Cooperate or confront?

BERSIH is organising a congress May 25 at the KL Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, with the theme “Demanding Reforms, Sustaining Democratisation”.

In a unique move, Bersih opened this congress not only to its endorsing civil society organisations (CSOs) but also to the general public – inviting one and all to give their views about what the country needs and how Bersih should move forward.

Ooi Kok Hin, Bersih's executive director, recently penned a two part article about the state of civil society in Malaysia today. In the article, he asks a a simple question that has been at the heart of the dilemma I’ve seen facing many old comrades and colleagues in the civil society space.

Simply put: When it comes to engaging the current government, should we cooperate or confront?

The question of what position to take has been particularly difficult for many in civil society, who have fought alongside previous governments side-by-side with many of the people who currently walk the halls of power.

One option that is off the table is unwavering, unconditional and unrestrained support for the government, no matter what. That is a position reserved for diehard political loyalists and those dependent on them and generally has little to no space within civil society.

There is the position of being critical and confrontational of the government, no matter what. This is also a rarely taken position, especially among the more reasonable minded activists; but we see that there are some individuals and groups who gravitate back to this kind of position.

From those I’ve interacted with so far, most fall somewhere in the middle.

The current administration is not so bad that the feeling is we must fight and oppose them at every turn; but it is not so good that the feeling is we are compelled or invited to fully join hands and become a part of whatever their initiatives are.

I have written before about vacuums and gravity and how in the absence of being led by a new, invigorating sense of purpose, humans have a tendency to gravitate back to what they are used to doing.

For many CSOs and activists, this translates to criticising and fighting against the government. After all, that’s what they’ve spent most of their careers doing over the last few decades, back when it was arguably simpler to identify who the “bad guy” was.

This doesn’t mean that being critical of the government is necessarily the wrong approach to take. We just have to be conscious of whether we are doing it because it is truly warranted, or because it is what we have always done.

The other question that activists often wrestle with is “strategy”.

Political operatives like to ask the question: “Would you prefer the other guys be in power?”

And they ask this as if any kind of criticism of the government would lead to this “greater evil”.

This is not a good attitude to take either, because it seeks to neuter any and all kinds of constructive criticism.

That said, we must note that our political and electoral system too often does, to quite an extent, make it a zero sum game. We cannot deny the reality that the loss of prestige in one party essentially benefits their political opponents.

To add to the dilemma, it has long been observed that it is very difficult to try and expect politicians to change because of moral imperatives – such as some activists try to rely on.

Politicians respond to what affects their votes. Too often, they only act differently if they are worried that not acting differently would lead to people voting for their opponent. Thus, the most effective way to influence a politician is to increase the likelihood that people will vote for their opponent.

This is problematic if you don’t happen to like their opponent much either – as is the current reality facing many activists.

In his article, Ooi also references how political operatives like to sneer at activists by saying: “If you think you’re all that, why don’t you contest?”

On my side, I have watched a number of friends transitioning from civil society to politics. The community has always been a small one with many overlaps.

Some have done very successfully, rising up to become ministers. Most however have had less success. Many go into politics thinking that they will change politics, only to have politics change them.

I would summarise the reason as being: the object with the greater mass exerts greater gravity. Once you are in the system, you are more likely to be shaped by the system, than to shape the system – unless you are going in with a crystal clear vision, relentless conviction and most importantly, a huge, huge support system behind you.

I try my best to stay away from writing pieces that have more questions than answers, or don’t have a strong message of hope by the conclusion.

In this case however, I must freely admit that for now, I don’t have brilliant answers to the dilemmas above.

What I do know is this.

Malaysians are good. Malaysians deserve a good government. Malaysians deserve a good country to call home.

When it comes to the question “How are we going to get there?”, I’ve come to realise one thing – no one Malaysian can give that answer.

I’m not going to pretend that merely coming together to talk will guarantee coming up with a good answer. But I can pretty much guarantee that not coming together isn’t going to help anything either.

We don’t know yet what will emerge from the Bersih congress, but perhaps the fact that there are still Malaysians showing up to try and get together, and find a way through all the dilemmas and difficulty is something to find hope in.

NATHANIEL TAN is strategic communications consultant who also works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. He can be reached at Those who would like to participate in the Bersih congress can register at:

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CSO , government , Bersih


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