While the Registrar of Societies
(ROS) may now feign innocence regarding its selectivity in registering
societies by questioning Suaram's registration as a business, let me
remind the young generation and those with short memories about our
nation's shortcomings relating to the freedom of association in our
As you know, ‘Operation Lalang' was Dr Mahathir
Mohamad's autocracy at its worst when he arrested and detained more than
a 100 innocent Malaysians without trial in October 1987.
the release of the last Operation Lalang detainees in 1989, several of
these detainees, including my good self and members of the Families
Support Group formed this human rights organisation known as Suara
Rakyat Malaysia or Suaram.
Aware of the obstacles in registering
a human rights society under the Registrar of Societies, Suaram
registered as a business under the Registrar of Business.
time, another human rights organisation, Persatuan Hak Asasi Manusia
Malaysia or Hakam had taken more than two years to be registered in
1989, even though it boasted two former Prime Ministers (Tunku Abdul
Rahman Putra and Hussein Onn) as its patrons.
Hakam had tried
unsuccessfully several times to register as a society in the Eighties.
The Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International also tried unsuccessfully
for five years to register as a society under the Societies Act. Two
applications and an appeal to the Home Minister were also rejected.
quite a number of NGOs decided that in order to carry out their
services to society, they had no choice but to register as businesses.
why is there a sudden interest in Suaram's status after its 23 years of
existence? Is it coincidental that this has arisen out of our recent
request to the French judicial system to pursue suspected commissions
embroiled in the RM7 billion Scorpene submarine deals?It is no secret
the difficulties created by the Societies Act, some non-governmental
organisations, including Suaram decided to register as companies or
businesses. As the corporate gurus say, "If something is not working, do
Or, as Deng Xiaoping famously said, "It does
not matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the
mice." The mice, in the case of NGOs, are defending human rights,
democracy and social justice.
NGOs registering as companies were
certainly not a secret. In fact, in early 1997, the government
threatened to force all NGOs to register under the Societies Act.
registration as a company has not completely protected NGOs from
harassment by the government, as the recent intrusion by the Companies
Commission of Malaysia (SSM) into Suaram's accounts has demonstrated.
1996, the Institut Pengajian Komuniti (IPK), an NGO taking up the issue
of rights of indigenous peoples in Sarawak was de-registered by the
Registrar of Business over a legal technicality.
The ROC's Tenaganita fiasco
1997, the Registrar of Companies (ROC) raided the offices of
Tenaganita, the NGO that exposed inhuman conditions in immigrant
detention centres, and confiscated its documents. Tenaganita and two
directors were subsequently charged in court in March 1997 under the
Companies Act for late filing of its audited financial statements for
And most unusual was the fact that the charges were
prosecuted by a deputy prosecutor from the Attorney-General's Chambers
instead of the usual officers from the ROC.
The charges were
withdrawn on July 9, 1997, when it was pointed out in court that the
registrar had already compounded the offences and accepted payment of a
fine through Tenaganita's accountants.
Then, on Sept 5, 1997,
the registrar again issued fresh charges against Tenaganita and two
directors on minor technicalities. This time around, the registrar
refused to compound the alleged offences for a fine. After Tenaganita
mounted a legal challenge to the prosecutions, alleging mala fide
prosecution, the charges were withdrawn on Nov 25, 1997.
As one can see, NGOs in Malaysia have found themselves "between a ROC and a hard place..."PSM's Greek tragedy
political parties have fared no better. Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM)
only obtained its legal registration as a political party in 2008, 10
years after it first filed its application. The entire saga endured by
PSM in its struggle to be registered reads like a Greek tragedy in
of course, the ROS can feign selective outrage yet again: "Wasn't the
Malaysian Indian United party (MIUP), whose founding leader is S.
Nallakaruppan, swiftly registered in October 2007, just five months
after he quit PKR in May 2007?"
"You mean the party that pledged
to work closely with, and give its support to, the ruling BN coalition?
Yes, we believe the ROS acted expeditiously on their application..."
to the fundamental right to freedom of association are also imposed on
trade union officials through the Trade Unions Act. Today, less than 10
percent of Malaysian workers are unionised, compared to more than 60 per
cent at the time of Independence. What a transformation indeed!SSM ‘routinely inspecting' the good guys
stress that the entire charade by the government to harass Suaram
through a complaint by some nonentity in the public and SSM's ‘routine'
inspection is political and uncalled for. We do not even know if the
complaint was made officially to the SSM.
would appear that the SSM is acting on every single complaint (offical
or otherwise) from the public at a highly efficient rate. We question if
there is a standard operating procedure (SOP) within SSM that provides
guidelines on receiving and acting on a complaint.
question whether or not the SOP requires SSM to first verify the
background of the complainant prior to receiving and acting on a
From the evidence in the Paris (on the Scorpene
scandal) papers, one would have expected that SSM would know its
priorities and begin "routinely inspecting" the highly dubious
activities and accounts of Perimekar Sdn Bhd and Terasasi Sdn Bhd. But
has it done so?Suaram's 23 years defending human rights
23 years of selfless work defending human rights in Malaysia, Suaram
has established itself as the human rights centre of Malaysia. From
Operation Lalang through the Reformasi period to the present day, many
victims of state oppression have turned to Suaram for assistance in
highlighting their plights.
The funding we get goes into
nurturing young activists in human rights work. We employ a handful of
dedicated young staff who have chosen this path of service in human
rights work. The elder members of the Suaram secretariat, like me, have
always been non-staff volunteers in overseeing the running of the
Since 1989, Suaram has been the main coordinating
secretariat for the movement against the ISA and other detention without
trial laws, the Emergency Ordinance (EO) and the Dangerous Drugs Act
Our office serves as the refuge for those whose family
members have been victims of state oppression. We send urgent appeals
throughout the world whenever any detention or other violations of human
rights take place.
Despite its small staff, Suaram publishes
the only credible and detailed Malaysian Human Rights Report every year
without fail and has been doing so since 1998. Such a report is an
invaluable service to all the people of Malaysia, irrespective of
ethnicity, religion or creed.
Since its founding, Suaram has
worked toward a healthy democratic movement in the country and we could
well say that all the efforts by Suaram in the last 20 years have been
instrumental in producing today's two-front political system and the
political tsunami of 2008.
Throughout its existence over the last
20 years, Suaram staff and secretariat have been involved in human
rights and environmental education, giving talks, organising seminars
and providing training.
Suaram has also initiated campaigns
against the Bakun dam and the Selangor dam to protect the interests of
indigenous peoples, the environment and the interests of Malaysian
taxpayers. We have supported marginalised communities such as the urban
settlers, estate communities and refugees affected by eviction and state
Suaram has played a role in the "Stop the War
Coalition" and has coordinated anti-US demonstrations and protests
against the US-led occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and Israeli
atrocities in Gaza in recent years.
also played a key role in the last important peace conference for East
Timor in 1996, together with other NGOs. We have been part of the
campaign for democracy in Burma.
In other words, Suaram has
always been in the business of fighting for justice, equality, democracy
and human rights in Malaysia and spoken out against imperialism and
militarism in the rest of the world.
For our efforts, Suaram was awarded the Human Rights Award for 2011 by the country's Human Rights Commission, Suhakam,
only dividends we have gained in this business over these 23 years are
the appreciation of the victims of oppression and exploitation, nature
lovers and Malaysian taxpayers. And to all our detractors and
oppressors, we can only say: "Do your worst and we will do our best!"
DR KUA KIA SOONG is director of human rights organisation Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).