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DURING my school days, I was a member of the stamp collectors society and during my university days, I belonged to the Nietzsche Society and the International Sausage and Potatoes Society, with the latter proving more fun than the former. At the same time, I also belonged to several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that dealt with development and environmental issues, global politics, student rights, academic freedom and press freedom. All of these movements were and remain part of what we call civil society.
I have always held the belief that civil society and political society are distinct, though their concerns may overlap at times. Furthermore, humans being complicated things, we are often expected to think in terms of a community of selves. Our identities are invariably complex, as we play different roles all the time, simultaneously -- I am my mother's son, my brother's brother, my students' teacher, and so on. This need not lead one to schizophrenia or an identity complex, but is something quite mundane and normal.
In the wake of the Bersih 3.0 rally last Saturday, I am somewhat puzzled by the reactions of some quarters as to how and why things took a turn for the worse.
Let me try to be fair to all parties concerned here. Firstly, if some civil society actors wanted the event to be non-political or at least not politicised, they could have issued a blanket statement that they did not want to have any political leaders there, or even party members. Though quite frankly, I think that may have led to a drastic reduction in the numbers that came out, perhaps with only a thousand or so on the streets.
It cannot be denied that some of the opposition parties did rally their party members to go in large numbers, and so we end up with a Catch-22 situation. Had the opposition parties not asked their members to go, the sit-in may have ended up as a storm in a teacup. But had the opposition parties participated, then the event was bound to be political. I would further add that despite the large number of opposition supporters who came, they did show restraint by not parading with their party flags and banners.
So what gives, and where lies the point of compromise?
Malaysian society is a curiously political one, if and when we take the numbers of party members into account. For a country with a population of less than 28 million (and we can discount at least a quarter who are too young or too old), we seem to have some of the relatively biggest political parties in Asia. Umno alone accounts for three million members at least, and Pas for more than a million. Then, there are the dozens of other parties that claim membership figures in their hundreds of thousands.
In such a situation, is there reason to believe that there is anything that vaguely resembles a truly non-political civil society left in Malaysia? Not to be forgotten are the many new NGOs and lobby groups that seem beholden to political interests and to be furthering political agendas, too.
My concern here lies in the belief that healthy plural societies need to maintain some distinctions that allow space for pluralism of all kinds, including political beliefs and commitments. Civil society is also made up of groups and assemblies of ordinary, boring citizens like me who occasionally want to eat sausages and collect stamps.
While we do so, we play a small but important role in creating those horizontal interfaces where people of different ethnicities, creeds and classes may come together to share interests that are less divisive. When it comes to sausages or stamp-collecting, I frankly don't care what your ideological leanings are, and I don't even want to know.
That may be a good thing for a complex society like Malaysia's where people should not have to wear their ideological loyalties on their sleeves all the time.
My worry stems from the observation that this distinction between civil society and political society is not always respected in this country. When civil society activists call for free and clean elections, this demand cuts both ways and should not be used by one side of the political divide to mount their high horse and vilify the other.
As an ordinary citizen, I would be appalled and disappointed by corruption from whichever party.
Political parties, on the other hand, need to understand that civil society should be allowed to do what it does, freely.
While politicians may love to recruit more and more followers to their cause, plying them with sweet rhetoric while demonising their opponents, they ought to remember that calling for clean elections does not mean necessarily supporting one party over another.
This is where the accusations of "hijacking" civil society emanates from, and it is partly justified when we see arts events, cultural events, etc, coming under the patronage and support of those who may want your votes but don't actually care a fig about arts or culture.
And in the final analysis, if everything is deemed political, then I would be sad indeed if the day will come when even my beloved International Sausage Society or stamp club comes under the patronage of a political party.
At least have the decency to allow me to enjoy my sausages in peace, without any political relish on top.