The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...

Civil society groups can play an important role in promoting and working for democracy and in holding political elites accountable to citizens. In Malaysia and Singapore, there have long been groups operating to represent interests in society, and many activists and scholars (in the West as well as in the two countries) have hoped that these groups would help push entrenched political leaders toward greater openness and democracy. Despite allowing a certain amount of space for civil society organizations to operate, neither Malaysia nor Singapore provides a model for civil society to crack open institutions and systems created to maintain authoritarian political power. In fact, in both Malaysia and Singapore there has been increased undermining of civil society over the last five years. Instead of finding reasons for optimism about democracy’s likely occurrence in these two countries, this paper finds that civil society’s ability to represent societal interests apart from the state, and to criticize and hold leaders accountable, has shrunk.  


Both Malaysia and Singapore have regular and competitive elections, both claim to be democratic, and both allow some space for groups in society to articulate interests and to (within limits) critique the political process. However, despite a great deal of optimism that liberal democratic norms and processes were taking hold, in the last few years both countries have seen a decrease in the rights of citizens and groups to challenge the ruling elites. One might even go so far as to say that new norms are taking hold in Southeast Asia whereby it is more common to find states undermining democratic efforts and voices than trying to support them. It is thus vital to understand the role that civil society organizations (CSOs) are playing or not playing in this dynamic.

Once believed to be a driver of democratization and liberalization, the role of civil society is actually a great deal more complex. Two phenomena are occurring in the cases of Malaysia and Singapore. First, both states are minimizing and trying to weaken the role that opposition groups, including CSOs, can play in the political sphere. Second, civil society groups are not just oppositional in nature, as they can act as supporters and proxies for the state, thus serving as obstacles to, rather than agents of, political reform. 

In political science literature, the term civil society is used in two ways. First, it is a description of the nature and tone of debate and discourse that exists in society to promote interests to the political realm. Do groups use violence or unfair means to oppose the regime, or do they play by the rules and norms of society and can thus be defined as “civil?” The more dynamic way that the term is used is as a mechanism for thinking about the role of organized groups in society and how they relate to the state. Do they exist separately or independently from the state, or are they co-opted and quiescent to state dictates—or does the relationship reflect something else? Understanding the degree of autonomy that associations have or do not have from the state has been the subject of prominent debate in the American Political Science Review.[1] This article uses the term mostly in the latter sense—that is, to describe the role and position of associational groups within society and to examine if they are working to protect individual or group interests from either the government or from other groups trying to achieve different goals.[2] As I have noted elsewhere, “The degree to which groups in society are free to operate and channel interests or challenge the state is one indication of how democratic or not a regime is.”[3] This freedom to articulate interests is important because of how it connects to transitions to democracy. Modernization theory’s basic argument is that democracy develops when groups of citizens in society (with common preferences) act to assert their interests and force the state to take these preferences into consideration in making policy and in being accountable. In other words, democracy can be viewed as a product of civil society actions.[4] Yet this is not what we are seeing in Southeast Asia in 2015.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every election in Singapore. Elections are largely viewed as free and fair, and there are large numbers of professional associations, such as the bar association, that represent the interests of their members by advocating for particular policies. However, most of these groups share a common outlook, which is basically pro-business and supportive of the regime. Likewise, the PAP has increased its efforts to weaken critical voices and groups. Opposition parties are constrained by strict rules regarding campaigns and activities, as well as outright bans on political films and TV shows. The government uses threats of libel suits, onerous regulations on political associations, tight media controls, and a politicized judiciary to stifle a freer political landscape and the ability of CSOs to act as a check on government power. Conventional media outlets like TV and radio stations and newspapers are owned by companies linked to the state; two media conglomerates, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp, dominate print and broadcast media. Although privately owned, their management enjoys close relations with the government, and outlets adhere to strict pro-government editorializing and reporting.[5] The Sedition Act is used to limit any form of expression deemed threatening to the well being of the state.The government of Singapore, since its independence in 1965, has resisted efforts aimed at granting citizens a greater role in governance. Civil society in Singapore is called upon to be civil in all manner of activity. In other words, groups ranging from religious organizations and business or professional associations to those promoting tolerance and rights for the LGBT community, as well as opposition political groups, are urged to be “respectful” and “peaceful” and to operate within the bounds of the country’s laws and norms. This means keeping in mind the overarching goals of the state, which are to maintain stability and to continue to prioritize economic growth. While the Singaporean government under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has adopted new language affirming the importance of civil society (such as “openness” and “inclusiveness”), the space for groups to call for significant change to the political order or even to criticize the government remains very narrow. The policies of harassment and legal action against individuals and groups perceived to be a threat to the regime remain in effect.[6]

