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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #65

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Civil Society

The concept of the civil society—the space between self and state where citizens voluntarily come together for the pursuit of personal fulfillment and the common good—is universal. It is not merely a social construct of the modern secular West, as many in the Third World would like us to believe. Nor are the aspirations and ideals implicit in that concept suited only to citizens of Western democracies, as many in the West believe, with the rest being unworthy recipients.

While the concept may be universal, its content varies with cultures. As what we view as self and state varies, there must necessarily be variations in the definition and content of the civil society. In the West, self is essentially the individual and his or her nuclear family. As for the state, it derives its authority from the people, “Government of, by, and for the people.” In many parts of the world self refers to the full extended family, often the entire clan or tribe, and the state is viewed as deriving its authority from a higher source, “The Mandate from Heaven” for the Chinese emperor, and daulat or divine dispensation for Malay sultans, or directly from Allah as in an Islamic theocracy.

As various cultures look upon self and state differently, the defining characteristics of their civil society must necessarily vary.23 This caveat is necessary lest we get fixated on terminology and expect grapefruits to grow on vines simply because of terminology.

I discern four variants of civil society in Malaysia: the traditional, pseudo, modern, and Islamic. The first two are minor players; my focus is the modern civil society, and its Islamic variant.

I grew up in a feudal Malay society, albeit one that was rapidly modernizing. Civil society was not supposed to exist in such a setting. Yet I remember villagers getting together voluntarily to set up an English school, a communal catering group, and to cultivate rice fields belonging to disabled members of the community. Such gotong royong or communal self-help groups are the hallmark of traditional Malay society. The Chinese too have their clan organizations; likewise the Indians. Operationally they all have features of civil society: voluntary, bottom-up organizations, and beyond the purview of the state.

The reason such a civil society existed in feudal Malay society was that the state, despite its seemingly formal structure of rulers and ministers, had in reality no effective power. Those ministers and other officials were essentially royal courtiers, not administrators. In the words of Clifford Geertz, the Malay Negara was a theater state, with little resemblance to the modern political state. Court and state officials were merely playing their role, as in a sandiwara or theater.

With the penchant of many newly independent nations for big governments, many of the activities of these traditional civil societies were taken over by the state. A few remained, to champion such issues as language and cultural rights. These traditional civil societies had limited reach, rarely extending beyond the village, clan, or ethnic group.

With globalization, many Western institutions including civil society are grafted onto the local social landscape. Often these native versions bear only the superficial trappings of Western civil society, for in dynamics and structure they are nothing more than extensions of the state. Participation is far from voluntary, and they are strictly top-down organizations. They are invariably headed by aspiring or has-been politicians, or members of the royalty seeking yet another title. Ostensibly registered as “non governmental organizations” (NGOs), they all have lofty “do good” mission statements. In reality they are propaganda arms of the state or instruments to advance the careers of their leaders; hence my label of pseudo civil society.

These organizations often receive generous governmental funding, at least those compliant with and supportive of the existing order. Being top-down organizations, their existence depends entirely on their leaders. If they fall out of favor, so too would the organization.

A prime example is masyarakat madani. Madani derives from the Arabic word madaniah, meaning civilized. Masyarakat madani actually means civilized society, with the emphasis on civilized or civility, a slightly different shade in meaning, but in its current usage, it is the Malay version of civil society. The man behind the movement was former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. It was an instrument more for his personal political advancement. With his disgrace, the movement fell apart.

The true modern civil society has a long history in Malaysia. During the benign neglect of colonial rule, civil society of both secular and religious variety flourished. The phenomenon no doubt had the enlightened approval if not tacit encouragement of the colonial government. Many of the Malay-based ones later formed the backbone of the now ruling party, UMNO. Civil society then was, not surprisingly, consumed with nationalism and the independence movement.

The colonialists, behaving like other state powers, successfully influenced some of these organizations such that their members were agitating for Malaysia to remain a colony!

Come independence, there was a lull in the activities of civil society as citizens viewed their domestic government as part of themselves. With the increasing dominance and intrusion of the state typical of many newly independent countries, civil society began once again emerging, tentatively at first because of the repression from the state.

With globalization, transnational or global civil societies find a ready soil in Malaysia, especially those dealing with human rights, environment, and clean government. Many are so effective that they have become millstones around the administration.

Perversely, the government’s very policies encouraged the development of these local chapters of global civil societies, in particular, the push towards urbanization, free enterprise, and foreign trade. Malaysia’s healthy economy elevated many into the middle class, enabling them to benefit from modern education abroad. In the process, they aspire to the same goals of these global civil societies. Unlike the pseudo variety, these transplanted global civil societies remain true to their founding ideals and dynamics in being voluntary, foregoing state funding, and having a bottom-up structure. Their leaders often are distinguished Malaysians who have been educated abroad and had absorbed those same ideals. A prime example is Transparency International, headed by Tunku Abdul Aziz. It remains an effective critic of official corruption.

Other influential groups include those associated with environmental issues, like Friends of the Earth (Sahabat Alam). They have effectively blocked the construction of the highway along the crest of the Main Range, and Penang’s outer ring road.

The government is aware of the increasing influence of the modern civil society. As Prime Minister, Mahathir in his usual confrontational mode tried to discredit its members by labeling them as stooges intent on aping the ways of the West. His successor Abdullah is using the velvet-glove approach by co-opting the leaders. He recently appointed Transparency International’s Tunku Aziz to the Police Royal Commission.

Global civil society also stimulates the formation of homegrown institutions. The Consumer Association is an effective watchdog against government and corporate excesses, akin to America’s Consumers Union. Another is Aliran, a reform movement dedicated to “justice, freedom and solidarity.” Its monthly publication is a refreshing antidote to the puerile products of the mainstream media. There are others concerned with peace, rights of indigenous people and immigrants, and women’s rights.

A feature of these organizations is that they are, like their counterparts in the West, bottom-up in structure, independent of the state, transcend geography and ethnicity, and led by outward-looking Malaysians wise in the ways of the modern world.

Next: Islamic Civil Society

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