Civil Society in Southeast Asia

Civil Society in Southeast Asia

On surface, civil society is an unambiguous concept. An online search of the term will give you this standard moniker: "Civil society is the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interest and will of citizens." But in social science, a definition like this, is considered too descriptive, almost tautological. It explains the obvious.

In truth, civil society is a contested concept by virtue of its relations to the state. The editor Lee Hock Guan has done an admirable job of highlighting this simple but important fact.

Some states do tolerate the existence of civil society; some states don't. Some literally trying to co-opt it. Indeed, civil society is a smorgasbord of non governmental organizations (NGOs) and many other entities that are either under the state, or, attempting to be equal to it. The Gulen movement in Turkey, for example, falls into the latter. It is an NGO  that even tried to launch a coup against the Turkish government recent. Thus, civil society, may turn into an opposition movement----not unlike the Arab Spring, or, the Orange Revolutions.

Not surprisingly, given the instrumentality of these organizations, some repressive governments take to sponsoring the creation of violent and radical non governmental organizations. A case of creating the ruse of 'good cop' and 'bad cop' to make the state appear more relevant and functional than ever.  Sadly, the insidious organizations, too, are considered "civil society," even if they terrorize other people and elements in the streets. But that's the malignant form of civil society, one that is bent on destroying others in order to prove its weight.

In Southeast Asia, civil society does exist in various shades and forms. The rich tapestry of migrants alone ensure the creation of various guilds, chambers and ethnic societies to protect the interest of the minorities. Not all elements of civil society are powerful. Some do have altruistic missions in mind.

The ones in Malaysia are not opposed to the state per se. Rather, they try to work hands in gloves with Malaysian government. But to the degree they are spurned (by the government), they can morph into huge social movement like Bersih, or, other forms of political Islam.

But the chapter by Patricia Martinez in the book merits some mention. In her chapter, "Islam, Constitutional Democracy, and the Islamic State in Malaysia," she explains how some academics like the late Tan Sri Ahmad Ibrahim have urged more Malay/Muslim voters to participate in the election in order to transform the numerical advantage into a position of preeminence to enrich the Islamic character of the Malaysian constitution, both crafted before and after the independence.

As said earlier, this implies civil society is a contested concept, where intellectual and various political combats are always pursued, to achieve various goals. How some goals are permitted while other goals disallowed are the culmination of the "Game of Thrones."