The ‘politicised’ civil society

The Malaysian civil society seems to pick and choose the issues which it wishes to champion, while its leaders prefer to be followers of politicians.

Some critics estimated that the EO detention figures would cross 30,000 over the years while police sources revealed that at least 60% of the detainees currently were Indians, including teenagers.

Athi Shankar, Free Malaysia Today

The civil society has suddenly voiced its grave concern over the draconian Emergency Ordinance (EO), wanting the security law repealed or at least reviewed.

The detention of six Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) activists under the EO, which provides for detention without trial, was the wake-up call.

The six are Sungai Siput Member of Parliament Dr Michael D Jeyakumar, 56, PSM national deputy chairman M Saraswathy, 58, national Youth chief R Sarath Babu, 25, central committee members Choo Chon Kai, 33, and M Sukumaran, 50, and Sungai Siput branch secretary A Letchumanan, 49.

In the past, only a handful of civil society groups have voiced out against the EO but this changed with the latest arrests.

In other democracies, civil rights groups launch regular campaigns against bad laws but in Malaysia, it appears that the civil society needs a political boost to get cracking.

According to observers, civil society leaders seem to be contented with being mere followers of politicians.

“It’s an unhealthy trend,” said BK Ong, national coordinator of election watchdog Malaysian Election Observers Network (Meonet).

“Civil rights movement should never be politicised,” he added.

The fact remains that the civil society here failed to educate and galvanise people on human rights and civil liberties.

The civil society hardly organised regular human rights campaigns without any political inclination or involvement.

This could be the reason behind the civil society’s failure to garner strong public support for the candlelight vigils across the country to secure the release of the PSM six.

“Civil society NGOs lack grassroots touch and support. They seem more inclined to political popularity rather than real civil liberties for ordinary people,” explained Ong.

Even the crowd at the recent Bersih 2.0 rally was mostly mobilised by political parties and not by the civil society.

Playing to majoritarian gallery

The EO was enacted by the National Operations Council as part of the state of emergency declared following the May 13 race riots. It remains in force given that the state of emergency had never been revoked to this day.

The law was supposedly used to detain those deemed to be subversive by the government, and is in fact used far more frequently than the the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA).

But the civil society had been more vocal against ISA because it was used against politicians.

Though figures for those detained under the EO are not released by the government, Human Rights Watch estimated that there were 712 detainees in 2005.

Some critics estimated that the EO detention figures would cross 30,000 over the years while police sources revealed that at least 60% of the detainees currently were Indians, including teenagers.

Deaths among EO detainees under custody had also been reported.

One such case involved S Tharmarajen, 19, who died in a police lock-up in Sepang in 2003.

Police sources said a few petitions or police reports against an individual might result in them being detained under the EO.

But civil society groups hardly uttered a word compared to the noise generated over the death of former DAP political aide Teoh Beng Hock.

“Malaysian civil society is only keen to play to the popular bi-racial majoritarian gallery under the disguise of pseudo-multi racialism,” claimed Human Rights Party leader S Thiagarajan.

He recalled the “deafening pin drop silence” among the civil rights champions on Tharmarajen’s death.

Even when five Hindraf leaders were detained under the ISA in 2008, the civil society did not pro-actively campaign for their release.

Thiagarajan said they were released due to constant pressure from the working class poor Indians.

Even though four of those arrested were practising lawyers, the Bar Council merely issued a statement condemning their detention.

But the council took a strong stand against the ISA detention of popular blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, DAP parliamentarian Teresa Kok and Chinese newspaper journalist Tan Hoon Cheng.