Our Civic Space is Shrinking: What is Going On and How Can We Resist?

Our Civic Space is Shrinking: What is Going On and How Can We Resist?


Khoo Ying Hooi is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya. She is the author of “Seeds of Dissent,” a compilation of her commentaries on academic freedom, human rights, protests, and political change in Malaysia. Ying Hooi is currently a columnist in Sin Chew Jit Poh, Deputy Editor of the Malaysian Journal of International Relations (MJIR), and she serves as Malaysia’s national focal point for the thematic study on the right to education in ASEAN under the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

Our Civic Space is Shrinking: What is Going On and How Can We Resist?” is the think piece Ying Hooi presented at the recently concluded ‘Reflection-Retreat on Civic Space’ hosted by the Innovation for Change – East Asia Hub in Hong Kong.

Our Civic Space is Shrinking: What is Going On and How Can We Resist?

Khoo Ying Hooi (PhD)

Part 1: Global Threat of Shrinking Civic Space

Around the world, there is growing discourse on the alarming increase of the shrinking civic space despite the different models of governments, be it authoritarian rules, hybrid regimes or the so-­called democracies. The forms, methods and intentions of these governments however do not represent a new pattern of politics. Similarly, the problem of shrinking civic space is neither new nor a short‐term phenomenon. Shrinking civic space is real while it is diverse in its manifestation and severity. These governments increasingly instigate negative narratives of civil society with various labels, for instance, being a foreign agent, and of supporting terrorism‐related activities. These narratives are intended to foster mistrust among the public on civil society advocacy. They impose new barriers to the operations and funding of the civil society through legislations, harassment and intimidation, and criminalizing dissenting voices. While the civil society despairs for the threat of closing civic space, ironically, it is also a reflection that the governments are increasingly fear for losing their privilege and power. Under such distress situation, in what ways can we defend, protect and reclaim our civic space? In what ways can we counter and protest?

Globally, scholars and think‐tank organisations report a significant rise in the number of protests around the world since the mid 2000s. For example, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace documented that major protests occurred in over 60 countries since 2010. This rise in global protests reveals the growing loss of confidence of established political institutions and actors. Yet, what’s disturbing is that, at the same time while the established practices are increasingly challenged, the civic and political spaces to organize and mobilize have diminished. According to Douglas Rutzen of the International Centre for Not‐for‐Profit Law (ICNL), more than 90 laws restricting the freedoms of association or assembly have been proposed or enacted since 2012. The events of Arab Spring, Occupy movement and many other major protests around the world trigger the debate on the potential of fourth wave of democratization followed by the analysis of famous scholar, Samuel Huntington’s third wave of democratization in the 1970s. Such debate is however short‐lived when the international world order takes another shift.

What we are experiencing now is not merely a response in the national politics, but it is also a response to the international pressure and incentives. Looking at the democracy deficit in a broader perspective, the international world order has changed, first with the changing policy of United States and second, with the aggressive approach from China.

While the factual evidence for any link between Chinese influences with the authoritarian persistence is ambiguous, it is worth considering to start questioning the norms that will dominate the regional geo‐strategic environment. Such geopolitical shift is potentially an indication that of the popular ideas of authoritarian diffusion, or even democracy prevention.

Part 2: The Battle for Civic Space in Southeast Asia

In the Southeast Asia region, authoritarian rules and state repression are not new. Southeast Asia’s varied historical and geopolitical circumstances created diversified political structures. It is marked by a fragmented state of democratic development, which could probably be explained by looking at the region’s different political values in regards to governance systems. Despite the differences, the Southeast Asian countries share one common trait, that is, the existence of state repression, in which it brings direct threat to the civic space in the region.

Increasing intolerance towards the Rohingyas has tainted Myanmar’s democracy transition from military rule with Thailand remains under military rule. Even in Indonesia, that has lauded as the most democratic country in the region are growing increasingly threatened by extreme Islamic groups. The “competitive authoritarian” regimes of Malaysia and Singapore are surviving, while one‐party closed regimes in Laos and Vietnam remain untouched. From the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to the crackdown on political opposition by Prime Minister Hun Sen in Cambodia, contemporary politics across the region showcases many instances of repression on political opposition and government critics. The monitoring tracking of the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) has categorized the countries’ civic spaces in Southeast Asia to obstructed (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Philippines and Timor Leste), repressed (Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia) and closed (Laos and Vietnam).

