A new civil society-political relationship?

First published in theSun on 1 March 2018 here.

OVER the last few weeks, speculation has been rife that several prominent civil society leaders will be making the leap into active politics.

This was first prompted by Wan Saiful Wan Jan’s announcement that he is leaving the independent think tank IDEAS, which has led to rumours that he will join a political party in order to contest in the upcoming general election. Other bigwigs rumoured to jump into the fray include Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan and Maria Chin Abdullah, both of Bersih 2.0 renown.

This is not a new phenomenon, in which members of civil society feel compelled to join frontline politics.

In 2008, many prominent individuals similarly left civil society to contest, and subsequently win, as elected representatives. These included the likes of Elizabeth Wong (now Selangor state executive council member) and Sivarasa Rasiah (now Subang member of Parliament), both of whom were regular faces in the human rights and activism scene.

It is not an altogether unsurprising phenomenon either, since those who are actively involved in advocating fundamental rights and improving political democracy in the country would also be the same individuals who feel that they may be able to do more given a strong political platform.

Of course, it is debatable as to which platform offers one the bigger, better opportunity to do more good and ignite change – within neutral civil society or partisan political ground. The answer is that individuals within both these spheres play an equally important role.

The position occupied by civil society is crucial in keeping politicians in check, whether in power or in opposition. Non-partisan organisations are able to constructively criticise where criticism is due, observe, monitor and report on areas they believe politicians are failing in, especially in relation to their constituents’ interests.

Good governance, transparency, and integrity are some of the commonly held principles that civil society tends to hold their representatives accountable to.

This is an important space to maintain, such that the independence and credibility of the civil society organisation in question is not compromised.

In fact, these were some of the debates that took place within civil society in the years following the 2008 event, in which individuals who joined the then opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat would have naturally had a close relationship with existing human rights and civil society organisations. To what extent can this distance be maintained?

Or in fact, should there be such a distance at all, since if civil society’s primary role is to advocate a certain cause, and by ensuring individuals within the political corridors of power are kept well-informed, this allows for the greatest possible change?

For example, within the first term of the Pakatan government in Selangor, it was possible for the Coalition of Good Governance – a coalition of civil society organisations – to advocate for a Freedom of Information Enactment to be legislated within the Selangor state government, made relatively easier by the presence of Elizabeth Wong. This was the first such state enactment to have been passed, eventually followed by the Penang state government, and is still considered a landmark piece of legislation today.

However, there were also failures where efforts to push for local council elections were in vain as the opposition coalition dealt with internal differences as to whether that was the right way forward. As with many things, the answer probably depends.

In this case, the proximity of civil society and politics depends on the nature of the relationship being cultivated and the actors involved.

It would be considerably negative if the relationship resulted in cronyism for the sake of lucrative exchange of contracts, or if civil society chooses to remain silent on the dubious wrongful actions of politicians in positions of power.

However, it would be positive if the objective of the relationship is to ensure that public policy reform is achieved. If both parties are actively working towards better governance, then this close relationship can be encouraged.

However, one important caveat to note is that once individuals join politics, it is often that their interests change rapidly.

First, they are obliged to follow a certain political position, which may at times be contrary to the individual’s own. One now needs to act and speak on behalf of the party collective as opposed to the individual per se.

Second, the motivations are also fundamentally different. Where in civil society, the motives can still be arguably said to remain uninfluenced by power, in politics one is invariably incentivised by power – after all, to gain power is the very domain of being in politics. If not, one is in no position to institute change. And if that is so, then those contesting to win are influenced by the extent to which their voters will support them, which requires providing populist promises most of the time.

Therein lies the dilemma for those in politics; to compromise one’s own values or not, if at all. There are those fortunate few who do not need to compromise on their belief systems, but this is rare and would apply where one’s position, both in the party and electorally, is absolutely secure.

On a final note, it is positive that individuals with the breadth and depth of experience in civil society are choosing to play an even more active role in public life through politics since they would be well-positioned to understand the grave problems our country is going through.

They would also be more sympathetic and open to receiving proposals from civil society in improving socioeconomic and government policy, which is promising for long-term reform should they obtain and maintain prominence.

However, it is also equally imperative that civil society itself regroups – as it had to do after the 12th general election in 2008 – and reconsiders its own leadership gaps. Civil society will always play that sometimes annoying, but irreplaceable role of public watchdog.

In order to maintain the success that existing organisations like IDEAS and Bersih, among others, have played in the last decade as pressure groups, it is hoped that new leadership emerges and carries on the torch for the next phase in what will likely be a new civil society-political relationship.

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