Creating space, deepening civil society

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Events like the ‘fun walk’ in Penang against sexual crimes can help establish civil society in general and NGOs in particular as legitimate actors in public discussion, write Manual Holler and Florian Ladage.

Photo by Lye Tuck Po/Aliran

A couple of months ago, an unusual sight presented itself to motorists, strollers and shoppers at Queensbay, Pulau Penang. A long line of people ambled down the bay, chanting and dancing, wielding signs and placards.

When Kempen Rakyat called for a walk against sexual crimes, about 800 people responded on 19 March 2011. The walk, which was organised by 22 NGOs along with the Penang state government, had as its motto “Stop sexual crimes, keep our children safe”.

Despite this serious message, the atmosphere at the event was bright and cheery. Many visitors had brought along their entire families, and with bright costumes, face-painted children and lots of song and dance, this appeared more like a festival or a carnival than an awareness walk.

We, the authors, are two German post-graduate students in the social sciences, both of us engaged in social and political matters in our home country. Visiting in Penang for several weeks, we had contacts with some of the event’s organisers, who invited us to take part and witness Malaysian civil society in action. Comparing this ‘fun walk’ we found ourselves in with our German experiences, we’ve discovered some interesting aspects that are quite telling about the status of civil society in Malaysia.

Random people

First of all, considering the tight legislation in Malaysia on public expression of opinions, it was undoubtedly a good sign to see such a sizeable crowd mobilised for a certain topic. Apparently, the authorities’ generally negative stance on socially motivated public assembly has not convinced a large number of people that such actions generally only ‘disrupt public order’ or have other detrimental effects. The composition of the people that came together for the walk, however, rather surprised us.

In Germany, there is usually a group making up the majority of those marching which is often permanently linked to the organising core groups in terms of shared values and ideologies. These marchers also regularly join these mostly NGO-led core groups in actions and frequently communicate with them through established and permanent communication networks. Resource mobilisation theory, which is widely used to describe social movements around the world, terms this group of ideological supporters ‘adherents’, as compared to ‘constituents’, the ‘core group’ that directly provides resources such as time, money or workforce to a certain goal. In Germany, the core of constituents will usually be joined in action by these adherents, to whom stable links are in place.

Our observations in Penang, however, indicate that this stable network of adherents is not yet in place in Malaysia. It seemed as if the crowd for the Kempen Rakyat march was made up of NGO activists (and their families and close friends) on the one side, and then just ‘random people’ on the other side – ‘random’ because they seemed to have just joined for this one event, but not to have any sort of connection to the organising NGOs.

Now, obviously it is always a good thing for NGOs to attract new people through such events. If a one-off event, however, is supposed to develop into a more long-term campaign or movement (and the protection of children would surely be a cause worth the effort), those ‘random people’ would have to be turned into a stable group of adherents. As nice as it is to have large numbers of the general public to join for an event, without deeper links there is no guarantee that this public will turn up for the following event as well – the core NGO constituents might end up marching all on their own! As Meredith Weiss put it in her book Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia: “Popular protest may force a policy response, for instance, but pervasive, long-term change generally requires something more organised and systematic than a spontaneous mass uprising.”

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Forming bonds with the community, on the other hand, does not only enlarge and therefore empower the movement, it also ensures the contact of NGOs with wider society. After all, generally as well as in Malaysia, NGO members tend to be a fairly homogenous group, most of them middle-class, middle-aged and university-educated – not necessarily the best precondition to speak for society as a whole.

Fun walk: Cross-ethnic participation

Furthermore, the widely heard term ‘fun walk’ appeared to us to be slightly at odds with the serious background of the march – how do ‘fun’ and ‘child abuse’ go together? In fact, a lot of participants followed the ‘fun’ concept by putting effort in costumes, make-up, and so on. Additionally, there was a staged entertainment program to underpin the event with an ‘event character’ true to the term. Again, in an established group in Germany, this event character is unlikely to be encountered – which, in fact, also holds true for Malaysia, with more homogenous groups like several Indian rights organisations holding vigils now and again, a type of action they regard as befitting the gravity of their concerns.

However, the type of background against which you do encounter this event character in demonstrations in Germany as well is with such movements that aim to gain momentum and/or members. Such is, for example, the case with the anti-nuclear power movement, whose gatherings often appear more like an anti-nuclear power party than a demonstration. As nuclear power is not a matter for any specific groups in terms of gender, age and class, the movement will need an extensive base all over society to gain weight; therefore they have a need to appear attractive to gain in numbers.

The anti-sexual abuse march in Penang presents a somewhat similar case. Unlike Hindu rights or the promotion of Orang Asli languages, this movement is not aimed at a specific sector of society, but rather is aimed at the general public. In this, the promise of ‘fun’ seems to be a crucial aspect of mobilising people to take part in such action, both in Germany and Malaysia. By promising a good time, participants who might not consider themselves politically minded people can be lured. Once they are at the scene, however, it appears much easier to convince them to participate. Impersonal addresses through media can be replaced by personal face-to-face interaction, and the passion of the surrounding people can create a strong feeling of solidarity.

A 'fun' time - Photo by Lye Tuck Po/Aliran

Another obstacle of taking this issue into society as a whole has, apparently, already been overcome by the organisers. We could observe that there was a whole cross section of Penang society taking part – young and old, Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans were freely intermingling in what was, after all, a political event. We were impressed by such an action because we experienced the society often as politically demobilised along ethnic borders.