Across Southeast Asia, antagonism between government and the media is also intensifying as both local and international news organizations come under attack with threats of closure. In the era where information is uncontrollably spreading, this rising hostility toward press freedom is a grave concern with the amplifying authoritarianism in the region. The most recent 2017 press freedom index produced by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that the state of media freedom in the Southeast Asia is in the worst state. Out of the 180 countries surveyed, Timor Leste that is still not part of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) ranked the best at 98. Indonesia that traditionally always been lauded as having one of the freest media in the region only performed at the rank of 124. Thailand and the Philippines have slipped from 66 to 142 and 89 to 127, respective Vietnam and Laos are both categorized as media black spots at 175 and 170, respectively.

This bleak scenario did not happen overnight. Fundamentally, democratic rules, including persistent adherence to international human rights standards are never been strong elements in Southeast Asia’s political norms. This then requires us to shift our focus away from the question not about how and why transition and consolidation of democracy took place, but why in many countries what seemed to have consolidated such as Philippines and Indonesia remain severely flawed in its democracy practices.

How do we then explain such phenomenon? To a great extent, it seems that the contemporary state of democracy in Southeast Asia might not be the threat of democratic reversal alone; it could also be due to the strength of durable authoritarianism. After a decade of rapid expansion in the 1990s followed by the global protest wave in the mid 2000s, democratic progress has however hampered in many parts of the world. Somewhat, these trends illustrate that there might be a strong perception that democracy, while conceivably not in essence abandoned, shows that the tendency towards illiberal politics and authoritarian leadership is a response to the perceived weaknesses of democratic rules, that have not been able to eliminate, just to name a few, areas in inequality, poverty, crime and injustice.

The danger is that these illiberal policies are popular among the citizens, as they want immediate changes in their daily lives. This then leads to another topic that is hotly debated currently, is populism a threat? The populism itself is controversial as it has various definitions. Basically, it can be summarised in three fundamental characteristics. Populists have popular but unsustainable policies, it also creates specific population group as the sole “legitimate” population, and the populists generally possess highly personalized leadership that highlights direct linkage with the population. While the debates of whether populism is a threat to democracy is still on‐going, what is evident is that the newly assertive illiberal politics are reaffirming strong sovereignty norms that sparked a new wave of pre-emptive measures aimed at deterring civic mobilization. What is the local impact of these restrictions? How do we enable the civic and political participations where civil liberties have been restricted? Most importantly, how can we keep our civic space safe?

Part 3: Strategic Calculations Between Repression and Survival

This global phenomenon points at the serious threats against civic freedoms and political rights. Now that the discourse on the closing civic space has become a much‐debated issue its causes and impacts are widely discussed among the activists, academics and human rights defenders. There requires blunt conversations on how to preserve political openness where it exists so to avoid the missed opportunities, and in the meanwhile, how to restore opening in the most disrupted cases, both grounded in a mutual understanding of the principal causes of today’s acceleration of counter‐democratization strategies.

Civil society actors walk a fine line between the struggle of opening up space for effective resistance and becoming a target of repression simultaneously. The threats are twofold. They are being seen as a direct antagonistic to a closed regime, or they can also be seen as compromised by international‐driven agendas that allegedly aimed to overthrow a closed regime. Ultimately, there is a confluence of internal and external determinants that affect the sustainability of civil society advocacy under different situations. On another hand, this also reveals that many of us have found ourselves underprepared to survive with this severe disruption by the governments.

