The “impartiality” of NGOs in Penang, raised in an article in an Umno-linked newspaper that questioned why they have remained silent on many issues, has been rubbished by social activists in the state, reports Susan Loone of Malaysiakini.
In an article with the heading, Suddenly, it’s disconcertingly quiet on the NGO front, published by New Straits Times on 9 Octber, the writer quotes “a veteran social activist” of Penang as saying, among other things, that these NGOs have been keeping mum on the issues.
The same NGOs that once made “ear-splitting noises and always had something or other to say about the goings-on in Penang have all but quietened down”, while social activists with an opinion on everything “seem nowhere to be heard or seen these days”.
The issues troubling Penang, the report says, include threats to sustainable development and the environment, traffic woes and lack of proper public transportation.
As to why the NGOs and most activists were not taking up the issues or raising questions, the writer says “theories abound” and these include many of the vocal individuals being “appointed to positions or sit on the advisory boards of various agencies”.
‘More people have become vocal’
However, several NGO representatives have denied these allegations, saying more people have become vocal since Pakatan Rakyat took over after the March 2008 general election.
A few traditional NGOs may prefer their practice of dialogue with the state government, but others have formed support groups on social media networking sites such as Facebook, they said.
Others have launched signature campaigns and voiced out their criticisms of state government policies at briefings and consultation sessions with members of the public.
Penang-based activist and blogger Anil Netto said apart from the traditional NGOs, new ones such as Green Voters were making their presence felt in the state.
Others, like residents groups in Tanjung Bungah and Bayan Bay, have protested publicly over development and land reclamation issues affecting their areas.
Netto, who has been using his blog to promote such causes, said the Tanjung Bungah Residents Association had even taken legal action against the Penang Municipal Council (MPPP) over the interpretation of the local plan.
The 14-member Penang Forum, in which he sits, has often responded to issues, the latest being the controversial subterranean Penang International Convention and Exhibition Centre (sPICE).
Even a councillor with the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP), Lim Mah Hui, who represents civil society, has expressed his dissatisfaction over sPICE, and collected signatures from his colleagues to push for a “urgent briefing”.
Fighting Penang Hill development
Long-established Consumers Association of Penang, which recently joined the Penang Forum, has also spoken out against any attempt to revive development on Penang Hill, Netto pointed out.
“What about the illegal arches at the Penang Botanical Gardens, which the federal government had to bring down eventually because the NGOs were speaking against them and even went to measure the tilt on those structures? he queried.
“When the state came out with a draft on Freedom of Information, several groups gave their criticisms and suggestions. This can hardly be described ‘staying silent on issues’,” Netto said.
“Don’t look at traditional NGOs only. There is a larger local and national movement on just about anything that concerns people. People can just start Facebook groups now and many will support them.”
Human rights NGO Suaram’s Penang coordinator Ong Jing Cheng said the Pakatan state government was more open to engagement, making it easier for civil society to hold dialogues with the authorities, and therefore, public protests were fewer.
However, Ong said NGOs and civil society would continue to stand with the people on their issues of concern, despite the state government’s open policy.
“We have to continue monitoring and pressuring the authorities on various matters,” he said.
Veteran social activist Ong Boon Keong said NGOs have been following up closely on matters of grave concern in Penang and have shown no sign of slowing down, stopping their missions or abandoning causes.
“They are not silent on government policies and to date, no NGO has closed shop,” said Ong, who is coordinator for election watchdog Malaysian Election Observation Network.
“Perhaps, there are people or NGO representatives who have joined the government or become inactive, but others have taken their place,” he said. “Claims that NGOs are silent do not represent the entire truth.”
However, the recently-launched Green Voters 2.0 spokesperson Khim Pa appeared disappointed with the lack of response from the state government to the various protests by Penangites.
Among these issues are ongoing hillside development and reclamation projects along the coast, which Khim said would eventually harm the environment.
“Voters and NGOs are now in a dilemma and (feeling) helpless… it makes no difference to vote either one of them (BN or Pakatan),” he said.
“In Pahang, the opposition is protesting against the Lynas plant but in Penang, the previous or current governments have ignored the people’s objections and went ahead with development projects,” he said.
In Tanjung Bungah, Khim said, local residents and their assemblyperson oppose the dangerous hillside development but their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
“They (DAP) do not even support their own comrade,” said Khim Pa, referring to the party’s Tanjung Bungah assemblyperson Teh Yee Cheu.