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NGO activists and political opportunism

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The only standard operating procedure NGO activists should bear in mind is that, when they venture into the political arena, they should resign from their posts in the movement or NGO as a matter of course, says Kua Kia Soong.

A Himpunan Hijau protest in Kuantan against the Lynas rare earth refinery
A Himpunan Hijau protest in Kuantan against the Lynas rare earth refinery

Wong Tack’s decision to enter the political arena under the DAP banner should be respected. I did the same in 1990 with 25 other civil rights activists. There is, however, one important difference.

Our then leader Mr Lim Fong Seng was the Chairman of Dong Zong. He was also the de facto leader of the civil rights movement. When we decided to enter the political arena, he resigned his post in Dong Zong forthwith and so did the rest of us from our posts in the civil rights movement.

The point we were making was clear. We would be taking civil rights issues into the political arena but the civil rights movement must go on as before as a non-partisan movement, ready to defend civil rights whichever political coalition is in power. This was our declaration at the “818 Democratic Uprising” on 18 August 1990:

…While we have taken this political road, we would like to reaffirm the important role that pressure groups and NGOs have to play in a democratic society for ultimately, the particular pressure group knows best and will be prepared to fight for the issue at hand. Thus, the women’s movement is spearheading the struggle for women’s rights, the civil rights movement does the same for our civil rights, the unions champion workers’ rights, etc….We hope the community will continue to press for the democratic demands and promote inter-cultural understanding based on mutual respect and common values. (Kua Kia Soong, ‘The Malaysian Civil Rights Movement’, SIRD 2005: 98)

Any movement or NGO has to be non-partisan

Political parties and politicians can twist and turn, come and go but movements such as the workers’ movement, women’s movement, civil rights movement and the green movement must go on forever. Politicians like to spout the platitude that “politics is the art of the possible” but movements must bear pressure on them to make their demands possible.

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Now, before Wong Tack has even started his career as a politician, he is already faced with his first dilemma. The Pakatan Rakyat de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim has demonstrated the “art of the possible” by declaring that if PR comes into power, Lynas will be given a chance to prove the plant’s safety. This is a far cry from PR’s previous declaration that they would close the plant down if they come into power and Wong Tack himself vowing to burn the damned plant down himself!

Wong Tack has since backtracked but we have not heard the stand by the Himpunan Hijau committee. Is it because they are so caught up with the political hoopla they have also stepped down a notch from their previous uncompromising stand? It is time they found their own voice now that their erstwhile chairperson has gone on to pursue his political career.

More turbulence ahead for green movement

The wave of activism and awareness about green issues in recent months has been unprecedented and that is a tribute to Himpunan Hijau’s efforts in opposing the noxious Lynas plant at Kuantan. It has linked up to the struggles at Bukit Koman, Pengerang and even the uplands of Sarawak. However, the need for a non-partisan movement is underscored by the political values of both BN and PR to suck up to multinational corporations and the big developers in their race to see which administration can attract more investors. This is fatal to the green movement. Thus, we see the readiness to compromise with Lynas. Then there will the decision about the other toxic industries to be seduced to take up the excess energy from the mega dams in Sarawak. Will the “art of the possible” also result in PR accommodating these other mega dams?

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PR has so far not only failed to tell us their defence policy, they have also not elaborated on a sustainable energy policy apart from withdrawing subsidies to the IPPs. These have grave consequences for the green movement.

Then, instead of waiting for a PR takeover of the federal government before implementing people-centred public transport system in Penang, the state government there has gone ahead and signed the contract for the tunnel project and more highways for the island. They have tried to justify this by saying that they do not want to be a “do nothing” administration. If that is the case, their role model must surely be Dr Mahathir they have ravaged all these years.

Furthermore, the green movement has to take up the issue of gross deforestation by the Kelantan and Kedah state governments besides the abuse of our forest lands by the BN government. The movement can only do its work if it is non-partisan.

And talking about land, the green movement has to bear in mind that the recognition and protection of Orang Asli customary land rights is part of their concern if they are truly committed to a green agenda. While the BN government has been tardy in protecting Orang Asli land rights, PR’s Buku Jingga and election manifesto are also silent on the Orang Asli land rights. Meanwhile, the Orang Asli are fighting a court battle against the Kelantan state government over their land rights.

Watch out! The rich are bankrolling both coalitions!

The root of the problem is, the rich and super-rich are smarter than you think. Ever since the political tsunami of 2008, they have been backing both horses, the BN and PR. Thus, apart from getting their mega projects approved in BN-run states, they are also feted in the PR-run states for both coalitions are committed to neoliberal policies and bending over backwards to attract investments so that they can boast that they are more “investor-friendly”! The rich are laughing all the way to the bank…

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Thus, notice that both coalitions do not have any progressive fiscal policy to finance people-friendly public projects such as housing, health, transport and other social policies. Just look at elections in the developed countries – there contending political parties’ fiscal policies are the bone of contention. Parties have to tell us where the revenue is coming from and not fling goodies and freebies at us without justifying where the revenue is coming from. Furthermore, can PR tell us if they are going to buy those Typhoons from BAE costing more than RM5bn if they come into power? Are we purchasing any more submarines? Can these be cut so that we have more money to spend on education, transport and other public expenditure? How much defence expenditure are they going to cut?

It’s amazing – in the most capitalist country in the world, viz. the US, Obama is prepared to tax the rich. Even Warren Buffet, one of the richest people in the US, feels the rich should be taxed at a higher marginal rate than the rest of us. But in our country, the rich carry on as usual, whichever coalition is in power!

SOP for NGO activists

Wong Tack is certainly not the first NGO activist to go into the political arena. Ever since the political tsunami in 2008, many NGO activists have been seduced into the glamorous career in government while other lean and hungry YB wannabes are hopefully biding their time.

I say good luck to them. The only standard operating procedure they should bear in mind is that, when they venture into the political arena, they should resign from their posts in the movement or NGO as a matter of course.

Dr Kua Kia Soong is the adviser of the human rights group Suaram.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Ong Eu Soon
17 Mar 2013 4.09pm

Who is the political opportunist that sold Penangites to a developer at a price of rm250,000 in order to defeat us in our fight against hill slope development?

semuanya OK kot
semuanya OK kot
15 Mar 2013 4.30pm

Where does nuclear energy and nuclear meddling lead? Is it green? Today, the US NRC is trying to permit the sale of “lightly” contaminated metals – 1000s of tonnes of it – to recyclers. That means it will end up in almost any manufactured object. Our own victims of the rare earth industry have been forgotten. Cutting corners for more profit is inherent in capitalism.

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