(Petaling Jaya, Friday): I am surprised at the New Straits Times report today on the parliamentary debate on the Companies Amendment Bill yesterday, reporting that "The Opposition leader said he did not object to the amendments but hoped the additional powers would not be used to silence NGOs from criticising government policies or actionsí.
I had in fact described the Companies Amendment Bill as a "retrogressive step" for NGOs which presently operate under the Companies Act and not under the Societies Act.
In my speech in Parliament yesterday, I said that currently there are NGOs which operate under the Companies Act because seeking registration under the Societies Act is such a great hassle.
I said that while the idea of bringing all NGOs under the rubric of one legislation may be acceptable in principle, it must be on the condition that the government adopts a NGO-friendly policy which encourages the establishment and operation of NGOs, in full recognition of the role of NGOs in the development of a vibrant civil society with guarantees for instance, that approval for registration of NGOs under the Societies Act would be given within a month of application.
Under the Companies Amendment Bill, the Registrar of Companies would be empowered to petition the Court to wind up an NGO "if it is being used for unlawful purposes or any purpose prejudicial to or incompatible with peace, welfare, security, public order, good order or morality or any purpose prejudicial to national security or public interest."
During the debate, I specifically mentioned NGOs like SUARAM and TENAGANITA, both of which are registered under the Companies Act, and asked whether being concerned about human rights and in disagreement with the government on what national interest could be construed as "prejuducial or incompatible with peace, welfare, security, public order, good order or morality" or "national security or public interest".
I spoke of the dangers of abuse of power and double-standards where NGOs could be the target of the amendment because they champion human rights as happened in November 1996 when certain UMNO Youth, MCA Youth and MIC Youth leaders acted like gangsters to break up the Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) II meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
I expressed my concern that the amendment would be detrimental to the freedom of action of NGOs in view of the very unfriendly atittude towards NGOs as manifested by Barisan Nasional MPs when I had queried a week earlier why the government had not approved the establishment of Amnesty International and Transparency International.
Barisan Nasional MPs had spoken up denouncing the Amnesty International and Transparency International as new forms of Western imperialism, as if human rights and anti-corruption are Western values which should have nothing to do with Asians. Such attitudes are only a reflection of the lack of commitment by the government to uphold human rights as well as to declare an all-out war against corruption in the country.
For the above reasons, I have given notice to amend the Companies Amendment Bill during the committee stage on Monday to remove the powers of the Registrar of Companies to close down NGOs unless the Government adopts a NGO-friendly policy to develop a vibrant civil society.