SUBANG JAYA, Feb 20 ― Located on the sixth floor of a building, the only thing distinguishing Sinar Project’s front door from the other nondescript grey doors on this long corridor are the myriad feisty stickers ― in support of net neutrality, privacy, free press and speech ― on it.
Inside, you are immediately greeted by shelves of computer programming textbooks ― from Java to Rails. On the desks its members share are scattered Nanoblock toys and a giant 3D puzzle of Moscow’s St Basil Cathedral.
“Swee Meng always has to tinker with something,” Sinar Project’s co-ordinator Khairil Yusof said apologetically, referring to the group’s chief technologist and his long-time friend.
But they are not all toys. One particular miniature gizmo is actually a circuit to measure the office’s air quality, which the group hopes can be a prototype for a network of data-gathering monitors placed across the country.
The 400-square feet studio-turned-office is home to the country’s sole specialists in open data, government transparency and digital rights, but Sinar Project might not even survive the end of this year due to dwindling funds for its niche non-profit work.
In the beginning...
It was 2011 and Khairil and Ng Swee Meng were riled up by the Computing Professionals Bill that proposed every industry player must register with a central body ― a move that would have suffocated the fast-evolving sector had it not been aborted.
Khairil was then an independent information technology (IT) consultant for several United Nations’ groups, while Ng was a government IT contractor. Never had a political issue affected them so directly.
“We were not activists at that time. We didn’t know anything about politics,” Khairil said, relating that both of them had known each other within the open source technology development circles for at least three years then.
Then came the Bersih 2.0 rally, perhaps the nation’s most ferocious mass demonstration in modern times that drew tens of thousands to the street to demand electoral reforms. The duo joined in, and were caught in the heavy-handed response from authorities.
“I got tear-gassed with other people. That’s when we learnt that this is bigger than just a few Bills. This was our fundamental liberties at stake,” he said.
Presenting in the Geekcamp Malaysia unconference that year, they realised that many IT professionals had also participated in the rally. (Note: An unconference is where the participants decide on what to discuss and not the other way around.)
It was then that the duo decided that their skills ― and anger ― could be used for activism.
“It made me realise that we can’t just ignore the government anymore, as many of us have done for a very long time. Ignoring things like the government has real impact on our lives,” Ng told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
“I was not keen to join a political party, I like [Malaysia] pretty much so I was not planning on leaving soon. So the next way is to join a NGO.”
Sinar Project and what they do
The group’s office is dominated by a whiteboard currently covered in colourful sticky notes, denoting the numerous projects that the group is working on simultaneously.
But in 2012 prior to the 13th general election, the newly-formed Sinar Project started out with just MyMP ― a directory of the country’s 222 MPs ― in collaboration with the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR).
The directory aimed to find out basic information such as contact numbers, email and physical addresses, and their curriculum vitae. (“Information you needed to offer someone a job, basically,” Khairil said).
“Even with the team of volunteers calling MPs, we found out that we actually only really knew about 66 of our MPs,” he related.
That was less than a third of the total. The team of two staff members and around 20 volunteers gave up soon after, according to Tan Sze Ming, a former staffer of several state assemblymen, who was then the project consultant for MCCHR.
Tan later joined Sinar Project as programme manager, bringing her experience in development studies and policy planning, completing the core trio of the group.
In 2014, the group was awarded seed grant from the Information Society Innovation Fund and later the Dutch-based humanist development organisation Hivos. By 2015, Sinar Project was up and running with much more substantial core funding, among others from the Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiatives and OpenData for Development.
Soon after, the group started working on four broad areas: Opening access to Parliament through data on MPs and Bills, open government that allows public oversight over governance, open data that can be shareable by public, and digital rights including security and privacy.
Show me the money
But as the calendar turned to 2017, funds were starting to dry up, reducing the team that used to include the trio, one full-time and another volunteer project officers, and two interns to just Khairil and Tan.
Ng continues to help out on the side, but the job is now split between the duo to run their existing projects and at the same time seek new funding. The irony is that it takes weeks to prepare proposals.
“Most of our infrastructure and software are pretty stable. It is not hard to work on this on a part-time basis. So I can back off a little, and help to do things slowly,” Ng said.
Much like most other civil societies in Malaysia, Sinar Project has had to register as a business entity rather than a non-profit group. This decision has excluded it from traditional non-profit support and exemptions offered by both local and international companies.
Foreign grants were already hard to come by due to Malaysia’s World Bank status as an upper-middle income economy. In addition, open data grants require that Malaysia has a freedom of information law and public asset declaration, Khairil said.
In an ironic twist, the group has even done work for open parliament involving Myanmar, which is classified as a lower-middle income economy, to subsidise its work here.
Since much of their projects require long-term attention and maintenance, relying on short-term grants on a project-by-project basis is just untenable, he added.
“It’s really hard to apply for the next project when you’re busy with the current project. If you don’t deliver well, you might not get the next project. It’s a bad cycle,” said Khairil.
End of the road and why it matters
If Sinar Project were to perish, it would also mean the death of a massive trove of open data, some of which are currently hosted on its server ― literally a personal tower computer lying under what used to be Ng’s desk.
Among the more valuable data that it maintains are federal and state budget breakdowns, and national statistics from parliamentary replies on subjects from sexual crimes to toll rates.
Sinar Project also keeps track of Bills tabled in Parliament and a repository of digitised electoral boundaries of each constituencies ― all the more important as the next general election gets nearer.
“We’ll lose a huge amount of government transparency that might not be immediately viewable by the public, but are actually key resource used by media, parliamentarians, researchers and other anti-corruption and transparency groups,” Khairil said.
However, a bigger loss would be the absence of a Malaysian representative to offer local context and insight to the worldwide effort to standardise open parliament and government.
Without a representative, we would also be unable to adopt international standards and would be vulnerable to repeat the same mistakes already rectified by others.
And losing Sinar Project would also mean losing the decades of cumulative professional experience of the trio and others who have contributed to the initiative.
The way forward (or not)
Despite the axe hanging over their heads, Khairil and Tan seem undeterred. Sinar Project is still going ahead with its plan to complete a database of politically-exposed persons to combat corruption, and a study to expose Malaysian companies involved in the annual regional haze.
For Open Data Day this March 4, the group has scheduled a data expedition in its office to educate the public on how to search for data and utilise it, while advocating the spread of open data.
Khairil balked when asked if Sinar Project would consider going down the commercial route by selling the massive amount of data that it hosts.
“We can’t charge for them because these are essential services that the government should provide like parliamentary documents, that should not be a commercial service in Malaysia,” Khairil explained.
According to him, mining research projects for lucrative information such as business intelligence would make the group no different than financial research houses ― something that is far from their mind.
“The goals of non-profit is different from a business. Our goals are better democracy, better-informed citizens, and not to earn as much money as possible
“That’s not our goal. Our goal as Malaysians, the things we do are actually to make the country a better place,” he said.
To find out more about Sinar Project and the work they do, visit http://sinarproject.org/.