Partners in nation-building – Enizahura Abdul Aziz

Source: The Star Online


Government and civil society make the best collaborators when it comes to development.

THE 11th Malaysia Plan announced recently by the Government marks another important milestone for Malaysia’s pathway towards successful development by 2020.

As the plan highlights the message of inclusivity and engaging the people of Malaysia in achieving its goals, one important sector that needs to be strategically incorporated is civil society which is emerging as the “third sector” of society, separate from government and business.

The term civil society refers to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations in public life. They express the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are essentially the so-called “intermediary institutions” such as professional associations, religious groups, labour unions and citizen advocacy organisations where people associate with to advance their common interests and enrich public participation in democracies.

In short, the realm of civil society is the bridge between the state and the people. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), labour leaders, faith-based organisations, religious leaders and other civil society representatives play a critical and diverse set of roles in societal development.

Civil society’s role as bridge builders must be seen in a positive light, especially by governments. They work to provide the Government with the reality of the conditions affecting the grassroots.

With the bureaucratic nature of governments, the public often turns to other entities that understand them and can provide them with the needed answers, although not solutions, to their concerns.

Governments must accept the fact that their machineries are insufficient to reach the grassroots at all levels. Governments can therefore take advantage of the networks that CSOs have established to fulfil their obligations as responsible and accountable governments.

To realise this goal, governments and CSOs must be willing to take up a strategic alliance, an evolving process where both actors gradually come to identify the points of consensus and priorities for common actions.

Clashes of ideas and expectations exist between the two entities. Sometimes these opposing viewpoints and approaches are seen as the reasons behind the perceived cold relationship.

Establishing mutual trust and a culture of cooperation in order to shape policies and concrete initiatives for the well-being of society is a complex and long-term goal. There is a strong need for further capacity-building and awareness-raising, as well as for a change of mindset on both sides.

As for CSOs, they need to be sincere about the struggle. Civil society is often seen as an increasingly important agent for promoting good governance practices such as transparency, effectiveness, openness, responsiveness and accountability.

In promoting all of these qualities, they must adopt a kind of proactive engagement to ensure that their goals can be achieved. A specific challenge that is emerging at present for civil society leadership is to balance the new-found roles as facilitator, enabler and constructive challenger towards other groups in society, while becoming accustomed to the rapidly shifting milieu of a technology-driven and changing world.

The kind of approach taken by CSOs should not just be in constant opposition towards all measures taken by governments, especially legitimate democratic governments. Providing positive criticisms, alternative viewpoints and multiple possible solutions must be the among the means that CSOs adopt in engaging with this form of governments.

The leadership of CSOs, in particular, must understand that they are bridge builders and not trench diggers in managing the relationship between the state and the general public.

To be fair, any government of the day would take the needed actions to ensure that the people’s interests are rightfully represented and the nation’s stability is protected. Hence, any structure of regulatory framework that works around the relationship between state and these organisations needs to be objectively understood.

Rules and regulations are meant to work as a mechanism of guaranteeing justice and fairness for all. Interestingly, the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, also stressed that the natural necessity of human social organisation requires a restraining influence in order to maintain social unity among the members of the society and prevent aggressiveness and injustice between them.

In his magnum opus, Muqadimmah, he also argues that solidarity and co-operation is a prerequisite for the well-being of a civilisation.

Civilisation is built by not just the single strength of the ruler or government, but by the cohesion that exists as a forceful bond between all groups in the society.

Like many other democratic nations in the world today, Malaysia also needs to forge this kind of dynamic relationship between the state and civil society organisations. The Government must realise that now is no longer the time when “government knows everything”.

The Government needs partners for development and nation-building, and so the best partner now should come from the grassroots.

The Government should engage strategically with the groups that are close to them and understand them the most.

Enizahura Abdul Aziz is Senior Research Officer with Ikim’s Centre for The Study of Syariah, Law and Politics. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.



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