New Media and Civil Society: A Study of Native Customary Rights (NCR) Land and Community-based Organisations (CBOs) in Sarawak, Malaysia

Photo Credit: The Borneo Project

[Yap Pao Sium] Civil society generally refers to a sphere where individuals exercise their freedom and rights through voluntary, independent associations. Spurred by world political events, the discourse of civil society shifted to a democratising mission against the tyranny of the state. It was also during the 1980s in Malaysia, middle-class non-governmental organisations (NGOs) blossomed and advocated for human rights issues such as feminism, labour and environment. In the late 1990s, the Internet was hailed as the platform to widen the public sphere in the oppressive environment of media in Malaysia, especially its broadcasting industry. The following two decades witnessed how websites, blogs and social media became the staple platform to influence public opinion especially before general elections. This thesis explores the relationship between civil society and new media using the study of native customary rights (NCR) land community-based organisations (CBOs) in Sarawak, Malaysia. Sarawak, the largest state of the Bornean Island, formed the Federation of Malaysia with Sabah in 1963 bound by an agreement that secured their oil royalty and native status as Bumiputra (prince of the soil). Sarawak is rich with natural resources, flora, fauna and cultural heritage with over 27 ethnic groups residing on the land. However, over the years, Sarawak lost much of its assets due to illegal deforestation and native land grabbing. Since the 1970s, environmental groups and activists have fought hard to reinstate the definition of NCR against state-given provisional leases (PLs) awarded to logging and palm oil manufacturing companies. This research uses the analytical framework from Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci’s notion of civil society to understand the potential of new media in expanding the NCR land advocacy in Sarawak. Gramsci sees civil society as an arena of struggles between ruling and ruled classes to achieve hegemony, referring to cultural domination by shaping consent. To Gramsci, this consensus has to be constantly maintained through superstructural institutions such as religion, education, media and tourism. Therefore, civil society is the complex sphere where the state exerts its authority without having to resort to military forces, unless the hegemony is broken. The current state of literature suggests that the contribution of new media to Malaysian political changes is more to do with instantaneous online activities and rarely related to ongoing organising processes. Academic research studies about native customary land in Sarawak are largely technical, focused on geological mapping and land laws. By taking on the Gramscian framework, this thesis rejects the liberal paradigm that defines civil society as an autonomous sphere that unanimously aims for the common good, participated in by rational individuals. There is more to explore beyond the celebratory claims of freedom brought about by NGOs and new media. Characterising civil society as a complex arena of conflicting interests and actors is a more realistic way to understand the CBOs’ empowerment efforts related to Sarawakian subalterns and their interests. Interviews with the CBOs personnel and web-based analysis of their online platforms showed deep-seated distrust not only toward the state and new communication technologies, but among NGOs, indigenous ethnic groups, and churches. The Gramscian civil society framework allows the research to synthesise the potentials of new media in the CBOs’ organising activities as separate yet interrelated entities against the background of the lower status of Sarawak indigenous people. The research further contributes insights into the sturdy trenches of civil society that protect the state – officially sanctioned media systems, education, religion and national identities. By way of conclusion, the research suggests that the CBOs should consolidate their advocacy and venture into the site of hegemony to establish and normalise their cultural image. | Download Full Text |

Dr. Yao Pao Sium is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Communication and Creative Industries, Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TARUC). The article is uploaded with her permission.