Continuous engagement between the government and civil society can contribute usefully to the nation’s recovery.
“POST-modernisation and new socio-culture” is an inexplicable title for any time of day, let alone at 8am.
Thankfully, the invitation from Prof Tan Sri Noor Azlan Ghazali, executive director of the government’s Economic Action Council (EAC), to speak at one of a series of workshops to plan the post-Covid-19 recovery, distilled it to a digestible list of issues to discuss.
These included recognising the resilience and potential of local communities, the voluntary sector, civil society and NGOs; defining the nature of partnerships moving away from just consultations towards being partners in solving community issues; and addressing issues of trust and respect for the different sectors as partners in development.
Workshops of this kind – typically organised by government task forces or ministerial agencies – are approached with caution among the NGO community.
In theory they provide a route through which the work of think tanks and activists can turn into concrete improvements on the ground, by having civil servants and advisers give due attention to ideas and research, then advising their political bosses accordingly.
Ideally, such efforts become reforms in existing processes, new legislation, or future manifesto commitments.
Indeed we have seen some successful examples of this.
Unfortunately, there have also been occasions when much fanfare is announced in the conducting of such workshops, but the impact on policy is virtually zero.
Instead, these events can serve as window-dressing for the government to claim that they have “engaged with a broad range of stakeholders” or “consulted widely with civil society” while ignoring the recommendations made.
This has a negative impact on CSOs too: apart from wasting time and resources, those who were involved might be branded as being complicit in making the government look good, while those who were excluded have to decide whether to respond with antagonism or attempt to be involved next time.
I was happy, then, to see many notable figures in the audience at this particular early morning workshop, including civil servants, members of statutory bodies and commissions, and well-known activists covering the spectrum from human rights, institutional reforms and attaining the sustainable development goals.
Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood (a committee member of the EAC whose most recent appointment is Special Advisor on Public Health to the Prime Minister) spoke first, presenting data on the various levels of trust that citizens have in various different institutions, and sharing her extensive experience in building partnerships across government, civil society and the private sector.
It is always a challenge to follow such a captivating and inspirational speaker, but fortunately I could draw on some of the things she mentioned.
The growth of citizenship participation across many aspects of service delivery (particularly to the disadvantaged and underserved) is already happening – in many cases with the active support of social entrepreneurs and the traditional private sector – and the government had best accept and adapt to it.
This will require a serious effort at decentralisation: not just of decision-making and the ability to work with NGOs at the local level (who, in many cases, have better knowledge and trust with communities than government bodies), but also of transparency and accountability.
Not all civil society organisations are paragons of virtue themselves, so it’s important that bodies such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the police and the judiciary are equipped to deal with disputes and abuses of power that may arise as partnerships between public, private and voluntary sectors grow in depth and frequency.
Inevitably, this also leads to the question of local government elections in ensuring greater accountability from the political class, even as the primary discussion on that topic currently revolves around how to prevent politicians from hopping, making governments fall in the process.
However, I remain hopeful that the disgust from the public (and the desire of politicians that future governments are more stable) will incentivise a stop to this practice.
Many pin their hopes on some form of anti-hopping or recall election law, but another important step is democratising political parties internally: especially candidate selection, to create loyalty downwards to local constituency communities, rather than upwards to party leaders.
Indeed, if this happens in tandem with the restoration of local government elections, better cooperation between local NGOs and local government should naturally occur.
The discussion also highlighted the importance of digital skills: not just for economic reasons, but also in the delivery of services to citizens – though this too must be moderated by concerns about how data is used and shared. In acknowledging the extraordinary hardships caused by Covid-19, there are nonetheless opportunities that should be harnessed, and I hope this workshop on government and civil society partnerships will contribute usefully to the nation’s recovery.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.
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