Overcoming these divides must be the basis for tackling broader social and socio-economic issues. Poverty or lack of personal freedom is as little restricted to any ethnic group as is the problem of sexual abuse. Therefore, overcoming the political separation put in place through the political sphere for one common issue, the prevention of sexual abuse, may well result in changing the mindset of even more people in a way that some social issues cannot be thought along the lines of the classic Malaysian political divide. Instead, these social issues must be tackled across different groups of society, by a society that is conscious of facing the same issues.

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The term ‘demonstration’ for the event taking place was carefully avoided by all of the organisers. This may be understandable due to the political sensitivity of the term, with authorities more often than not equating demonstrations with rioting. This, however, hardly holds water in any experience of any given country. A demonstration does not have to be violent and ‘destabilise’ the country, as government politicians frequently stigmatise it. The root of this word means at first an expression of opinion of a group of people, in favour or in critique of a certain issue. In a liberal democratic sense, this is a constitutionally guaranteed civil right of expression for the popular sovereignty – a freedom guaranteed by the Malaysian constitution as well. It is a tool to create public awareness and may pressure the public as well as the government to take certain problems or needs into account. To us, it is sorrowful that such a concept that is so inherently an expression of democratic sentiments should be so carefully avoided.

Creating civil space

In personal chats with organisers, besides the walk and the preparation, we came several times across the idea that the topic of sexual crimes is not the only driving force to line up such a walk. Furthermore there is the idea of introducing such forms of public expression of opinion. In such a way it can be shown that there is still a certain space for gathering and for expressing concerns. We don’t want to downplay the importance of the issue of sexual crimes, but this event, which even gathered state government support, may have an agenda that moves beyond the stated purpose. It can be seen as a tool for widening the space for public expressions of opinion.

Many commentators have argued that even a not fully democratic government faces credibility problems and public discontent if it repeals freedoms it has granted before. Therefore, a freedom granted to a social movement once is likely to be granted again, as a decline is often considered politically too costly in terms of unnecessarily aggrieving public opinion. In this fashion, a number of small steps, carefully taken one after another, can lead to a significantly increased space for civil society in the long run. Not only will a number of successive events widen space in terms of official allowance, they will also establish the leading NGOs or individuals of these events as a credible public actor and increase their following. Obviously, it is much harder for the government to act against an established, popular actor than against one that is still fairly small and unknown – the public outcry will be much stronger.

The prevention of sexual crimes is hardly going to be a contentious issue. Just looking at the openly stated goal of the march, there is no challenge of political status quo whatsoever. This is precisely why this topic is quite a good choice for that subliminal goal some of the organisers were hinting at, which is getting people used to the idea of voicing their opinion in an organised manner. Under this agreeable headline, those people could be ‘trained’ without fearing repercussions, certainly not from the state government/federal opposition who even endorsed the event (maybe some of them don’t even mind the training for greater protest, to aim at a federal level?), but not even from any federal authority, which could hardly refuse the goal stated. This, in turn, made it perfectly safe for people to participate: Finally, here was a chance to engage with civil society without being subversive straight away.

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The creation of civil space starts with such small steps. Maybe some of the marchers will think, ‘That wasn’t too bad, I could do this again!’ Maybe even someone in the police force thought, ‘This was actually perfectly orderly, why should I not allow another march?’ In this fashion, civil action can be enhanced, it can be further accepted, maybe even valued, on both sides, and lead to a snowball effect of widening civil society space.

The Singapore example

This has, to a certain extent, worked in other countries with similar political systems. In Singapore, for example, it was the environmental movement that significantly helped to widen the margin for public opinion. Again, this was a political field where the government did not see the political status quo threatened, and therefore allowed initial actions to take place. This initial space, however, was enough for the primary actor, the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS), to establish itself as a trustworthy voice in the public eye, and by cooperating with some government agencies also as a high-standing group of experts rather than some dangerous force threatening the state’s stability.

But the NSS carefully widened its space step by step, on the one hand carefully lobbying the government, on the other hand establishing itself as a steady societal force through constantly winning new adherents with their various projects. By 1992, they were in a position where they could openly challenge the government – and got away with it. In the specific case, the NSS claimed a government-appointed environmental impact assessment for the creation of a golf course to be faulty. The acceptance of the NSS as an expert environment group by then was so widespread that journalists did not want to disregard NSS’ opinion, putting pressure on the government by reporting an alternative view even in state-sponsored media. As public opinion swung more and more against the government position, the development board responsible abandoned the project.

The results, however, were not just restricted to environmental groups. Not only did the NSS’ success set an encouraging example for other movements that the apparently over-powerful government could be defeated, it also did a lot for the general image of civil society and NGOs as a whole. It established public opinion as something that could be legitimate and NGOs as reputable actors in their field of expertise whose perspective should be considered. In practise, this will not always be the case, but what has changed significantly is the acceptance of the general public towards public discussion of issues. Where once the government was the only source of truth, there are now others alongside.

For the latter reason we believe the Singapore example can be significant for Malaysia as well. Events like the ‘fun walk’ at Queensbay can be one step into a similar direction, because they help to establish civil society in general and NGOs in particular as legitimate actors in public discussion, eradicating the government’s monopoly on truth. Obviously, there are already voices to be heard in Malaysia that challenge this government monopoly, but a deepening of civil society through events like this sexual abuse awareness walk will not only increase the number of voices participating in public discourse, but it will also strengthen the position of those alternative actors already in place.

Manuel Höller and Florian Ladage are German post-graduate students who spent a month in Penang.

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