Non-Governmental Organizations

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Non-Governmental Organizations


If the locus of change in the 1990s does not seem to lie with the middle class, to dismiss them completely may be premature. There are sections of the middle class that buck the trend. Information on their number and standing is not immediately available, but most would have secular tertiary (often overseas) education, a liberal disposition (even if they are religious) and a high commitment to political freedom, democracy and egalitarianism. They constitute the majority of those who institute and operate Malaysian non-govermental organizations (NGOs), which constantly struggle for reform and change.30 Such NGOs are distinct from government-controlled "non-governmental" organizations (such as Farmers Associations), on the one hand, and opposition political parties, on the other. They embark on programmes for change in areas such as governance, religious freedom and practices, care for the suffering and the underprivileged, and environmental protection. Or they simply fight for the rule of law, proper execution of justice, and civil society. The potential for NGO-initiated change and reform is tremendous and far-reaching. They have, for example, been able to thwart trade in tropical timber, thereby helping preserve tropical forests, raised legal objections to the implementation of the infamous Bakun Dam, and changed the policies of highland development in Penang. Unchecked, they have the potential to change political philosophies and the socio-political framework.

The NGO's quest for civil society (democracy) and good governance can pose a major challenge to the legitimacy of the government, because it conflicts with the close ties between government and business, noted above. For this reason, the government views the growth of such organizations and societies as a threat, and has enacted and enforced anti-society regulations (such as the Internal Security Act [ISA] and Societies Act 1987). The well-known Operasi Lalang (Operation Lalang) in 1987, during which social activists and leaders from NGOs were arrested and imprisoned under the ISA, is a case in point. Since then, and throughout the 1990s, NGOs have been less vocal, focusing their attention on non-threatening areas, such as welfare work among children, women and the poor.

Apart from being repressed, the NGOs also have built-in limitations of their own. Two main points may be raised in this instance. First, the fact that members are drawn largely from the middle class deters the masses, particularly the industrial working class, from NGO membership. …

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