Rousing a sleeping giant Beasts of Survival Separation of Mahathir the Satan
Anwar: A Visionary Leader?
by Terence Netto
COMMENT Is Anwar Ibrahim an irresponsible rider of the zeitgeist, or is he a leader who has a feel for the law of unintended consequences and has manned himself nobly to face the formidable challenges of the path of bold reform he elected upon 14 years ago that is now poised for execution?
In other words, is he an opportunist thumping the tub with minimal concern for consequences, or is he a visionary leader with a matchless ability to convey high flown speculation in the accents of the street, a place now reverberating with the democratic spirit of the times leveraging on which would afford him the spotlight-grabbing presence of a global leader?
In sum, is he charlatan or statesman?To be sure, the double-sidedness of this question that dogs Anwar has been the common lot of many a pivotal politician in eras past, with allies and adversaries, contemporaries and successors, journalists and historians, puzzled by what they see as enigmatic, contradictory, and even, hypocritical, strains to their character.
Today, by accepting the invitation to be the fifth speaker in the series called Royal Selangor Club Presidential Luncheon Talks, Anwar has chosen to saunter into a situation where he may well be subjected to sharp and unceremonious questioning from a sellout crowd on the penumbras to his political personality.
The 350 seats to the luncheon were taken up within three days of the posters publicising the event going up at the prestigious club. In contrast, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, the first invitee to the series that begun last January, had 184 takers; Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the second invitee, had 148 takers; Musa Hitam, the third speaker, had 190; and Lim Guan Eng, the fifth, drew 275 diners.
Lim’s draw was the most creditable of the series until Anwar’s because dining rates for his talk were raised from RM50 for club members and RM70 for guests to RM80 and RM100 respectively – a marked increase that, apparently, did not have a diminishing effect on attendance.
The raised rates have been retained for Anwar’s talk which at its draw of 350 diners is a smash because he had asked for a September 6 date, but was told by the club that they needed more time to publicise the event.
In the event, the club did not need the extra time to herald the talk. It could have been held at Anwar’s request early date. Seats were sold out within 72 hours of the posters going up – and that was in the first week of September.
Tough questions expected
However, a brimming house is no guarantee of likeability for what the speaker is going to say and there could be a number of pesky questioners eager to have a go at Anwar who ought not to avail himself of the protection the talk’s moderator offered Najib when he faced a question about his willingness to accept the results of the 13th general election.
The moderator interposed in the question-and-answer session to absolve Najib of the need to reply although the question was perfectly in order because it was on a subject that speaker had threaded in his postprandial remarks.
The protocol on these occasions is that invited speakers should not be asked questions on matters they had not raised in their speech.Of course, nobody would expect Anwar to affect the Dr Mahathir Mohamad stance that the latter made famous at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Lingam video controversy in January 2008.
That General Custer-like stand saw Mahathir claim that he was prepared to answer any questions within or outside the terms of reference of the inquiry, a typically pre-emptive position taken by the former prime minister to rock circling detractors back on their heels.
But that bombast fell flat when Mahathir trotted out the excuse of a not sufficiently retentive memory at the inquiry when he was pegged on lacunae in his conduct and that of his aides.
Anwar, an exponent of transparency and accountability in government, cannot rely on comparable subterfuge for his salvation before an audience that is likely to temper admiration with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The reference here to Mahathir is not without relevance, for it was at the Royal Selangor Club where Mahathir was first introduced to Anwar in 1971. It remains to be seen if Anwar would make that first encounter the subject of his talk today; it is a fit subject for dilation.
First impressions can be deceptive or they can be spot-on for a lifetime. By dwelling at length on his first impressions on Mahathir, Anwar can show what has learned over four intervening decades on the nature of fleeting and immediate impressions.
That way he would tell a lot on the moral thrust and empirical substance of his perceptual and analytical ability, which is important because Anwar would, if it comes to that, be Malaysia’s first PM of an avowedly intellectual bent all the “rage” writers completely ignore the long history of interaction and support between people in the “West” and “Muslim” world – from interfaith jam sessions in medieval al-Andalus to kings and sultans, beys and deys, allying against common enemies on both sides of the religious divide in the unceasing great power games of the early modern era, to tens of thousands of European migrants building multi-ethnic, religious and linguistic communities in 19th century Alexandria or Tunis (in which former Christian slaves could rise to high government positions), to anarchist-inspired activist collectives conspiring together against authoritarian capitalist elites in early 20th – and now 21st – century Cairo, Madrid and Wall Street.
Maybe it’s time for the comedy writers in New York and Los Angeles to move to Texas. They need to be closer to their source material because Texas Governor Rick Perry is making it easy for everyone to be a comic. Of course, it might not be Perry; it could just be Satan making Perry look like a clown, assuming, of course, you think Satan exists. (And if he does, is Satan important enough to be capitalized?)
Regardless of whether you believe Perry’s assertion that the horned one stalks the universe, the governor’s arguments about faith and government are even funnier than him insisting the devil is trying to make politics the province of only evil types. Hell, look at what Perry’s administration has done to Texas in recent years with regards to making health care unobtainable for the poor, cutting school budgets so he could run for president, and forcing women to get sonograms before abortion procedures; he’s a case study in the evil nature of politics. Perry appears to have given Satan a blowtorch and made taxpayers put on gasoline suits.