Closing space for civil society has far‐reaching implications that we could imagine, in the short‐ and long­‐term. It not only undermines the ability of people to effectively advancing human rights, holding their governments accountable, and serving the marginalised and vulnerable communities, it also weakens the ability of civil society to provide critical services like healthcare, education, shelter and humanitarian aid that are crucial to improving the daily lives of people. This is where it becomes a practical starting point for anyone seeking to untangle the sources and implications of Southeast Asia’s democratic deficit, which has a direct correlation to closing civic space. Closing civic space is not merely a concern of the people working in the human rights or social justice sectors, it has to be “rebranded” as a concern of everyone as it impacts everyone in the long‐term.

How do we then change the “game”? While there appears to have similarities across all these countries, we need to be cautious that there are also different features, which further complicates the developing of counter‐strategies. On that account, innovative resistance strategies are required. The question is how do we develop one that actually works? Some of the counter‐strategies are, for examples, to design counter­‐narratives that can influence and mobilize public opinion and to utilize technology to increase awareness and visibility. One method that can be use more often is to look beyond the economic, political and social structural conditions through the compelling stories of the people.

But, what’s more important is that the counter‐strategies should be jointly addressed as most causes that driving the phenomenon of closing civic space are interconnected. For example, one of the most common negative narratives by the governments is the legitimacy issue, in which it is mainly highlights due to the dependence of most organisations on foreign funding. To address that, the organisations would need to seek alternative financial supports in order to counter‐narrative and in the mean time, to also increase the trust of people6, in which in the long‐term, it will in return change the perception that struggle on civic space only belongs to the human rights organisations where the civic space is in fact belongs to everyone.

Linking to the argument on dependency on external sources of funding, some scholarly works reveals that closing civic space correlates with weak links between civil society and local populations. At this critical juncture, self‐criticism is probably much appreciated. The logic behind is that, civic space is shrinking partly due to the limited response or reaction by the people when the governments impose restrictions. John Clark suggests that there is a need for shifts in tactics and argues that civil society is potentially becoming less relevant without the support from the people. This brings to the counter‐strategy of the need to broadening domestic constituencies, for instance, through the formation of bottom‐up civic coalitions.

This line of inquiry discloses that closing space is partially a consequence of the lack of connectivity and relevance of civil society to the larger populations. Public opinion data and statistics then come into place as it presents a potential essential tool to have a comprehensive view of how and what people think. The data is particularly useful to help reassess strategies and in the mean time, to foster resilient civil society. The data can be as extensive as exploring what motivates and enables governments to close space and what strategies that might work in different situations. This could be done through the joint initiative between the academic‐civil society in utilizing the public opinion survey data as a tool to increase the connectivity of civil society to the people they are meant to serve as well as to help generate new sources of funding particularly the domestic ones9.

In the repression‐mobilization nexus that often applied in the social movement studies, there are several causal scenarios, for instance, repression decreases mobilization, repression increases mobilization, mobilization decreases repression and mobilization increases repression. While the stakes are high and the counter‐strategies are challenging to be put in practice due to various practical limitations such as manpower and resources, the spirit of solidarity should be re‐emphasized by putting the collective effort to regain our civic space.

Civic space is the ground of any open and democratic society. When civic space is open, civil society is able to organise, participate and communicate without hindrances and restrictions. In doing so, they are then able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. The role of states should not be dismissed although most of the time, the states are the one that impose threats to shrinking civic space. Having said that, this can only happen when a state holds by its duty and responsibility to protect its citizens and respects and facilitates their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions.

In responding to the global threats on closing civic space, all of us have tough choices to be made. It will not be an easy one and there will be no guarantee on the efficacy of the counter‐strategies as well. But, we know giving in is not an option; rather we should invest in strategic resistance by recognizing our weaknesses. Fighting the shrinking civic space is about reclaiming rights. It is crucial to strike strategic calculations between state repression and the survival of the civic space. There is apparently no quick fix and there is no one‐size‐fits‐all remedy for Southeast Asia region, it is of great importance and high­‐priority to continue making this systematic problem more visible and understanding what can be the most effective ways to respond to it.


One thought on “Our Civic Space is Shrinking: What is Going On and How Can We Resist?

  • March 11, 2018 at 4:27 am

    What a great work done. It is informative. Resiting the threat requires the concerted effort of civil society organizations using the bottom to top approach. Thank you.


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