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The Flipside

Published: Wednesday April 29, 2015 MYT 4:33:00 PM
Updated: Wednesday April 29, 2015 MYT 7:21:53 PM

Facetime with civil society

THE 26th Asean summit took place over the weekend, and I enjoyed a first time experience of seeing how the annual gathering of regional governments was conducted.

But before any official business got underway, and before the respectable leaders graced the red carpet at the security-heavy Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, there was the Asean People’s Forum (APF).

Held just several hundred meters down the road at Wisma MCA, the three-day civil societies’ conference served as a prelude to the summit, bringing to light the Asean community’s everyday concerns.

Economic challenges, religious extremism, corruption, labour rights, gender equality, freedom of expression - these topics and more were discussed in length over more than 60 thematic workshop sessions.

The forum gathered more than 1,500 participants from across the region, and in my opinion, felt like the highlight of the Asean summit week although it did not receive as much hype.

The finalised statement issued by the civil societies caucus two months ahead of the summit also served to empower heads of government to address their concerns and recommendations when they met this time around.

But while this was not explicitly included on the subsequent agenda, it was commendable for Malaysia as the Asean chair to organise interface meetings with civil societies and other interest groups; something that has not been done before.

The meetings are a sign of progress, complementing the ‘People-centered Asean’ envisioned by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak as the theme of this year’s summit.

But don’t get all excited just yet. There is still much work to do before Asean can be considered a truly people-centric community.

Specifically what is needed is a lot more ‘face-time’ between Asean leaders and their civil society counterparts.

At 15 minutes each, the interface meetings at the summit were just too short, and understandably so as the Asean leaders were on an already tight schedule.

Pusat Komas’ Jerald Joseph, who chairs the APF steering committee this year, told me that although there was “progress” in the exchanges with heads of government, it was too brief for any meaningful discussion to be had.

Which is why, the institutional framework being proposed by civil societies for more engagement with Asean heads of government must get the nod from member nations going forward.

The APF raised some fairly deep-rooted issues pertaining to human rights across the region, and needless to say, not a single country was spared from some glaring violations of freedoms. 

If you thought the situation was bad in Malaysia, it is worse for some of our Asean neighbours, where activists have gone missing or been killed merely for standing up for their rights.

The bottom line is that any attempt to rectify or seek long-term solutions, however committed governments say they are, cannot be achieved without thorough engagement with civil societies.

In that regard, Malaysia must take the lead as the Asean chair to organise another interface meeting with civil societies when the summit convenes for the second time in November; and preferably one that lasts longer than 15 minutes.

An institutional framework could be some way off, but perhaps the first step should be to increase the frequency of meetings between the NGOs and their governments.

Najib is said to be quite receptive to the idea, as Jerald pointed out to me after the meeting on Monday. But it remains to be seen if his Asean counterparts will be agreeable.                                             

Malaysia initiated the first ever Asean People’s Forum 10 years ago, under the leadership of then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

It is therefore Malaysia which must champion that this annual gathering of civil societies evolves into something more than just a token event that offers people the illusion of involvement. 

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: opinion, Flipside, Akil Yunus, Asean People s Forum

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