“I believe in Satan,” the governor said at the Texas Tribune Festival. “And I hope most of the people in here do, too. The great trick that Satan pulls is making people believe that he didn’t (sic) exist. It’s a very interesting discussion we need to have as a country.”
Yes, of course, one out of every four people living in Texas is without health care, we have the highest number of people over age 25 without high school diplomas, we are firing teachers, our roads are being turned into cash machines for corporations because the Perry administration won’t fight to have the state fund them, and he wants to talk about Satan. Perry believes that there is no doubt Satan is trying to keep people of faith out of government. Satan appears to be about as competent as Perry, however, since our political stages continue to be tread by Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and others who make their Christian faith a part of what informs their politics, though the interpretations of what is Christian vary wildly in political parties.
Satan can’t be all that smart if he has Rick Perry doing his PR.
“If you don’t want to think there’s forces of darkness and spiritual forces at work that’s your call,” Perry told his interviewer. He noted:
My Christian faith teaches me that. The idea that you believe that Satan could be involved in every act and decision in the world, it’s not out of the ordinary for those of us of the Christian faith, and if he’s trying to keep people out of the public arena any way he can by hook or crook or lying or whatever you wanna put out there. I believe he’s certainly capable of that. That’s my belief and I don’t apologize for it.
Perry has too many other things he needs to apologize for. But his misdirection call is, “Hey look, Bub, it’s Beelzebub.” Nobody’s ever asked him to abandon his faith. What’s annoying and destructive is when he tries to force his faith into the institutions of government because he thinks it’s what best for Texas and the rest of the country. It’s easy to figure out what his opinion on that idea would be if we had a Jewish or Muslim governor. Perry’s not talking about people of faith, he’s referring to people of his Christian religion, and he thinks the law is virtually persecuting Christians and keeping them from practicing their religion in the U.S.
“When there’s a directive that comes down from a federal court that says you can’t pray at a public event,” he explained, “that’s basically saying people of faith should not be involved in the public arena. There’s case after case where folks have been pushed back on from standpoint of being engaged in prayer.”
Those of us who believe in the separation of church and state will continue to hope that the court will keep prayer away from public institutions. If you are Jewish or Muslim or Hindu and pay taxes, why would you want to pay for buildings and public venues where Christians pray and you don’t? Perry is no different than other Christian evangelicals and wants his belief system adopted by, not just all Americans, but the entire world. At a political event in San Antonio several years ago, he was asked by a Jewish reporter about the pastor’s claim from the pulpit that anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus Christ as their savior was “bound to burn in hell.” Perry, less than subtle, let the Jewish journalist know he didn’t have much of a future.
“I believe that no one goes to heaven unless they have Jesus Christ as their savior,” he said.
That same Jewish reporter and I had traveled on many presidential and gubernatorial campaigns together and I always winced when we were in taxpayer-funded buildings, like schools, and he had to tolerate Christian invocations before he then tolerated the political rally.
Perry, like many others who are religiously intolerant of different belief systems, constantly refers to America’s Founding Fathers as his argument for prayer in schools and public places, oblivious, of course, to the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson. In his letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, who complained to the president that they were not being allowed to practice their brand of Christianity, Jefferson made clear that faith and government ought not ever be wed, and he cast the phrase that has guided our country on this matter for more than two centuries.
‘I contemplate with sovereign reverence,” Jefferson wrote, “that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
The line is hardly subject to misinterpretation but it suffers an abundance of distortions. Both the Constitution and one of its designers wanted to prevent the government from doing anything that promotes any religion, and praying, especially organized prayer, in a public institution, or at a high school football game, or before convening a legislative body in a taxpayer funded capitol, is offering sustenance to a belief system that is not held by everyone who submits to the tax laws. It is, therefore, wrong.
But it’s possible I forgot to sign off my computer and Satan wrote this while I was runnin’ around sinnin’ somewhere.
Of course, such collaborations also have had their much darker side, in the cozy relationships between Western and Arab/Muslim governments. Whether it’s freedom fighters morphing into terrorists (a la Osama bin Laden), or terrorists becoming freedom fighters (as we’ve seen occur just last week with the Obama administration’s decision to remove the MEK from the list of terrorist organisations), such policies are at the root of the broader distortions in the relationships between the Muslim majority world and the West that most “rage” writers fail to explain.
Maybe they do hate us?
If the Arab uprisings of the last two years have taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as one Arab personality or culture. Just as the US is seemingly evenly divided between two broad trends that can scarcely be considered part of the same identity, most every Arab/Muslim country is riven by overlapping class, ethnic, sectarian, tribal, national and other conflicts.
The one generality that increasingly unites people across the globe, however, is the clear lack of solidarity between the wealthiest members of all societies and their poorer compatriots. Whether it’s the richest 1.5 per cent in the United States, 5 per cent in Pakistan or 10 per cent in Egypt or Morocco, contemporary neoliberal, globalised capitalism is uniting the interests of elites against the rest of their societies – and as a result, the interests of the rest of us together in opposition, like never before. This was clear to anyone lucky enough to be in Tunis or Cairo during their initial uprisings, or Milwaukee, Lower Manhattan and Madrid not longer thereafter.
