Rita Sim is co-founder of the Centre for Strategic Engagement DIVERSITY OF ISSUES: There has to be a clear separation between both realms if we want to uphold democracy ANYONE who argues that Malaysia is not a democratic country need only look at our civil society to be persuaded otherwise.
Civil society is the cornerstone of democracy, as it represents the interests and the will of citizens, independent of the government and private sector.
Malaysia's civil society is a thriving one, showing enormous diversity and commitment to issues that affect everyone, from the majority to the minority. Many of these civil society organisations are a powerful influence on government policies, business practices and public attitudes.
The biggest civil society movement that Malaysia has seen in recent times is Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. The 15 members of the Bersih steering committee represent various interests of civil society and its 84 endorsees are civil society groups and non-governmental organisations ranging from the wellknown, such as Women's Aid Organisation (WAO), Sisters In Islam and Tenaganita to some unheard-of names like the Anwar Ibrahim Club and Sembang-Sembang Forum.
One of the accusations levelled at Bersih is that it is not as non-partisan as it claims to be. Some say that Bersih's cause has been hijacked by Pakatan Rakyat, while others even believe that Bersih is just a front for opposition politicians.
Bersih is not the only civil society group to fall into this political trap. Many other NGOs have become increasingly politicised, either in subtle or overt ways, in their efforts to further their cause. On one extreme, there are groups like Perkasa, which is fronted by politicians and has been behaving like a political party from the outset. Under a thinly disguised veil of civil activism, Perkasa lobbies for the government to protect Malay interests.
Just as guilty are NGOs which have been serving public interests for a long time, but have gradually begun practising their own form of left-wing politics.
The United Chinese School Committees Association (Dong Zong) is one name that comes to mind. Recently, Dong Zong had openly vilified the government and MCA over Chinese education issues, burned its bridges with the Education Ministry and aligned itself with DAP.
The anti-Lynas groups that oppose Lynas Corporation's rare earth plant in Gebeng, Kuantan, also tread a thin line between politics and civil action. The vocal and active leadership of Parti Keadilan Rakyat's Fuziah Salleh in the early days of the anti-Lynas movement stamped partisanship all over the issue.
This has since led to groups like Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas and Himpunan Hijau making anti-establishment statements and participating in the Bersih 3.0 rally that was not directly related to their cause.
In fact, the Bersih 3.0 rally seemed to be the bandwagon for all NGOs to jump on and be heard. How else can one explain the role of women's rights groups like WAO and SIS in a coalition advocating for electoral reform?
It is not unusual for civil activism to overlap with politics. Many politicians have roots in civil society, such as PKR's Elizabeth Wong and MCA's Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen, who chose to fight for their ideals under a political banner.
But there has to be a clear separation between both spaces. The role of civil society is to demand political action, accountability and better governance, and they can only do that from an impartial standpoint.
Once civil society enters politics (or allows itself to be infiltrated by politicians), it is betraying the people's interests and exposing its weaknesses.
In the history of the Chinese revolution, there was only one Long March. One has to ask whether Bersih has failed, as it had to call for three marches to back up its cause.
And the parting question is: is Bersih's failure symptomatic of a regressive civil society in Malaysia? What is the impact on those who are genuinely trying to uphold Malaysia's democracy.