The rise of civil society

By Tay Tian Yan

Interviewed by a TV station in Singapore, I was asked to give a one-sentence conclusion of what happened on July 9.

"The rise of civil society," I replied.

The London School of Economics has defined civil society in a very explicit way: A group of people sharing the same ideals and values come together willingly to pursue their common aspirations.

Even more explicit definitions will sound abstract and ambiguous to the uninitiated.

Citing the July 9 incident will instantly make things a whole lot clearer.

At about 1pm last Saturday, a score of people appeared in Bukit Bintang, some wearing yellow.

They walked along, and were soon joined by the onlookers, people enjoying afternoon tea at roadside cafes, and shoppers strolling inside the malls.

Very soon, the group expanded from about 30 people to over 300. They came to the Sultan Ismail intersection and were met by another group of people coming from the other direction. The combined team now had a strength in excess of a thousand.

By the time the group turned into Jalan Pudu, the strength swelled to ten thousand.

Kuala Lumpur aside, similar "strangers" congregated in the streets of Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Dubai, London, New York and Los Angeles.

They all came on their own accord. No material rewards had drawn them to the streets. Instead, they had to face some unknown risks and dangers.

They came because of a common aspiration to reform our electoral system, and for their own rights as well as those of their fellow countrymen.

They hardly knew one another, although they were well aware of what the others wanted.

They lent their hands selflessly to the others when they encountered some troubles, holding out water bottles, salt, towels, etc.

These people were part and parcel of the civil society.

They came for their own freedom and their civil rights. They refused to be subjected to excessive controls by the authorities.

Not affiliated to any political party, they nevertheless cared about national politics.

They felt that Malaysians should have more ways to express their wills and participate in politics other than the general election held once every five years.

On July 9, Malaysians and the world witnessed the emergence of civil society and the power that it had unleashed.

In this country, the civil society comes as the third political force outside of BN and Pakatan Rakyat.

Whichever party that could eventually win the support and approval of the civil society will have its hands on the future.

Unfortunately, the ruling coalition has got accustomed to its lofty stature and has become so complacent of the possession of power that it has lost its sensitivity towards public demands and has overlooked the quiet arrival of civil society.

The moment it comes to the realisation that it is being intimidated, it will charge the participants of civil society as opposition sympathisers or puppets.

It is high time for the authorities to learn to accept the existence of the civil society and how to live peacefully with it.