In the long and winding road towards justice and freedom, civil society has shown remarkable resilience growing from strength to strength, says P Ramakrishnan, as he traces its journey since Merdeka.
Looking back at the period leading to Independence and the years after that, we tend to see the pursuit of freedom and social justice largely in the struggle of political parties, their associates and nationalist movements.
But there were other groups courageously involved in the quest for justice. Their struggle could be seen as the genesis of a civil society movement as we know it today.
Many of the non-governmental organisations of today did not exist at that time. In the 1950s and 60s, the only civil society groups that could be identified were the unions that looked after the economic and civil rights of workers generally. They were the ones that engaged the state to secure reasonable wages and tolerable working conditions for their members.
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The most active of these were the plantation labour unions in Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Selangor and Perak in the 1960s. In fighting for workers’ rights, it was sometimes necessary for the unions to resort to industrial action to advance their cause. Unfortunately, these unions were smashed in crackdowns against the labour movement. Hundreds of unionists were detained, many of them without trial under the Internal Security Act.
The strike action initiated by the Railway Union of Malaya (RUM) in the 1960s in the fight for daily rated manual workers to be emplaced as monthly-paid employees was another inspiring example of the struggle for justice for exploited workers.
Yet another strike action that had a tremendous impact was the teachers’ strike across the country in 1967. Following a steady erosion of the teachers’ salaries and benefits from 1948 to 1961, teachers belonging to the National Union of Teachers (NUT) boycotted extramural activities, picketed, protested at rallies and worked to rule. Having reached the end of their tether, they finally resorted to strike action, walking out of classrooms for two and a hour hours daily from 27 March to 6 April 1967.
Women’s movement takes root
The first shoots of the women’s movement sprouted in the 1960s. Although women were freely recruited in the labour force, their rights as workers were not always respected. Among the early issues that galvanised middle-class working women were unequal pay and the global struggle to uphold the rights of working women.
Groups such as the YWCA, the Women Teachers Union and the Selangor Indian Association joined forces and played a key role in the formation of the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) in 1960.
Then May 13 shook the nation and our freedoms were curbed. Because of the racially charged atmosphere, many Malaysians turned away from mono-ethnic parties.
After a lull, the 1970s witnessed a different phase in the civil society movement. Civil society groups that were multi-ethnic in orientation began to emerge and there were lively debates around various issues of concern.
The Consumers Association of Penang was vocal on consumer issues and Aliran, which was registered in 1977, was at the forefront in articulating issues of democracy and basic human rights. Because there were few other civil society groups, Aliran found itself raising awareness on a host of issues such as accountability, universal spiritual values, human rights, sustainable development, social justice, and of course unity.
By now, the seeds that were planted by the early generation of activists began to bear fruit. A plethora of organisations on specific issues and concerns of vital interest began to emerge in the 1970s and 80s, championing every issue that needed to be tackled.
It was an exciting period because the press was much freer, and abundant space was available for civil society. Critical views were highlighted, not suppressed; and critical letters to the press were printed, not thrown into trashcans.
University students mobilise
University students were stirring and acting as spokespersons for the downtrodden, traversing the country and campaigning during the general election. On 1 December 1974, more than 30,000 Baling peasants staged a mass demonstration to protest against the distressing social conditions which forced them into abject poverty. Students showed their solidarity with the peasants and protested against inflation and corrupt politicians. After a mass demonstration on 3 December 1974 outside the Selangor Padang, 1,128 students were arrested and the Universities and University Colleges Act was then tightened to disallow student politics.
People power triumphs
Civil society was indeed on the march. In 1980, the Barisan government moved to deregister Aliran citing our press statement criticising the increased allowances for civil servants which it said might confuse the public and pose a threat to peace. Numerous other allegations and lies were concocted and the issue was hotly debated in Parliament. To our eternal gratitude, civil society rose as one in our defence, protesting against the unjust and unwarranted government action and writing countless letters of support, which appeared in the press. Finally, the matter was allowed to subside quietly.
The residents of Tambunan and Papan also stood up against the powers-that-be to claim their legitimate rights. The brave people of Papan emerged triumphant after an unrelenting battle against radioactive waste dumped in their vicinity in 1983. The following year, the people of Tambunan voted against the Berjaya government in Sabah in an historic by-election despite the threats and the intimidation. This surprise result paved the way for the toppling of the Berjaya government by the PBS in state elections the following year.
Curbing scandals and abuse of power
In the mid-1980s, civil society groups played vital roles to safeguard our democracy and civil liberties. When amendments to the Societies Act 1966 were formulated giving wide powers to the Registrar and creating provisions to declare any critical society as ‘political’, nearly 50 civil societies got together to oppose this move. Because the opposition was so great and uncompromising, the government was forced to drop the proposal.
The BMF scandal involving 2.5 billion ringgit would have been quietly buried had it not been for the civil society demands for the culprits to be held accountable for their misdeeds. Such pressure forced the government to make public the findings of the investigation committee.
Similar pressure was exerted by civil society, which mobilized national and international opinion, when 106 Malaysians from a wide spectrum of society were detained under the ISA on dubious grounds. It was this collective pressure that forced the hand of the government to finally release all of them. Aliran Monthly, which covered this episode and subsequent developments, remains today as an important source of reference of that shameful period. It continues to provide space for civil society views that are not heard elsewhere.
Civil society’s role in challenging the might of the ruling coalition when Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from government, detained and tried on what were believed to be trumped up charges was yet another important milestone in the struggle for justice, truth and freedom.
In the 1990s, civil society groups gradually coalesced in over-lapping coalitions on specific issues, harnessing their respective strengths into a collective force. Not only do they continue to campaign against oppressive laws such as the ISA, OSA, and the PPPA, they are increasingly concerned about issues that have arisen as a result of neo-liberal globalisation and the margin-alisation of communities. Coalitions have been formed to campaign against health care and water privatisation and to empower marginalised communities. Anti-war coalitions regularly protest against militarism and imperialism especially in the Middle East.
In June this year, the bonds of solidarity were further strengthened when 25 groups in Penang came together to celebrate their common struggle for justice and freedom in a unique event, Pesta Rakyat Merdeka. The Pesta, which highlighted the people’s aspirations for a more compassionate and just society, was held to mark 50 years of Independence and 44 years of Malaysia.
The struggle will continue till victory and justice is finally achieved. It must be acknowledged that it is civil society’s stand on many issues that has checked the excesses of the state, which has had to account for its actions and decisions. Without these civil society groups, the state would have ridden roughshod over the rights of its citizens. If not for them, the perimeters of our freedom would have collapsed on us – for it is these groups that have been at the vanguard of protecting our freedom and furthering our rights.
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