Lim Kit Siang - Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Tanjong
in Petaling Jaya
on Monday, 13th January 1997

Government should not seek to constrain and conscribe NGOs as this runs counter to the objective of promoting a strong civil society

DAP is gravely concerned about threatening statements which had been issued in the past two days which seem to herald a government clampdown against NGOs which the authorities regard as “troublesome” or “disobedient”.

The Government should not seek to constrain and conscribe NGOs as this runs counter to the objective of promoting a strong civil society. In a strong civil society, there is a very activist “private sphere”, where apart from the public sphere of government institutions, there is a “third sector” of voluntary organisations and independent associations which play an effective role to strengthen free, democratic, accountable and transparent institutions in the country.

The Deputy Home Minister, Datuk Seri Megat Junid said that the government would conduct a comprehensive study on non-governmental organisations in the country to ensure that they are not being exploited for the benefit of certain parties.

If there is going to be such a study, why shouldn’t the study be broadened to involve not just the government, but also representatives of the NGOs as well, with the scope expanded to consider how in Malaysia NGOs could be encouraged and fostered to promote the growth of a strong civil society - with the government fully recognising that it should not try to control NGOs or classify NGOs into “good” and “bad” ones on the basis as to whether they agree or disagree with the government.

Such a study on the role of NGOs and the promotion of a strong civil society should be conducted, in part at least, in the form of public hearings so that the whole nation could be involved in a public debate on this vital question.

The question of NGOs registering under the Companies Act or Societies Act should not become a major issue, as the real issue should be how Malaysia can encourage the promotion of vibrant and accountable NGOs to achieve a strong civil society, and if the government wants to introduce laws to bring all NGOs under the ambit of the Registrar of Societies, then the Societies Act should be amended to facilitate the easy registration and functioning of NGOs.

On Saturday, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed had complained that the local NGOs did not seem to protest against police brutality in foreign countries.

This is an unfair allegation, as no one had suggested that police brutality or abuses of power are only to be found in Malaysia, as illustrated by the notorious case of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, who was brutally assaulted by baton-wielding police officers which was videotaped by a member of the public, or the recent riots in the West Java town of Tasikmayalay, Indonesia, which had originally been caused by a report of police brutality towards some Muslim religious teachers.

Police brutality and abuses of power, whether in the United States, Britain, Indonesia or Malaysia must all be equally condemned not only as an infringement of basic human rights, but as an intolerable act of lawlessness by forces whose first paramount duty is to uphold law and order.

There is nothing wrong however - and in fact, perfectly natural - for Malaysian NGOs to give priority to the cases in Malaysia, and it is not right for the authorities to seek refuge from such allegations by claiming that cases of police brutality or abuses of power are also to be found in other countries.

The government and the police had made their point about the impropriety of holding a Tribunal Rakyat to deal with numerous allegations against police abuses of power and the NGOs concerned had accepted the point and had not proceeded with the plan for a Tribunal Rakyat. The ball is now at the feet of the Police, as to whether it is prepared to respond to the allegations of police abuses of power by holding a full dialogue with the NGOs concerned - to show that the Police are accountable and transparent to the general public.