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NOVEMBER 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Chris Stowers for Asiaweek.
Arumugam (left )and Wong.

A New Type of Activism
The post-Anwar era gives rise to lobby groups
By SANTHA OORJITHAM Kuala Lumpur

On any given day when lawmakers are in session, you are likely to find Wong Chin Huat somewhere in the vicinity of the Kuala Lumpur Parliament building. He usually arrives early in the morning, has breakfast in the Parliament cafeteria, obtains the day's schedule and heads for the public gallery. He watches the proceedings, taking notes on which issues are raised and how the bills are tabled and passed. During breaks, he talks to legislators in the lobby and in the cafeteria. Wong thinks the legislating process could use improvements. For one thing, bills are sometimes passed with barely any discussion or amendments — he timed one and found that it clocked in at 55 seconds. "Who is legislating?" he asks. "Not the MPs but the attorney-general's chambers and the ministries."

Wong is not a young would-be legislator trying to get a head start in his political career. Nor is he a member of a study group from abroad inspecting Malaysian democracy. He is a lobbyist, one of a new breed of activists in a country where political lobbying is still a novelty. Wong belongs to the Malaysian Chinese Organizations Appeals Committee, called Suqiu in Chinese, which is fighting for everything from electoral reform to workers' rights. It is one of a number of pioneering citizens' groups that were formed last year to further various minority and democratic agendas. Each launched a manifesto, asked legislators to commit themselves and followed up with the lawmakers after the Nov. 29 general elections. These groups claim to be bigger, better organized and with a broader perspective than established NGOs (though their membership and goals often overlap). And the government is listening to them — very carefully.

The rise of the lobby groups is a reflection of the new political landscape that has emerged in the wake of the controversial sacking and prosecution of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. The divisive affair made its effects known in the Nov. 29 polls. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition retained its parliamentary majority, but its share of the popular vote went from 65% to 56%. The coalition's leading party, the United National Malays Organization, was especially hard hit, with the traditionally loyal Malay voters defecting in droves to the opposition. Barisan Nasional was able to pull through only with the support of Chinese and Indian voters.

The government realizes that it cannot take any voting bloc for granted — and political activists are aware that this affords them a powerful leverage. "With the split in Malay unity after the sacking of Anwar, we felt Indians had bargaining power in the general elections," says Indian activist K. Arumugam. If half of the Indian voters who voted for Barisan Nasional had opted for the opposition, he reckons, the government would have lost another 20 seats and the two-thirds majority. Arumugam co-founded the Group of Concerned Citizens; its manifesto, "Demands of Indian Malaysians for a Better Future," calls for monthly wages for plantation workers and full government funding for Tamil-language primary schools.

Women, who make up about 54% of the electorate, are also in the mood for demanding their rights. "We're tired of standing on the sidelines, cheering the team but never getting a chance to kick the ball," says women's activist Zaitun Kasim. The groundswell of lobby groups, she continues, is "partly due to the emergence of [the opposition alliance] Barisan Alternatif, which brought the issue of governance to the fore." The Women's Agenda for Change was formed in May last year to push for women's rights; representatives from both the government and the opposition were present at the launch.

So what sets these organizations apart from traditional NGOs? In a nutshell: direct action. Veteran activist Martin Khor, research director of the Consumers Association of Penang, notes that Malaysian NGOs have been educating the public on their rights so that individuals can approach their elected politicians themselves; NGOs also submit proposals to the government calling for better enforcement of the law. "But taking an agenda to Parliament and linking it to the general elections is something new," he says.

Suqiu's Wong hopes that legislators, ministers and political parties will view the new lobby groups positively. "We can complement them," he says. "We're voicing the people's views and needs without partisan interests. They don't have to worry: All they have to do is perform." Over to you, lawmakers.

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