Over the last two years, there have been increasing efforts to similarly squash the Internet and social media as outlets of free expression. A case in point is that of 16-year old Amos Yee, who was arrested in the spring of 2015 after making a YouTube video criticizing the recently deceased founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Yee is being charged with harassment and insulting a religious group for perceived slights to Christianity in his video, and for obscenity through the use of crude images and language. Yee faces steep fines and jail time for these perceived offenses.[7] Similarly, public assemblies require police permits. The Societies Act restricts freedom of association by requiring organizations with more than ten members to register with the government. And the government can allow or dissolve CSOs at will.[8] Thus, the landscape in Singapore for CSOs is quite restrictive. The government insists on “civil” society—one that is supportive of the state and not likely to question or criticize state actions and policies. In this environment it is difficult for organizations to play a role in holding the government accountable to the people or in prodding the political system to be more democratic and liberal. 


The landscape in Malaysia is both more open for CSOs and more problematic. Similarities with Singapore include an array of state laws and actions aimed at keeping opposition groups from challenging dominant party rule, and policies aimed at preventing ethno-religious conflict that also serve to reinforce state power. However, there is somewhat more space in Malaysia for civil society groups to exist and to play a role in channeling interests from society to the state. This slightly more open environment also results in a situation in which some civil society groups exhibit “uncivil” (militant and sometimes violent) behavior on behalf of state actors. 

From the late 1990s to 2010 there was a great deal of optimism that Malaysia’s political landscape was becoming more competitive and more democratic. Civil society was given more space to organize, both to represent specific interests and to articulate political ideas.[9] However, Malaysia has recently ramped up its use of restrictive laws to go after individuals and groups questioning or opposing the regime.

In the run-up to the 2013 general election, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to ban the Sedition Act. However, after only narrowly defeating the opposition coalition, the government both increased the act’s use against regime critics, and in the spring of 2015 the parliament actually strengthened the act. In 2014 alone, 15 people were charged with sedition for activities including blogging, posting on Facebook, and making comments at rallies.[10] Like Singapore, most traditional media outlets are owned by or connected to ruling political parties or businesses allied with the regime. Freedom of assembly and association is limited, and regulations are used to stymie both overt political organization as well as organizing by other types of CSOs. For example, in 2014 police dismantled a year-old blockade built by environmental groups and residents in Sarawak to stop the clearing of forested land for a hydroelectric dam project.[11] The Internet is the primary space for more free discussion, but the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission monitors the Internet and removes material considered subversive.[12] Like in Singapore, the government uses the courts to legally harass bloggers, activists, and organizers.

The increased crackdown against perceived threats to the regime reflects in part a landscape where CSOs have been allowed to operate and advocate for a diverse set of interests. For example, one finds active environmental organizations, groups advocating for greater electoral reforms, and groups advocating for women’s rights under Islam (just to name a few).[13]

Not all groups are feeling the heat from the regime. In Malaysia, as in Singapore, there are plenty of independent associations that support the state and its hold on power.[14] However, groups that have taken a public stand against the ruling parties or even against specific leaders or their supporters have found their ability to operate greatly restricted. This has been the case for Bersih, a group that advocates for greater oversight of elections and that has seen its leaders harassed and detained.[15]

There is an additional dynamic in Malaysia that reflects the regime’s increased fear of an independent society that can oppose the state. The ruling coalition has been using societal organizations for its own ends. Pekida and Perkasa, for instance, are two groups that the government has tapped. The dominant party, UMNO, or the United Malays National Organization, has used the groups, which are right-wing, quasi-militant, and pro-Malay, to help stir up trouble at opposition rallies and events. These groups are not controlled officially by UMNO or the government, but they seem happy to join forces with elements of the state to serve their mutual interests.[16] Such groups call into question both definitions of “civil society,” as they are neither “civil” nor do they exclusively represent society as distinct from the state. 


