For­eign funds and NGOs

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP - BY GURDIAL SINGH NIJAR

ONCE again the hounds are bay­ing for blood. I re­fer to the calls by some min­is­ters to act against NGOs such as Ber­sih; and pro­fes­sional bod­ies such as the Malaysian Bar. As well as me­dia out­lets, such as Malaysi­akini. On var­i­ous grounds – such as the re­ceipt of funds from for­eign sources; and for (Ber­sih) or­gan­is­ing ral­lies which could pro­voke vi­o­lence.

The com­mon thread of these bod­ies: they speak out fear­lessly against any per­ceived wrong­do­ing by the pow­ers that be. This irks peo­ple in au­thor­ity.

It is not the first-time that Ber­sih – a coali­tion of more than 80 NGOs for clean and fair elec­tions – is tar­geted. In July 2011, home min­is­ter de­clared Ber­sih il­le­gal on the ground that it was be­ing used for pur­poses which threat­ened the se­cu­rity of Malaysia and pub­lic or­der. Then chair­man of Ber­sih, af­fec­tion­ately known as Am­biga, chal­lenged this or­der. She suc­ceeded. The High Court quashed the min­is­ter’s or­der.

The judge, Jus­tice Ro­hana Yusuf, said the min­is­ter’s or­der was ir­ra­tional. Mean­ing that it was so out­ra­geous that no sen­si­ble per­son who had ap­plied his mind could have de­clared it as il­le­gal. As well as il­log­i­cal and lu­di­crous. Be­cause shortly af­ter, Ber­sih was al­lowed to hold an­other rally, the King had an au­di­ence with Am­biga re­lat­ing to the planned rally, and the rally took place with­out any cen­sure.

Ban­ning an or­gan­i­sa­tion, opined the court, “im­pinges on the right and lib­erty of an in­di­vid­ual, guar­an­teed un­der the Fed­eral Con­sti­tu­tion, in par­tic­u­lar the right to assem­bly.” By ig­nor­ing this, the min­is­ter had acted in “a lack­adaisi­cal man­ner”. The up­shot: Ber­sih is a law­ful so­ci­ety.

The lat­est vol­ley is the re­ceipt of for­eign funds by NGOs. It’s un­de­ni­able that most of them re­ceive such funds. To fi­nance their ac­tiv­i­ties. Laud­able ac­tiv­i­ties – for women’s rights, pro­tec­tion of chil­dren, the dis­abled, the dis­pos­sessed, the marginalised and the voice­less. And this for­eign sourc­ing is well­known. That’s how most NGOs sur­vive.

Surely the min­is­ter must know of this from a long time ago. To sud­denly use this ground to ma­lign an or­gan­i­sa­tion could be per­ceived by the pub­lic to be a ruse or sub­terfuge; and mo­ti­vated by lit­tle else than a de­sire to get these or­gan­i­sa­tions to de­sist from their role as guardians of so­ci­ety. No­tably, the Court of Ap­peal re­cently recog­nised the ben­e­fi­cial role of ac­tivists in pro­mot­ing the com­mon good.

In tan­dem, the IGP has thrown in his lot – and has cat­e­gorised the re­ceipt of funds as po­ten­tially a crime of “un­der­min­ing par­lia­men­tary democ­racy”. Pre­pos­ter­ous, most will say. Yet an­other case-in-wait­ing for courts to de­clare such ac­tion as “ir­ra­tional”?

For, Ber­sih is about free and fair elec­tions and rid­ding the coun­try of scourges – such as cor­rup­tion. The Malaysian Bar is obliged by the Le­gal Pro­fes­sion Act “to up­hold the cause of jus­tice with­out re­gard to its own in­ter­ests or that of its mem­bers, un­in­flu­enced by fear or favour”. And Malaysi­akini is an al­ter­na­tive me­dia on cur­rent af­fairs.

The “crime” for which the Malaysian Bar is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated is that it re­ceived a “hefty” sum of RM15,000 for its re­search on refugees. This un­der­mines par­lia­men­tary democ­racy? Yet the ad­mit­ted re­ceipt of mas­sive for­eign funds for the 2013 elec­tions seems to be in­su­lated from any ac­tion.

Ber­sih’s rally must be banned be­cause an­other group has vowed to counter it by hav­ing a rally in the same place and time. This, says the min­is­ter, could pro­voke vi­o­lence. In his fa­mous words: If no yel­low shirts there will be no red shirts.

This, with re­spect, de­fies logic; and un­der­mines the con­sti­tu­tion­ally guar­an­teed right to as­sem­ble. It en­cour­ages oth­ers to take the law into their own hands and threaten a law­ful group from hold­ing a law­ful rally. Un­der the Peace­ful Assem­bly Act the po­lice must di­rect the other or­gan­i­sa­tion to hold its rally at an­other time, date or place if it is ev­i­dent that the “counter assem­bly” will cause a con­flict be­tween par­tic­i­pants of the assem­blies. This is to pre­vent any breach of law and or­der.

Surely, the IGP and the min­is­ter are aware of this pro­vi­sion.

The en­force­ment tar­get then should be the “in­ter­rupters”. For they, said Lord Den­ning in a UK Court of Ap­peal de­ci­sion, would be the de­stroy­ers of fun­da­men­tal free­doms: Ver­rall v Great Yarmouth BC.

Gurdial, a for­mer law pro­fes­sor, is now a le­gal con­sul­tant. Com­ments: let­ters@ the­sundaily.com

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