Aliran: So Difficult to Organise a Forum About Democracy

Aliran Election Focus

Why is it so Difficult to Organise a Forum about Democracy?

Aliran regrets to announce the cancellation of its forum: Ke Arah Demokrasi/Towards Democracy that was originally scheduled for 10 July 1999 at the Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang. This would have been the first of two Aliran forums on the same topic with the opposition having their say in July, and the BN parties being given their chance in August.

Unfortunately neither can now be held.

Our application to use the Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang (Caring Society Complex), specially dedicated for the use of NGOs to build a caring society, was rejected by the Pejabat Setiausaha Kerajaan Negeri Pulau Pinang (Penang State Secretariat). This was communicated to us in a letter dated 28 June 1999 which we received on 29 June.  No reason for the rejection was offered.

The following day, 30 June, we received a letter from the Pejabat Ketua Polis Daerah, Ibupejabat Polis Daerah Timor Laut, Pulau Pinang (District Police Chief's Office, North East District Headquarters, Penang), dated 29 June rejecting our application for a police permit on the grounds that we had failed in our application to rent the Dewan Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang.

Clearly the police had been in touch with Pejabat Setiausaha Kerajaan Negeri directly. For the letter from the Pejabat Setiausaha Kerajaan Negeri was not even carbon-copied (c.c.) to them.

Shame on the Pejabat Setiaushaa Kerajaan Negeri for not allowing a discussion on democracy to take place in the very complex dedicated towards creating a caring Malaysian society.

Our attempts to source an alternative site to hold the forum also proved futile for two reasons. First, several organisation which owned suitable premises refused to allow us to make a booking until we could produce a police permit. As is well known, the police do not grant a permit until the eleventh hour, making it very difficult for us to publicise the event. The catch here is that the police, will not approve the application if the venue has not been secured (as their letter of rejection to us mentioned above clearly indicates).

Second, there were a few organisations that were prepared to confirm our booking on the condition that we pay the full rental OR a hefty deposit (which is non-refundable if the police permit is refused). For a small financially weak organisation like Aliran, this would have been too high a price to pay, literally. We would have wanted to collect donations from those present at the forum to offset expenses involved (rental of hall, cost of posters and pamphlets, honorarium for speakers to cover transport and accommodation).

Our recent experience in this effort to organise a forum on Democracy highlights a problem that opposition parties and groups perceived to be critical of government have faced over the years.  Obviously the BN government and the authorities they control do not appreciate discussion of democracy.  But why not?  This continues to befuddle us. They control the major newspapers, which hardly provide space for alternative views. They already control the electronic media, which simply focus on the views and activities of Dr. Mahathir and other government leaders. They have already begun their campaigns up and down the country-which then get reported extensively in the mass media.  

So, why is it so difficult for a small forum to be held within the confines of a small hall, in a corner of Penang, on a Saturday night when most Malaysians usually have other things to do? Is it because the BN has been in power so long that its notion of democracy has become very simplistic: democracy only means going through the motions of holding elections once in every four or five years, with very little or no regard to popular participation and public input.

It is the fundamental right of citizens to meet and discuss issues that affect the country. This is the very essense of a democracy. Can we call ourselves a caring, democratic society when citizens are denied something so basic: the right to peacefully assemble, articulate, and discuss their concerns?

Dr. Francis Loh
Hon. Secretary
6 July 1999