WAN Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive officer of Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), made a very pertinent point when he addressed the Malaysian Administrative and Diplomatic Service Alumni International Conference in Kuala Lumpur recently.
He said to the audience of mostly retired and serving civil servants, that in formulating government policies and programmes, ministers and their civil service officials should be more willing to engage with civil society and not regard non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as enemies or opponents of the government, simply because they raise issues which are politically sensitive to the ruling coalition or which are critical of the leaders. He said politicians should not be too hasty to label NGOs as acting against national interests just because their views happen to coincide with the political opposition here or with international agencies.
I agree with his views that NGOs are a useful resource that can provide a channel for ministers and civil servants to tap into for feedback on government policies.
The fact that some NGOs may receive foreign funding should not be held against them but should be accepted as a legitimate practice like in developed countries, provided they are transparent about their sources of funding. There should be a full disclosure requirement, made applicable to all civil society groups, so that the public can make their own decision whether they want to support certain NGOs. This disclosure is standard practice in advanced countries.
It is well known that there are individuals and private foundations in the world, and I believe in this country, too, who donate their vast wealth to civil society movements to help finance their advocacy work on environmental protection, transparency and integrity in government, electoral reforms, human rights and women’s rights, exploitation of children, etc.
Such donors believe that much of the political and social problems in the Third World should be addressed by empowering local activists to fight for fairness and justice in their own countries, rather than the big powers or international institutions intervening from outside. These philanthropists believe that voluntary organisations can do a far better job of delivering results in improving the lives of people because they are motivated by the noble spirit of public service.
Government officials have to stop jumping to conclusions that NGOs that work with international support and advocate democracy and human rights issues, are automatically suspect in terms of their agenda and allegiance.
I hope government servants will change their mindset and be more cooperative and supportive of civil society movements, mindful that those who give their time and energy to these movements are patriots who want to see their country become better in its political, economic, social and human development.
We should realise that the government is not the sole repository of good ideas. There are a lot of clever and dedicated people out there, too. They can be of great help to civil servants who know how to approach them nicely.