MAY 16 — No social movement lasts forever. I understand that very well. My own work towards the full abolition of the death penalty was halted by a sudden and irreversible decision by a group of individuals who would describe themselves as activists and human rights defenders. That movement was ended by a decision of people who are not even on the ground.

The only reason why I am still here doing the same work I am doing, advocating for the abolition of the death penalty, comes from the collective belief between me and my colleagues that the cause and advocacy must continue regardless of our employment status and likely out of sheer stubbornness (and maybe my team too).

Kok Hin’s article titled “We keep losing activists — here’s why” was a particularly interesting read over a morning coffee. As the Executive Director of Bersih, a national movement that most look to for inspiration and leadership, his article comes at a pivotal moment where the civil society scene in Malaysia is seen as ineffectual.

Work at NGO? Got pay ka?

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Anyone who has ever worked in an NGO or a charitable organisation (let’s call it an industry) in Malaysia would tell you that this is one of the most frequent questions they have to answer. This assumption is not surprising; public ignorance, coupled with narratives that people in the industry should or must be driven purely by the belief for a better world instead of profit, has a lasting impact on how employment in the industry is structured.

While I appreciate the sentiment and need for purity of will and thoughts to make a social movement work, blind adherence to this idea is built upon wilful ignorance of the practical economic needs of any living person, which, last I checked, includes myself and any other activists. I still had bills to pay, including a notorious car loan, irrespective of my fervent belief in the cause.

We still need to feed ourselves, provide for our family, and save for tomorrow. To do this, we need a degree of job security, fair pay, a functional and safe workplace, etc. We are no different from any other industry or workplace. The only difference should be the moral foundations that guide us as an industry through the maintenance of standards for labour and human rights we claim to advocate for.

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For starters, if the minimum wage is RM1,500 and the living wage (circa 2017) is RM2,700, are we offering salaries where people working in the industry can not only survive but also plan for tomorrow? Are we paying minimum wage for interns yet?

Are we providing a better workspace that is not only free from abusive behaviours, bullying, or discrimination but also genuinely inclusive where we provide opportunities for vulnerable communities and persons with lived experiences?

If the industry cannot give form to our ideals, are we surprised that what we advocate for does not resonate and fall flat? Should we be surprised that the general public, with limited exposure to social movements and civil society organisations, would know better? Should we be surprised that civil societies have problems retaining talents?

Anyone who has ever worked in an NGO or a charitable organisation (let’s call it an industry) in Malaysia would tell you that this is one of the most frequent questions they have to answer: Work at NGO? Got pay? — Picture by Farhan Najib
Anyone who has ever worked in an NGO or a charitable organisation (let’s call it an industry) in Malaysia would tell you that this is one of the most frequent questions they have to answer: Work at NGO? Got pay? — Picture by Farhan Najib

We’re activists, it is an occupational hazard.

Let me be blunt about this. Being subjected to second-hand trauma, facing state reprisal, dealing with public condemnation (at least a portion of the public), and potentially getting a death threat are just a handful of occupational hazards one would have to deal with in social movements.

If a person is fearful of confrontation, do you think he should be recruited as a police officer? If a person is deathly afraid of blood and other bodily fluids, do you think they should serve as a doctor?

Odds are you would say no. I do not see why social movement should be any different, barring the methodology of how we filter out candidates and eventually say no to those who do not make the cut.

The industry should provide fair opportunities, including the necessary support for one to learn and develop the necessary resilience to cope with these hazards. If a sufficient support structure still leaves you overwhelmed or incapacitated by this work, I am sorry, but maybe you are not cut out for this industry.

This is not coming from a place of malice or condescension but a practical acknowledgement that any profession requires specific traits and skill sets for a person to thrive.

When I first began my activism work at Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), I went in understanding the organisation’s history with the Internal Security Act 1960, the state harassment under Najib Razak and the ongoing work around terrorism offences and crackdown on freedom of expression. I went in being briefed and explained that my day-to-day work itself may result in state reprisal and I should prepare for it. I was given training, capacity building and support to make sure I can cope with these hazards. If I am not able to handle it, that is not the fault of the organisation; I may not be cut out for it.

If you cannot swim, please don’t aspire to be a lifeguard.

Being an advocate and being a manager are two different things.

Assuming the industry does provide due pay and suitable support for the work we do, lest we forget: any social movements still require organisational or institutional structures. We are no different from any other industry and we need the right people for the job.

If we have an exemplary orator that has zero sense in strategic planning leading an organisation, it does not take a genius to know that things would not go well. Yet in civil society organisations, we have a nasty habit of elevating orators and advocates who lack the critical skills needed to manage and run an organisation.

Being capable of speaking on behalf of an organisation and managing an organisation are two very different jobs. The capacity to write well-thought-out articles or policy research does not automatically equate to being an effective advocate.

When we have senior leaders who are not necessarily competent in management skills, we end up in a situation where people working for civil movements become burnt out due to mismanagement, abusive behaviours, gaslighting, and the list goes on.

A vision for tomorrow

Sort out all these problems and the industry might have a fighting chance in the long run. Address the fundamentals so we won’t be barely surviving the moment as an industry. With that, we can talk about having visionary leaders who can sell the idea of what tomorrow ought to be and bring us closer to it.

At the end of the day, a social movement lives by selling the public an idea of a better tomorrow, be it for the short term or the long run.

Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR), for example, served its role perfectly at a critical juncture of our political history. Was it perfect? No — but I learned from the mistakes we made along the way. I always held hope that others would be able to take away from that experience as well.

For Bersih, the struggle was never going to be resolved with a change of administration — rendering the need for strong organisational fundamentals crucial for the fight to outlast administrations.

That being said, revolutionising the way the industry treats the three elements I mentioned above only serves to strengthen the civil society scene in Malaysia. For that, I wish Kok Hin and other leaders who have stepped up all the best. Take us away from the values that got us here in the first place.

* Dobby Chew is the Chief Executive Officer at HAYAT. He was the Executive Coordinator for the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) before the untimely demise of his (and his team’s) career. He was previously the Documentation and Monitoring Coordinator at Suaram.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.