Civil society: the torch bearer of democracy

May 14, 2013
Singapore Democrats

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John Tan

The thirteenth Malaysian general elections were said to be the most hotly contested elections in its history. For the first time, a whopping 80% turned out  to vote. The vibrant campaigning by the political parties and civil society was the talk of the town.

I had the privilege of representing the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA) as an International Election Observer during the campaign leading up to polling day. My team’s observation was done mostly in central Johor. In addition to a formal report of our observation, which is a work in progress, I wanted to pen my personal reflection of this historic event. In this piece, I would like to focus on what I thought was the single most important factor that made this election phenomenal—the contribution of the civil society.

The NGOs

One shop stood out in the midst of a row of quiet suburban shophouses on May Day. In stark contrast to the rest, this shop was abuzz with human activity. I was led up a narrow stairway on the side of the shop into a room jam-packed with people. Volunteers were crowding in groups, each with a leader detailing the job and mission of either a polling agent or a counting agent.

“So, this is where the party trains its agents,” I quipped.

“No,” my guide, Thomas Fann, corrected. “Not the party. Bersih.”

Bersih (the Malay word for clean) is a movement made up of numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) calling for a clean and fair election. The Johor People’s Action Group (JPAG) is one such. Its Chairman, Christopher Ling, an engineer by profession, was simultaneously on the phone and speaking to several persons at once. Sparing a few moments, he explained that JPAG was formed in 2010 to bring together like-minded people who want to eradicate election fraud.

“If the [opposition] parties cannot do it,” his eyes burdened with ownership of the situation, “then we, the people, will have to do it.”

The response from the rakyat (people) to his call to action was overwhelming. So much so, many volunteers had to be rescheduled while others were turned away because of space and other logistical constraints. The training sessions were meant to prepare agents to represent the opposition political coalition, Pakatan Rakyat [PR, comprising the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS)]. Indeed, almost all of the Bersih NGOs’ activities during the election campaign were designed either to lend support to PR or to be anti-Barisan Nasional (BN, the ruling coalition).

“Why,” I asked, “would an NGO be willing to shed its political neutrality and align itself with a political entity?”

All the activists I spoke to, were firm in the conviction that they are not compromising their neutrality in any way. What they strove to achieve, they argued, was synonymous with the goals of their organizations. The typical reasoning was if you were convinced that a one-party system was not good for the nation, you would want to see  political change (hence their war cry, Ubah!). It is as much the responsibility of civil society as it is that of the alternative political parties to bring about this change. If, indeed, change did come, the same NGOs would be compelled to speak up against the new government should it in turn became dishonest in its practices. With such an understanding it is no wonder many NGOs were unashamedly pro-opposition. Tan Wee Tiong, a member of the Johor Yellow Flame (JYF) and the Hak Air Untuk Semua (HAUS), who volunteered at a PKR office put it  succinctly, “Whoever supports our cause, we support them.”

The Religious Communities

Among the throng of volunteers, I was introduced to a person described as one of the key people. Key because Pastor James Tan mobilized his congregation to action during the campaign. “Why would a pastor be involved in a political movement?” was my first question. Is he not worried about mixing the affairs of church and state?

“God is concerned about politics,” he declared in a sermon-like fashion. “Because he appoints and disposes governments.”

Pastor James had closed his church services during the  ten-day campaign both to contribute himself and to enable his congregation to participate in the election activities. I discovered later that Pastor James was not alone. There were several other pastors and lay pastors among the activists who were doing likewise. One of them was clearly astounded by my astonishment when he jibed, “We are civil society too, you know?”

In the evening, I attended a panel forum organized by the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM) and the Community Action Network (CAN). Tommy Thomas, a constitutional lawyer, Yeo Yang Poh, former Bar Council President, and Malik Imtiaz, a Hakam (Islamic arbitrator) and constitutional lawyer formed the panel of speakers. Throughout the evening, the speakers argued passionately that every individual has the moral and civil responsibility not only to vote but to participate in the electoral process to ensure social justice in the society.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) were also vigorously involved in civil education and activism.

The Lawyers

Besides the three lawyers who spoke at the CCM forum, many other members of the Malaysian Bar Council led by their past President, Ambiga Sreenevasan, were making circuits around the Federation, educating the public on their political and civil rights. While they tried to maintain some sense of neutrality, many of them did not hesitate to reveal their anti-Barisan Nasional sentiments.

The Small Business Owners

Lining the street, I noted coffee shops and other small neighbourhood businesses unabashedly displaying flags or posters of the party they were supporting. One coffee shop owner, I was told, routinely offered the use of its venue as an activist rendezvous.

The Rakyat (People)

There was never a dull moment speaking to volunteers. Everyone has his personal vignette as to why he was moved to contribute to the electoral process. A day before the poll, in a briefing session where activists were taught to identify and record election irregularities, Adam Khoo complained that fraud  was already taking place. A builder in Kuala Lumpur, Adam had taken leave from his job to volunteer in the Johor area, where he is resident. At a petrol kiosk on his way home, he swore he saw drivers being offered free petrol and food vouchers in exchange for carrying BN bumper stickers.

Another voter, a firefighter who works in Singapore, is fed up with the unfairness he sees in Malaysian politics. He wants to play his part, no matter how small, to bring about real change. He wants Malaysia to have a two-party system. Likewise, National University of Singapore (NUS) law graduate Evelyn Chua got involved because she was angry and upset with the “abuses, vote buying, and corruption” of the establishment. Nodding in profound agreement were her two friends Elizabeth Teoh, a medical representative and Priscilla Tan, an NUS architecture graduate, who added, “Besides, this is our home.”

At a ceramah (rally) that attracted over 15,000 people, Josh was shooting away with his impressive looking camera. A student, Josh contributed his time and talent because “it is time to take sides. And I choose the side that is honest with the people.”

Zipping through the enraptured crowd were a dozen youths, sporting yellow t-shirts emblazoned with Bersih’s slogans,  were passing out a variety of flyers and paraphernalia. One of these activists handed me a flyer. I accepted, thanked him and attempted to toss him a question. It was too late, the enthusiastic young man had promptly moved on to the next person and was soon lost in the crowd.

Heroes and Heroines

It is people such as these that make a nation proud. The unsung heroes and heroines who toiled away silently in the background; who seek no personal glory but only a better society for all; who sacrifice their time, money and effort for the good of the community; who risked their lives to pursue, relentlessly a freer, fairer Malaysia.

It is appropriate to end this reflection with the story of my contact person—no, my friend—Thomas Fann (pictured left, with John Tan). The principal of a private school, he goes home to a lovely wife and two sons. He also pastors a house-church. The dual professions Thomas holds are  enough to keep him awfully busy. He knows what is going on in his country. He could not help but notice what the authorities did to the participants of Bersih 2.0 (click here to watch video). As a pastor and a citizen, Thomas felt a moral obligation to right the wrong he saw.

“Fear was a big thing.” Thomas reminisced. “I contemplated and thought a lot about it. Making excuses is not the solution, I figured. I confronted my fear and decided I had to do something despite my fear.”

With that, Thomas co-founded JPAG and Bersih 3.0 Johor Bahru (click here to watch video), co-chaired Bersih 3.0 (click here to watch video), and is presently the state coordinator of the Bersih Permantau (Observer) Program.

I am sure this little vignette does not tell half the story of this man nor does justice to the sacrifices he has made. Nevertheless, to my dear friend, Thomas, and to all who like him possess the burning spirit to do what is right… I tip my hat.


John Tan is the Assistant Secretary-General of the SDP.