Understanding US Funding to Malaysian Civil Society
In 2012, the New Straits Times came under fire for accusing NGOs and actors within Malaysia’s civil society of scheming anti-government activities in an article titled “Plot to destabilise govt,” by journalist Farrah Naz Karim. The NST piece claimed that because various NGOs received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-profit foundation financed by the United States government, this was proof of a foreign destabilization agenda. Online news portal Free Malaysia Today published a counter argument written by Anisah Shukry, “NST report: ‘Ridiculous and rubbish’,” which contained valid refutations by accused figures in civil society who called on the NST to practice greater journalism ethics. Karim’s NST piece failed to substantiate these accusations with analysis and it was no doubt flawed, it is also clear that the author did not personally have a great deal of knowledge about the parties and institutions involved, evident in her erroneously referring to the Israeli government as the “Jewish government”.
Although this article raised contentious sentiments and leveled serious accusations without a clear explanation, the issue itself should be critically examined. Its no secret that the National Endowment for Democracy has a presence in Malaysia, and according to its official website, it provides over $1 million USD to various projects in Malaysia each year. This funding has been perceived suspiciously because of the overtly political nature of the NED’s programs and the fact that senior US political figures have leading roles in the organizations active in Malaysia. According to the NED’s history statement on its official website, the CIA was responsible for distributing covert funding overseas throughout the 1960s, prompting the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to call for the establishment of “a public-private mechanism” to fund overseas activities openly. Alan Weinstein, one of the founders of the National Endowment for Democracy, was famously quoted in a 1991 interview with the Washington Post reaffirming, “A lot of what we [NED] do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.”
The National Endowment for Democracy is funded primarily through the US Congress, within the budget of USAID, the US agency for development assistance, which is part of the US State Department – this means that the money the NED gives to foreign countries comes from public funds paid by citizen taxpayers. Funding mostly flows to its two main component parties, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), both affiliated with the Republican and Democratic political parties in the United States. While the NED remains accountable to the US Congress and is required to publish its disbursements, this doesn't apply to the organizations that it in turn finances, such as the IRI and NDI, both the main recipients of funding in Malaysia. According to historian William Robinson, "NED employs a complex system of intermediaries in which operative aspects, control relationships, and funding trails are nearly impossible to follow and final recipients are difficult to identify."