by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun 25 September 2014

AN Asian civil society summit I attended in Jakarta recently discussed the often times tenuous relationship between government and civil society in countries within the region.

Civil society in many of our neighbouring countries face great challenges. Lack of funding, accusations of being anti-nationalist, or worse, anti-government, imprisonment and sexual harassment were some examples cited by colleagues from India, Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere.

Throughout the two days of discussing the governance of civil society, what became clear though was that all participants agreed there ought to be a more enabling environment to create a safer space for civil society to operate in. With greater freedom to push for more open, transparent and accountable government, this would ultimately allow for improved public service delivery.

The Indonesian example may be useful to cite in this instance, where there is an official government policy to encourage civil society to engage with them through partnerships, and have even set up a “democracy trust fund” to strengthen civil society organisations. On this count, the government itself has demonstrated its willingness to support civil society in building its capacity.

One of the more brilliant examples was a mobile application developed by the government itself, called “Lapor” (Report), which allows citizens to submit reports of any public nature, accompanied with photos or documents, using their hand phones. The receiving government office would then forward the report on to the relevant agency or ministry in charge of the complaint, to take immediate action.

While this is certainly encouraging, there is also a unique balance that civil society must strive to maintain in its relationship with government: being able to contribute to participatory decision-making requires a level of partnership with government (whether local, state or federal), but at the same time there ought to be a reasonable distance away from government such that the organisations are still deemed as independent and not co-opted into the agenda of government itself.

In fact, one question raised during the event was whether or not the government should make it compulsory for civil society organisations to register officially.

In some cases, governments can wield their powers in requiring NGOs to register, and by so doing, set up high barriers to entry in the “civil society marketplace”, regulating them strictly and in the worst case, controlling them. In which case, it is far better not to require societies and NGOs to register. Should people not be free to set up organisations without being officially registered and regulated?

Back home, the Registrar of Societies (ROS) has called up several steering committee members of Negara-Ku, a national unity movement whose charter has been endorsed by more than 80 NGOs, for questioning.

Among the questions asked is why there has been no application for the movement to be registered. Apparently, in Malaysia, your organisation can be called up by the ROS for questioning whether or not you are registered.

And this is just one example in a slew of a recent clampdown by the administration, which seems to be targeted to repress freedom of expression. In recent weeks, more than 20 individuals have been hauled up under the Sedition Act, the latest of whom has been sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. NGOs have responded by launching an “Abolish the Sedition Act” movement.

This is all to be expected from civil society in Malaysia. There will be movements, and there will be marches, peaceful protests, or demonstrations, call it what you wish. This is all part and parcel of activism, in Malaysia or anywhere else in the world.

The very nature of non-governmental organisations is that they represent the interests of the non-governmental individuals and stakeholders, and many (if not all) times this may be in direct conflict with the opinions of the powers that be.

The difference lies in how government chooses to react.

As I sat back to listen to the Indonesian President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight (UKP4, which is similar in set-up to Pemandu in Malaysia) wax lyrical about civic engagement, open online platforms, and the need for citizen participation through technology and innovation, I could not help but wonder whether this sort of language would one day arrive at the doorsteps of our bureaucracy.

The reverse seems to be happening on our shores. There is a widening gap between the government and civil society, or at least one segment of civil society. Is it possible for this gap to narrow?

What set the groundwork for Indonesia’s eventual adoption of the Open Government Partnership – a government-led initiative and commitment to openness – was the enacting of the Freedom of Information Act. This is one step that our government could consider if it wants to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability.

But before that, government officials, ministers, and civil servants must be encouraged to eventually step out of their comfort zones, stop viewing civil society as an evil force, and learn to engage them for their own benefit. In the long run, this is the only scenario that would result in a better quality of life for us all.

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Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of IDEAS

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