by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 30 September 2014

The Administration and Diplomatic Officers (Pegawai Tadbir dan Diplomatik, PTD) Alumni Association held their international conference on 9th and 10th September in Kuala Lumpur.

PTD officers are the pillar of Malaysian civil service. Not everyone in the civil service belongs to the PTD category and usually many top government posts, in Malaysia and abroad, are held by PTD officers.

The PTD traces its history all the way back to the 1800s, when British colonisation started in Malaya. Their official name has evolved through time, and the name “Pegawai Tadbir dan Diplomatik” was only officially introduced in 1972. But their role has remained the same. They are leaders among civil servants and they take charge at strategic levels.

The PTD Alumni Association brings together former PTD officers, acting as a platform to enable them to provide inputs to the government of the day. This year their international conference was themed “Transformational Leadership in Malaysia”.

Speakers include former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Chairman of PLUS Malaysia Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim Chairman, former head of UNDP Malaysia Datuk Richard Leete, and Sunway Group’s Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah.

It was rather daunting when I received their invitation to speak in a session just before Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Ali Hamsa delivered his address. But I thought it would be a good opportunity to bring a civil society perspective to this audience so I took up the challenge.

I argued that the government should partner with civil society rather than see them as the “other side’.

It is difficult to deny that civil society in Malaysia is divided among partisan lines. This is especially true when it comes to NGOs that are more “activist” in their work.

For example, it is generally viewed that groups like Bersih and Negaraku belongs to the anti-BN side, while Perkasa and ISMA are more on the UMNO side. In reality this may or may not be true. But that is how these groups are perceived by many.

The nature of relationship between civil society and government varies. There are some who are seen as being subservient to the government, while others are antagonistic.

So while some civil society actors may be perceived as having chosen side, they are not necessarily blind supporters of that side. In fact, they can also play important roles to shape and mould – through support and opposition – the sides that they are closer to.

For those in government, I think it is really important that they pursue a healthy relationship with groups that can be their “critical friends”. These are entities that may take an opposing view on certain government policies, but their arguments are not mere rhetoric.

They know what they are talking about and they give reasoned critical views. For example, Transparency International is a known globally as an advocate for greater accountability and integrity. Their Malaysian chapter plays a vital role to further that cause here.

Similarly, the Bar Council brings together the knowledge of thousands of lawyers and legal experts. Their top leaders know our laws inside.

Organisations like these may be critical of certain government policies, but their criticisms cannot be dismissed lightly because they speak with the authority of knowledge.

My main proposal at the conference was that the engagement with civil society should be institutionalised, especially with those who can act as critical friends of the government.

In fact, 64 countries around the world has already taken steps to bring civil society into the effort to improve government performance, encourage civic participation and enhance government responsiveness to the people. These countries have signed up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a global platform that allows the government and civil society to work hand in hand towards transformation.

The OGP was launched in 2011 with just eight countries. Within a short time it has grown to 65 countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Tunisia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Adopting the OGP would change the nature of relationship between government and civil society in Malaysia. Both parties will work together to develop a national action plan, and they will partner each other to monitor the implementation too. The OGP presents an opportunity for us to create a more synergistic relationship between government and civil society, while allowing civil society to retain their independence.

In order to be part of this global community, we have to work in four areas – fiscal transparency, access to information, disclosures related to elected and senior public officials, and citizen engagement. The Malaysian government is already doing well in most of these areas. Signing up would not be an arduous task.

Our main hurdle at the moment is the rather low level of awareness about the OGP. Not many people in government or in civil society know about it yet. That is why IDEAS is hosting a national seminar on the OGP on Monday 13 October 2014, featuring former UK Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short as a keynote speaker. Hopefully that can be our small contribution towards creating a healthier partnership between government and civil society. If you would like to attend, please see our website (www.ideas.org.my) for further information.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, Malaysia.

Image credit: internationalbudget.org

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