Report was first published at www.wmd.org/projects/defending-civil-society/country-reports, by the World Movement for Democracy and the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL
The report outlines the legal framework and environment governing civil society organisations (CSOs) in Malaysia. CSOs in Malaysia enjoy a fair bit of latitude in terms of the legal environment in which it operates. Legal provisions with regard to the establishment, registration and reporting requirements are clear, with no onerous stipulations. Minor improvements (in the legal framework) are required, for example, the problem of lengthy time taken to register a society and the statutory power available to the Executive, to revoke certificate of incorporation and involuntary dissolution.
What CSOs have to contend with in Malaysia, is the limitations caused either by oppressive laws, self-censorship or preferential treatment accorded to selected CSOs. To a certain extent, CSOs are able to champion unpopular causes and criticise the government, but they may face threats or intimidation thereafter. As a result, what we see today is that CSOs are less vocal in advancing rights compared to its predecessors in the 1970s. This is due to the climate of fear and the chilling effect of oppressive laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, Internal Security Act 1960 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998; there is great potential for these laws to be used to censor CSOs, considering a lot of the advocacy material are placed online for affordability purposes.
Avenues for CSOs to express themselves have also been limited by intolerance on internet discourse and the threat of possible non-renewal of printing permits. CSOs are thus not able to disseminate information on a regular basis and some have practiced self-censorship. Additionally, CSOs do not have an independent redress mechanism when its space is threatened, as the independence of the judiciary is questionable.
Aside from draconian laws, the role of CSOs in Malaysia is characterised by patronage and the type of cause taken up. CSOs that are associated with the government (or perceived to be linked) enjoy greater political support and latitude in carrying out activities. CSOs critical of the government or those merely advocating change of the status quo are seen as anti-government and its recommendations often ignored. As such, many CSOs gravitate towards awareness raising activities and ‘safe’ issues, such as women’s rights, HIV/AIDS, and socioeconomic empowerment, which allow them to gain government support.
With the recent democratic developments in the Middle East, of the rise of civil society movements and of the people, it remains to be seen whether the government will continue to control civil society as a knee-jerk reaction; or whether the events of the Middle East will serve as a reminder that an environment, which allows civil society and the people to flourish and where the government is open, transparent and accountable, are mandatory foundations of a strong country, sustainable development and thriving democracy.
For the full report, please click here.