During last year’s budget debate, I started by asking the Finance Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to do two things to demonstrate that the government is fully behind him in the commitment to promote a civil society, especially as he remains the sole Cabinet Minister who is talking about a “civil society” - and even the Prime Minister had admitted at the recent UMNO General Assembly of not understanding this concept.
In a civil society, apart from the “public sphere” of government institutions, there is a greater role for the “private sphere” where the “third sector” of voluntary organisations and independent associations can play an effective role to strengthen free, democratic, accountable and transparent institutions in the country.
I commend Anwar for acting in this budget on my first proposal, that the government give full recognition and respect to the NGOs in Malaysia and set aside at least RM20 million allocation a year to help fund the activities of the Malaysian NGOs.
Anwar has allocated RM50 million to acknowledge “the strategic role that NGOs play in keeping the spirit of justice alive and instilling a sense of care within the community”, including a sum of RM10 million to the Malaysian AIDS Foundation and RM5 million to the Malaysian National Cancer Society.
There are some 22,000 NGOs in the country, and there should be a fair and independent mechanism for the disbursement of the RM35 million to the NGOs, which should be on a strictly no-strings-attached basis, as the Government must acknowledge and respect that there may be divergence of opinion between the Government and NGOs as to the definition of “justice” which should be upheld - which is what a vibrant civil society is all about.
My second proposal in my budget speech last year for the government to promote the culture of accountability and transparency which is the sine qua non for the development of a vibrant civil society by withdrawing the criminal charges against a NGO leader, Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez, had however fallen on deaf ears.
It is still not too late for the government to withdraw all charges against Irene Fernandez to send a clear message that it is serious in wanting to promote the development of a civil society in Malaysia.