Speaking up for the people

Shariffa (in white baju kurung) and Arie (in grey shirt) during a peaceful march from Padang Merbok to Parliament last week to submit proposals to amend the Federal Constitution and the Forestry Act 1984 (Act 313).

Non-governmental organisation (NGO) refers to a body, often independent of the government, which operates to address a particular cause.In a research titled “History and Growth of Health NGOs in Malaysia Till 2015” published by academicians Mazlan Che Soh and Makmor Tumin from Universiti Teknologi Mara and Universiti Malaya respectively, there were 57,568 NGOs as of March 2016, an 8.6% increase from the figures in December 2013.

As Malaysian democracy matures and the people become more politically in-tune, many have come to question the adequacy of conventional governmental bodies in addressing their concerns.

NGOs catering to environmental issues, transportation, animal welfare, gender equality, fair elections and health among others have mushroomed, bringing in new dimensions to Malaysian politics.Lawyer Siti Kasim said NGOs helped to move the grassroots for causes that were often overlooked by the government.

“It is important for NGOs to be vocal without fear, to check the government. They must be active on the ground, shaping the conscience of society.”

The rise of NGOs signals the collapse of the traditional political structure that revolves around political parties as Malaysian society grows more complex and more contemporary issues take centre stage.

Armed with technology and social media and set against the backdrop of a more fluid political landscape, NGOs are set to play a more prominent role amid the country’s new political landscape.

Lending their voices

Possessing strong moral conviction combined with the desire to do good, NGOs are often a beacon of hope for the marginalised.

Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam (Peka) president Shariffa Sabreena Syed Akil admitted that although she started out to protect the environment, she had come to sympathise with the plight of the Orang Asli.

Referring to the blockades erected by the community in Kampung Tasik Cunex, Gerik in Perak against loggers entering their purported customary land, Shariffa said the natives had little say to influence decision-making.

“The state government has refused to recognise their claim over their ancestral land. No one is listening to their plight.

“As a fellow human being, I feel obliged to reach out to them.

(From right) Dr Saunthari, Raja Permaisuri Perak Tuanku Zara Salim, NCSM vice-president Clare Ratnasingham and honorary advisor Zuraidah Atan launching Relay For Life Kuala Lumpur last year.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to how our fellow citizens are being treated,” she said, adding that Peka also provided legal counsel to the Orang Asli.

Shariffa said she felt sad that the government lacked appreciation for the rich biodiversity of Malaysian rainforests.

“The forest is a source of livelihood for Orang Asli. It is also the heritage of our future generations.

“We must take great care to preserve it at all costs.”

Pink Triangle Foundation chief operations officer Raymond Tai said he hoped to promote diversity and inclusion through their work.

“We work with the Health Ministry, healthcare providers, student bodies and media to provide support for people living with HIV.

“It is important to allow them access to healthcare services.

“We emphasise on respecting these people to help reduce stigma and discrimination against them.”

Protest by Gerakan Pengguna Air Bersih Selangor in Cheras last year to highlight the worsening quality of water supply in Cheras.

And the voiceless are not limited to humans.

Malaysian Animal Association (MAA) president Arie Dwi Andika said animal welfare needed attention too.

“Rapid development has destroyed wildlife habitat, and some of those animals are caught and kept for our amusement without adequate care.

“Cases of animal abuse have risen, involving pets. This happens because people don’t value animal lives enough. Animal lives are often a secondary consideration.

“We must prevent harm to animals and speak up for their welfare.”

Arie said MAA worked closely with the authorities to uncover wildlife smuggling cases in Malaysia.

He added that education from an early age was vital to instil in children a caring attitude towards animals.

Not without challenges

NGOs’ work is far from sunshine and rainbows.

Social pressure and cultural norms are some of the factors complicating their work.

National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) president Dr Saunthari Somasundaram said their emphasis on education and protection in HPV virus prevention, which spreads via sexual contact, drew ire from certain quarters who accused them of promoting promiscuity.

“We were accused of being too progressive and insensitive to our cultural and religious values.

Peka members holding a protest on Karak Highway against logging at the Lentang Recreational Forest.

“Our main focus is on health and people’s well-being, so education and prevention are crucial.”

Tai concurred, saying that conservative segments of society were a major impediment to their work.

“They comprise groups and organisations with narrow interpretation of morality who misunderstood our work.

“They even receive support from certain segments of the government, including ministers and regulatory bodies, which limit our reach to the people that we are helping.”

Shariffa said some politicians’ materialistic mindset posed a great challenge to environmental sustainability.

“They rely on logging to make a quick profit, with little regard for the ecosystem and the food chain affected.

She was also harassed by parties who were unhappy with her advocacy.

“There were times when I felt alone in my struggle. But thanks to my family, I picked myself up and reminded myself that I am doing this for my country.”

“Peka was also accused of inciting local communities against the authorities, which is untrue.

“They had no one to turn to, so they contacted us.”

Tai said there should not be discrimination against any group and hopes to promote diversity and inclusion for all.

Arie said the current law provided little ground for animal NGOs to fight for their cause.

“People often challenge something based on its legality. It is a tough battle since the law concerning animals is insufficient.

“But laws can be changed if enough people demand for it.

“This is why we will continue to educate the public, hoping to increase awareness and hopefully translate that into reformative legislative action.”

On accusation that he is a hypocrite because he is not a vegetarian, Arie said every religion had outlined what type of animals was acceptable to eat.

“In Islam, there is a strict guideline that must be observed when slaughtering the animal before the meat is halal for consumption.

“The animal must be slaughtered in the most humane way possible with the least amount of pain.”

Malaysia Baru

Dr Saunthari applauds the government for having more political will to enact unpopular change.

“We were elated with the smoking ban in eateries since smoking remains a number one cause for cancer.

“Our input is valued and we are included in the discourse.”

However, she insisted that more action was still needed.

Shariffa, on the other hand, said the authorities had failed to act for the people.

“I see little change.

“Logging has become more rampant because our government lacks vision for sustainable development,” she said.

She urged the government to explore eco-tourism as a viable profit-making avenue.

“The government must listen to us.

“NGOs like us exist to act as a bridge between the government and the community,” added Shariffa.

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