An early attempt by the Registrar of Societies to deregister Aliran backfired when the episode provided more publicity to its cause and made Aliran better known to Malaysians, recalls Francis Loh.
Aliran was founded in Penang, in 1977, by seven individuals of various ethnic backgrounds: Chandra Muzaffar, S P Subramaniam, Ismail Hashim, Gan Teck Chee, Ariffin Omar, Siew Kam Poh and Nor Rashid.
Its early activities included internal education for members and friends; organising public forums and the Annual Merdeka Dinner; issuing press statements; and publication of pamphlets, books, cassettes, Aliran Quarterly, and ultimately, Aliran Monthly (AM). In these early years, the scope of Aliran’s work was wide-ranging and the overall focus was on reform of all sectors and issues.
In 1981, an attempt was made by the Registrar of Societies to deregister Aliran for speaking out against a pay hike for top civil servants. Instead, the incident gave publicity to Aliran and its cause and made us better-known to Malaysians.
The 1980s was a period of much political ferment. Aliran worked closely with a few other NGOs to protest against amendments to the Societies Act; the financial scandals involving the then Bumiputera Malaysia Finance (BMf) and the MCA-related deposit-taking cooperatives; and environmentally hazardous projects of Papan and Bukit Merah and the controversial Penang Hill development.
Publicity was given to Aliran and a few other NGOs then, because the mass media was more vibrant and less controlled. These joint activities led to close ties between Aliran and Abim (then headed by Anwar Ibrahim), the Selangor Graduates Society, the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia, the Malayan Nature Society, the Consumers Association of Penang, the MTUC, the National Union of Journalists, the Bar Council, etc.
In 1984, Aliran set up a permanent office with two full-time staff in Bayan Baru. Aliran also went to Court to win the right to publish Majalah Aliran in Malay.
The ferment of the 1980s culminated with Operasi Lallang in 1987 and the Judicial Crisis of 1988. In 1987, more than a hundred Opposition leaders, critics and social activists were detained under the ISA. This included Chandra Muzaffar, the then Aliran president, and resident in Penang, and two other Aliran members based in KL, Lim Chin Chin and Anthony Rogers.
Apart from these arrests, several newspapers were closed. The head of the Judiciary Tun Salleh Abas, and two Supreme Court judges were also sacked. There occurred amendments to tighten existing coercive laws and the Constitution, to curtail public involvement in politics and to snuff out existing democratic spaces.
Arguably, the AM, during this pre-IT era, documented the two major events and the follow-up developments more closely than other media sources. Consequently, the AM has become an important source of reference and critical analysis of this period of transition in Malaysia’s political history.
The early 1990s was yet another significant period of change for Aliran. After 14 years as president (1977-1991), Chandra Muzaffar stepped down and was replaced by Ariffin Omar who served for two years (1991-93). Thereafter, P Ramakrishnan took over as president and served for 18 long years!
The NGO scene in Malaysia was also changing rapidly. Many single-issue NGOs (environment, gender, human rights, estate workers, consumers, etc) emerged, especially in the Klang Valley. Thanks to access to foreign donors, some of these NGOs could afford to employ young full-time workers who helped to promote their concerns.
Against this trend, Aliran, already a more all-encompassing NGO, continued to rely only on volunteers due to our self-imposed restriction of not accepting funds from foreign donors. Fortunately, sales of Aliran Monthly reached an all-time high during the 1980s. In turn, increased sales helped to support the maintenance of our office and various operations.
Reformasi erupted in 1998-99 . Due to the ‘twin crises’ (the Anwar Ibrahim and the regional financial crises), sales of the AM soared further. This was an exhilarating period for advocates of change and political reform as the rudiments of a two-party system were put into place. A ‘New Politics’ appeared in the offing. To top it all, in November 1998, Aliran moved into its own, Rumah Aliran, located in Medan Penaga, Jelutong, Penang.
Little did we realise that the new millennium would deal a harsh blow to the progress of the AM. The writing was already on the wall when sales of the AM declined after the 1999 election. And why did this occur?
Enter Malaysiakini.com, other on-line dailies, blogs but also Astro which provided access to BBC, CNN, al-Jazeera, etc. Many people turned to the new IT and other alternative sources of news and analyses. The sales of AM and other publications tumbled rapidly. In this regard, we responded by setting up our website in 1997, later known as aliran.com.
Rama continued to lead Aliran during the first decade of the 21st century. Having been around since 1977, Aliran continued to be held in high regard by most civil society groups. In addition to our own activities, Aliran began to work closely with NGO coalitions such as Bersih 2.0, the Anti-ISA Movement, Jerit (Network of Oppressed People), Penang Forum, Media Charter 2000, Water Watch and the Coalition Against Health Care Privatisation.
Since Reformasi, we have also noted the emergence of a new way of engaging politics, not only via the use of IT, but via mass street protests as in the successes of Hindraf, Bersih, Gabungan Mansuhkan ISA and Himpunan Hijau. Many new ad-hoc civil society groups involving youths, who also resort to the use of social media, have also emerged.
At this point, Aliran has embarked on a process of digitalising the AM, to enhance our reach to the youths and new groups via the website, social media and e-newsletters. However, we shall also continue to write longer analytical pieces and to investigate and discuss the major trends in Malaysia’s politics and social-cultural developments as we have done for more than 33 years in the AM. Since 2011, we have a new president Francis Loh, who had previously served as Aliran’s secretary for over 20 years. At this point, Aliran has 191 members.