Turning middle-age, Aliran forges closer ties with other NGOs, younger activists

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Francis Loh reflects on the changing face and role of Aliran after an eventful year for the group.

Aliran held its 40th annual general meeting on 27 Nov 2016. Yes we have definitely turned middle-aged!

Perhaps it is coincidental that this meeting was held amidst the euphoria about the Bersih 5 rally in Kuala Lumpur on 19 November 2016, as well as the exasperating detention of Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah on the eve of the rally.

Be that the case, I want to draw linkages between three major activities that Aliran organised during 2016: the Aliran fundraising dinner, the Bersih 5 Convoy activities in Penang, and the Aliran Review workshop held in our own premises.

Fundraising dinner

At the last AGM, it was announced that Aliran would be organising a fundraising dinner in Kuala Lumpur in mid-2016. Indeed, we successfully held the dinner in the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on 23 July 2016.

More than 550 people attended and we raised RM120,000, more than our original target of RM100,000. With our office located in Penang, no doubt, we faced challenges in trying to facilitate this function ‘over there’.

But our executive committee members in the Klang Valley and the Aliran members and friends they roped in to help did a marvellous job. Indeed, it was an opportunity to pull together our members and friends, old and new, in the Klang Valley to help in this project.

A Penang-based team, including the Aliran Singers, also put it much effort to ensure an exciting and entertaining evening.

With so many civil society organisations based in Kuala Lumpur and with the intensive pace of civil society organisations’ work there, a common complaint we hear is that Aliran has been ‘forgotten’, even ‘become irrelevant’ for some involved in NGO work. By holding this event in KL, hopefully, Aliran made its presence felt in the Klang Valley.

Aliran Singers must have made some little impact at least, for we were next invited to perform on the occasion of Syed Husin Ali’s 80th birthday celebrations held in Bangi, in early December.

The practical side of this effort is that we raised enough funds to sustain us for another two years – to run our office and the activities that we conduct, especially maintaining the Aliran website. Another two years from now, we shall have to focus attention on our financial problem again.

Significantly, Aliran members and the Malaysian public have never let us down when we turn to them for funds. We have been drained of funds several times before, but we are still here, 40 AGMs later. Hopefully, with last year’s effort in Kuala Lumpur, our profile in the Klang Valley has been enhanced a bit more.

Bersih 5 Convoy

Aliran’s presence in Penang is more evident. Insofar as our office here has become a regular meeting place for many civil soiety organisations-based coalitions, not least Bersih North, it cannot be stated that we are becoming irrelevant in Penang!

Together with other Penang-based civil society organisations, we were responsible for Bersih 5 activities in the state while the convoy passed by Penang from 8 to 15 October 2016.

During that week, Aliran and Suaram jointly organised a forum: ‘It’s Time for Bersih’, featuring Maria Chin Abdullah (Bersih 2.0 chairperson), Khairuddin Abu Hamzah (executive coordinator of the Citizen’s Declaration, who was also detained in Sungai Buloh prison, thereby allowing him to meet Anwar Ibrahim almost everyday for almost a month), and Aliran’s own Dr Prema Devaraj, with Dr Francis Loh moderating.

The Aliran Singers also performed a few numbers prior to the forum proper. We persuaded all present to sign a ‘Penangites support Bersih 5’ banner and got them chanting slogans too. And yes, we sold not a few yellow T-shirts too.

Working with Suaram, Ikram, LLG, Hindraf, Arif and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress-Penang, and supported by other civil society organisations like Penang Forum, the Women’s Centre for Change, the Malaysian Nature Society, etc, we conducted ‘flash mobs’ at road junctions, did leafleting at night markets, sold Bersih T-shirts and delivered impromptu ceramahs in the streets.

We also drove around Penang Island and Seberang Perai as part of the Bersih 5 Convoy, with flags fluttering from our cars, and yes, attracting the attention of the red shirts too. We also made a police report against unnamed ‘others’ who threatened to kill Maria Chin Abdullah and her sons, Ambiga Sreenevasan, and Mandeep Singh.

We also helped to co-organise a second ceramah in the Penang Chinese Assembly Hall on 14 November 2016, featuring activist Hishamuddin Rais, student leader Anis Syafiqah who led the Tangkap MO No1 demonstration, Deputy Chief Minister Rashid Hasnon, and Francis Loh while Prema Devaraj moderated.

And we helped to coordinate Penangites attending the Bersih 5 rally too.

Our premises have also been used for meetings of the Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia-Utara, Penang Forum, and the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Coalition. On still other occasions, we have held talks and discussions with a variety of civil society organisations on current political developments featuring prominent speakers.

My point is that our presence is felt in Penang and we are not considered ‘irrelevant’ in our home base. Our members have acted with all the above groups as well as with the opposition parties in the Bebas Maria Campaign. Many activities in Penang are in the offing in the following weeks.

