To articulate political issues and work towards change for a better Malaysia, says Aliran founder member Subramaniam Pillay in a speech during Aliran's 25th anniversary celebration on 24 May 2003 in Penang, Malaysia
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We are gathered here today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Aliran, one of the first - if not the first - multiethnic reform movement in post-independent Malaysia. Aliran was founded in 1977 by seven Malaysians namely Sdr Chandra Muzaffar, Sdr Ariffin Omar, Sdr Gan Teik Chee, Sdr Ismail Hashim, the late Sdr Nor Abdul Rashid, Sdr Siew Kam Poh and myself.
Why Aliran? The political atmosphere in the 1970s was heavily influenced by the May 13th 1969 inter-ethnic riot. A few years after that, the ruling Alliance Party absorbed most of the opposition parties to become the Barisan Nasional. This diminished the opportunity for the emergence of a multi-ethnic opposition and a more healthy two-party electoral competition. This meant that route for change through partisan politics became very much more limited.
Another Way for a Better Malaysia
At that point, a few of us felt that there has to be another way to articulate political issues and work towards change for a better Malaysia. In fact, we felt strongly that issues such as justice, freedom, inter-ethnic unity and public accountability can be discussed more freely and frankly if one does not have to worry about winning seats in the next general elections.
Thus, we decided to launch a foundation called Liga Reformasi in the mid 1970s. About a year after our application was submitted, the Attorney Generalís office rejected our application without any reason, as usual. It looks like even then, Reformasi was a sensitive word in Malaysian politics. By that time, some of the initiators had lost interest. From the initial group, Chandra, Gan Teik Chee and myself decided to join hands with Ariffin, Ismail, Siew Kam Poh and the late Nor Rashid to launch Aliran. The application to register Aliran as a society was sent in either 1975 or early 1976. We obtained the registration in 1977 after a 2-year delay. The rest is history, as they say.
During the past 25 years, Aliran has faced many challenges, not the least of which is to be financially self-sustaining. Some of these challenges will be touched upon by our current president Sdr Ramakrishnan later.
To my mind, one of the greatest challenges that faces any public interest organisation or an NGO is the problem of succession. It is understandable if in the early years an NGO is identified closely with the founding group. But the test of whether the NGO is a genuine movement or not comes when its founding group recedes from the scene. Can the NGO continue with its objectives and struggles?
A Movement of Ideas
More importantly, it is interesting to note that in the current Aliran executive committee of 15 members, there is only one founding member left. A majority of the current exco is made up of members who joined Aliran in the 1990s. Thus, I would like to believe that by most criteria, Aliran has become a movement of ideas, an institution that continues to speak out fearlessly for freedom and justice.
Of course, there have been many changes in the poltical, socio-economic and technological environment. Aliran has to respond to these new challenges. For example, the rise of the Internet and the world-wide web means we have to re-examine the role of the Aliran Monthly. What can we do for it to remain relevant as an alternative media given that it is published only once a month? Similarly, more Malaysians live in urban areas these days; so, we should be writing more about issues on problems faced by the urban poor.
Friends, finally I hope and pray that God-willing, I will be around in 25 years time to celebrate Aliranís Golden Anniversary in a freer, a more just and a more united Malaysia.
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