The willingness of the Malaysian and Singaporean governments to use the power of the state against elements of civil society that they find threatening forces us to rethink assumptions about the role that civil society might play in democratization processes. In the two countries, authoritarian states are willing to allow civil society when it suits their interests, but they crack down on groups that challenge the status quo. In some ways the message conveyed to transitional states in the Middle East from these two countries is that CSOs can be effectively managed in order to minimize their role in effecting change. While this may not be true over the long term, state power has proved quite resilient in Singapore and Malaysia. This is perhaps in part because some outlets for autonomous organization in some issue areas do exist, allowing for a slight release of pressure, and because the states have learned how to harness certain civil society actors for their own power while working to minimize the voices and groups that oppose them. 

[1] E. Nordlinger, “The Return to the State: Critiques,” American Political Science Review 82 (1988): 853-885; T. Mitchell, “The Limits of the State,” American Political Science Review 85 (1991): 77-96.  

[2] J. Diamond, “Rethinking Civil Society: Toward Democratic Consolidation,” Journal of Democracy 5, 3 (1994): 4-17. 

[3] Amy L. Freedman, “Civil Society, Moderate Islam, and Politics in Indonesia and Malaysia,” Journal of Civil Society 5, 2 (2009): 107-127.

[4] P.C. Schmitter, “On Civil Society and the Consolidation of Democracy: Ten General Propositions and Nine Speculations about their Relation in Asian Society,” paper presented at the conference, “Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies: Trends and Challenges,” Taipei, August 27-30, 1995. 

[5] T. Lee, “Gestural Politics: Civil Society in ‘New’ Singapore,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 20, 2 (2005). 

[6] Epic Lawyers, “A Comparison and Analysis of Taiwan’s and Singapore’s Media System,”, accessed May 20, 2015.

[7] Austin Ramzy, “Singapore Convicts Teenager of Obscenity and Insulting Religious Feelings,” New York Times, May 12, 2015,

[8] Freedom House, “Freedom in the World: Singapore,” 2015,

[9] M. Weiss, Protests and Possibilities: Civil Societies and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[10] Jennifer Pak, “What is Malaysia’s Sedition Law?” BBC News, November 27, 2014,; “Malaysia Strengthens Sedition Law in a ‘Black Day’ for Free Speech,” The Guardian, April 10, 2015.

[11] Villagers reconstructed the barrier, but the government and police continue to harass and detain organizers. See Elizabeth Zachariah, “Baram Dam Protestors Confront Forestry Officials, Set Up New Blockade,” The Malaysian Insider, October 22, 2014,; Freedom House, “Freedom in the World: Malaysia,” 2015,

[12] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net: Malaysia,” 2014,

[13] Bersih (meaning “clean” in Bahasa) is a coalition of groups calling for cleaner, more transparent, and fair elections; MENGO (Malaysian Environmental NGO) is an umbrella organization of various environmental groups; and Sisters in Islam is an organization that advocates for women’s rights under Islam. 

[14] Examples include various chambers of commerce in Malaysia as well as industry trade groups with close ties to the government, such as the Renong Group and the Genting Group. 

[15] It is worth noting that Bersih is permitted to exist, and to a limited extent it can organize events and maintain a website. However, it is constrained in what it is allowed to do, and leaders of the movement have faced criminal and civil charges over organizing rallies.   

[16] Sophie Lemière, “Politics in a Grey Zone: Connivance Militants in Malaysia and Tunisia,” talk given at Columbia University, March 12, 2015.

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