Participating in Bersih, especially the convoy has enabled us to consolidate a close working relationship with many of the Penang-based civil society organisations. And that relationship has led Aliran to be involved in advocacy activities more than we have been involved in, when compared to times past.

As well, this work has been invigorating for us, a 40-plus-year-old group – for it allowed our members who are relatively older, to interact with younger activists, largely involved in advocacy .

Aliran Review workshop

This brings us to the one-day Aliran Review workshop held in Rumah Aliran on 8 October 2016. Although it was open to all members, only 19 people were present. Though it was disappointing that so few attended, we had some invigorating and rigorous discussion, and conducted some soul-searching.

The review opened with a Swot-analysis of Aliran, led by Prema and Mustafa. As has been pointed out to us, and as we ourselves are now aware, one of our major weakesses is not appealing to and recruiting younger members.

When you consider that we conducted four Young Writers workshops in 2015, and the cooperative work we have been engaged in with the younger people in 2016, I believe that we are making amends.

Next at the workshop review, we asked ourselves rhetorically, what is Aliran’s identity’ nowadays, especially since we no longer produce the print Aliran Monthly as before? How do we project ourselves in the website and to the public at large?

Through discussion, it was clarified that we considered ourselves as a civil society organisation that is principally engaged in conducting serious analyses of political and social developments and sharing the alternative ideas and perspectives that we unearth and propound as widely as possible.

At the 2014 AGM, the members had supported the decision to ‘go fully digital’ with the proviso that Aliran must continue to challenge the dominant discourses on political, social and economic developments as espoused by the BN powers that be, and as disseminated via the mainstream media, which they own and control.

For several years now, we have talked about transforming Aliran into a People’s Think Tank, or at least setting-up a unit within Aliran to conduct such research to inform pro-People policy decision-making. Due to other pressing concerns but also a lack of resources, the proposed Think Tank has not materialised.

Instead, we have tried to research, write and upload more CSI (Critical Socio-Economic Insights) pieces onto our website this year. However, that effort has not been systematised.

I believe that it is imporant for Aliran to perform this role of informed critic consistently. It should also become an alternative discursive source as uploaded onto our website. And we must always dare to “speak truth to power”.

Hence, while fully supporting our working with like-minded civil society organisations and assuming a more activist-advocacy role, which in turns allows us to connect to younger activists, let us not forget that our strength is in conducting research and analysis and in sharing that analysis as widely as possible.

The additional challenge is presenting that informed and critical analysis in popular fashion, attractive to all, including the younger activists.

In this regard, one of the suggestions made at the Review was that Aliran should continue to organise activities like the Aliran Young Writers workshops that we conducted in 2015-16.

Another suggestion was that we should organise a regular series of talks and forums on current problems and issues viz the trend towards the Salafi-isation of Islam in Malaysia; the worsening of ethno-religious relations in the country; the breakdown of the BN consociational model of politics; the inability of the opposition parties to hold together in spite of the BN’s breakdown; the effects of globalisation on the Malaysian economy especially in the employment situation; and the moribund educational system.

A related suggestion was that we conduct study sessions on Malaysian problems and issues with younger activists.

In conclusion, we believe that Aliran has continued to be true to its call to struggle for Justice, Freedom and Solidarity.

The fundraising dinner has helped us to remain financially solvent while reaching out to groups in the Klang Valley which we tend not to link up with adequately.

Our engagement in Bersih 5 has allowed us to work closely and forge close ties with a variety of like-minded civil society organisations in Penang. It has also helped to take us down the advocacy-activist route, more than we have done in the recent past. In so doing, we have fostered closer links with younger activists too.

Via the website, we have been reaching out more to society at large, albeit the urban, and better educated with access to IT. And our Crackdown Watch, which monitors the abuses of our human rights, is appreciated.

That said, Aliran must not take for granted its role as critical analyst and as an alternative discursive source for understanding current developments, nationally, regionally, globally. That might be the role that we can play best, given our strengths and weaknesses.

Ideally, the talks and forums that we organise on current issues and developments should end up as a comprehensive Critical Socio-economic Insights article and uploaded to our website for popular dissemination.

In turn, the considered analyses contained in these articles should guide us in the advocacy work that we are involved in. Maybe the missing link is organising study sessions among ourslves and some of the other NGOs in town in systematic fashion.

In closing, I wish to thank all members and especially the executive committee for the support they have given to me and to Aliran these past five years that I have served as president and some 20-plus years as honorary secretary. It has been an honour and pleasure to serve in the cause of Justice, Freedom and Solidarity.

Peace and blessings.

The above is an edited version of Francic Loh’s presentation at Aliran’s annual general meeting on 27 November 2016.

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Francis Loh
Dr Francis Loh served as honorary secretary of Aliran for 20 years and then president of Aliran for five years from 2011 to 2016. He was formerly professor of politics at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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