Maruah: We have always been transparent

Maruah president Braema Mathi (far right) at a panel discussion in February.

The funding pie for civil society groups here is small, say activists.

And sometimes, when groups fight for a bigger slice and more prominence, things can get heated.

That appears to be the case with Maruah, a human rights group here.

In March, Maruah announced it was holding a forum.

Comments on the group's Facebook page ranged from the trivial - "Will hotel food be served like the last time?" - to the sarcastic, said Maruah's president Braema Mathi.

A month after the postings, the Registry of Political Donations (RPD) contacted Maruah in writing.

It wanted to know how Maruah funded a similar event in October, which was held at an Orchard Road hotel.

A spokesman told The New Paper: "It has come to RPD's attention that Maruah may have received donations from impermissible sources. RPD is seeking clarifications from (the group)."

Under the Political Donations Act, political associations can accept only donations that come from Singaporeans or Singapore-controlled companies.

Said the RPD spokesman: "The purpose of the Act is to prevent foreigners from interfering in Singapore's domestic politics through donations and funding."

So an impermissible source would include foreign organisations. The Act came into effect in 2001.

Maruah was gazetted as a political association in 2010.

Ms Mathi said the October event was a regional dialogue that Maruah had co-organised with a foreign NGO. About 60 people attended the event.

"Maruah has always been transparent in handling such matters," she told TNP. "At no time did the money pass through our hands."

Direct payment

The European NGO had paid the hotel directly. Maruah's team consulted extensively among themselves before proceeding with the dialogue, Ms Mathi added. Participants were also told where funding came from.

Back then, Maruah's committee included Mr Siew Kum Hong, Mr Leong Sze Hian and Oxford-trained Mr Leon Perera. Maruah has since provided the necessary documents and is waiting to hear from RPD. The complainant's identity is still a mystery.

"It is difficult to understand what can be achieved from this when we had been transparent in the first place," Ms Mathi said.

"This is very demoralising. It's tough (championing human rights), but I didn't realise it would be this tough."

She is wary of the possiblity that the latest run-in would complicate perceptions about Maruah and its fundraising efforts.

The group has been operating out of volunteers' homes since it was formed seven years ago, as members cannot afford a proper office space.

A fundraising appeal in 2011, a year after being gazetted, raised no money.

Nominated MP and Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan said that such investigations are rare.

But the Act shows that the Government takes the view that politics in Singapore is off-limits to foreign entities.

It is politically non-negotiable.

Tough as NGos compete for donations

Funding is always a challenge for any NGO - more so if you are associated with sensitive issues, said executive director Bryan Choong of Oogachaga, a counselling agency whose clients include gay and transgender individuals.

"Internationally, LGBTQ- (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) related causes are poorly funded," he added.

"The fact that we're an NGO operating in a high-income country makes it less likely for foundations to consider our funding requests."

With more groups fighting for a slice of the donor pie, conflict tends to arise.

Dr Siew Tuck Wah, president of animal welfare charity Save Our Street Dogs, said: "This is especially so where money is involved and passionate volunteer groups with strong opinions have to share limited resources.

"People sometimes become very competitive as they try to up their profile."

Dr Siew almost gave up rescuing strays earlier this year after detractors jostling to be top dog within the animal welfare circle branded him a racist and accused him of misappropriating funds.

Said Associate Professor Eugene Tan: "The complainant could be motivated by a desire to gain more recognition and support, financially or otherwise.

"There are also bragging rights in being acknowledged as the leading civil society organisation in a particular field."

While some competition can be healthy in pushing the cause further, Dr Siew feared it can backfire.

"Such fighting may lead to the group crumbling and cause external parties forming a bad impression of civil society in general."

That is why Mr Choong felt there must be mutual trust and respect, despite diversity in opinions.

"No one owns a social cause." he said. "Activists or NGOs before us paved the way to make it smoother for us now and our role is to make it easier for the next person or group."

Prof Tan said: "Some people believe civil society won't undermine their own counterparts. Instead, they point to those on the other side, such as the Government. While the authorities do have vested interests, groups have to recognise that the space they operate in is restrictive.

"That has always been the framework in Singapore."

kohht@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 10 in The New Paper.

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