When you look at the incredible damage being wrought by energy, mining, agribusiness, food processing, weapons, and so many other industries on the planet, from global warming to rain forest destruction to the poisoning of large swaths of the land and sea, it’s hard not to believe that they – the political and economic elites who manage the world today and control most of its resources and wealth – really do hate the rest of us. Or at the very least, they couldn’t care less.
It’s almost like a flashback to nearly 1,000 years ago, when Christianity and Islam fought Crusades. In a wide swathe ranging from Australia, through West Asia and Europe to the US, mob violence by Islamic protesters has targeted western institutions and Christian places of worship. The ongoing religious fury has been sparked by a documentary film denigrating Islam, made by a Christian fundamentalist who has since gone into hiding.
Those who have seen the film – before several governments banned it from websites – unanimously agree that it is imbecile in content and in the worst possible taste imaginable. The rage that it has generated, however, has been in inverse proportion to its abysmal quality. The many voices of sanity raised, both in the Islamic and the Christian community, against the tragic violence which has claimed several lives, including that of an American ambassador, have largely been drowned by the hysteria of hate.
To make matters worse, a French satire magazine has published caricatures of the Prophet, and a German magazine is said to be planning a provocative special issue presenting Islam in a less than flattering light. Once again, Islam-baiting seems to have become a popular participatory sport in several parts of the western, largely Christian, world, despite pleas by political leaders like President Obama that in true democracies and free societies all religions merit equal respect.
Critics of Islam justify their views and actions in the name of what they claim is the bedrock of liberal democracy, as represented by the western world: freedom of expression. The recent publication of Salman Rushdie’s fictionalised account of his exile in the West after the fatwa issued against him following the publication of The Satanic Verses has added further resonance to the debate between freedom of expression and the sanctity of religious and cultural sensibilities.
The self-congratulatory claim of the Christian West to represent freedom of speech as opposed to the supposed tyranny of silence imposed by Islam doesn’t stand the scrutiny of history. The Inquisition, under pain of torture, silenced Galileo’s ‘heresy’ against the Christian belief that it was the sun that moved around the earth, and not vice versa. The Vatican’s list of prohibited books still includes many world classics, and a number of American schools partly or totally ban Darwin’s theory of evolution in favour of the church-approved doctrine of ‘intelligent design’.
Perhaps the problem is not what fundamental Islam and fundamental Christianity don’t have in common, but what they do have in common. And that is that both are assertively proselytising faiths which actively, often aggressively, seek converts.
When my faith enjoins me to get you to change your faith, and your faith enjoins you to do the same with me, confrontation becomes inevitable. Proselytisation implies not just the superiority of my faith to yours; it totally denies the validity of your faith and narrows the scope of dialogue or even peaceful coexistence in mutual tolerance.
Ironically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all come from the same semitic source. Indeed, Islam has always considered Jews and Christians to be ‘people of the Book’, referring to the overlap between the Old Testament and the Quran and, as such, not to be seen as adversaries. Over the centuries, the material and technological dominance of the West has upset this equilibrium, and pitted the ‘free’ West against an ‘unfree’ Islam.
Is there a lesson to be learnt here for those who would go against millennia of tradition and turn Hinduism into a proselytising faith system? Hinduism’s so far undivided heaven forbid.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has argued that rage has long been a root force shaping societies. The problem is that it’s always been far too easy for those with power to misdirect the rage of others away from them and towards whatever social forces might challenge their control. But if rage all too often produces nihilistic anger and violence, it also can produce heroism and courage. The trick is to figure out how to channel and control the rage – not with anger, but with a positive vision of a future that address and transcends the dynamics that lie beneath it.
This is precisely what the Arab uprisings, and soon after, the global Occupy movement, have begun to do. If the rage that increasingly swirls around all our societies can be channelled and directed against those who truly threaten our collective future, the sooner we might be able slow, if not stop, the inexorable march towards ecological disaster and a new feudal age.
In the piercing aftermath of 9/11, Fareed Zakaria pointed out that “there are billions of poor and weak and oppressed people around the world. They don’t turn planes into bombs. They don’t blow themselves up to kill thousands of civilians… There is something stronger at work here than deprivation and jealousy. Something that can move men to kill but also to die”. He went on to argue that the rage that motivated the 9/11 terrorists came “out of a culture that reinforces their hostility, distrust and hatred of the West – and of America in particular”.
Zakaria did not blame Islam per se; his scorn was focused on its Arab heartland. He declared that while countries like Indonesia were dutifully following the West’s advice on economic and political reform the Arab world was a cesspool of anti-American fury and suicide bombings. His misreading of his Pakistan as a relatively moderate country compared with Egypt or Syria remains as shocking as it is telling.
“By the late 1980s,” he argued, “while the rest of the world was watching old regimes from Moscow to Prague to Seoul to Johannesburg crack, the Arabs were stuck with their aging dictators and corrupt kings.” Apparently the fact that all of these regimes were, as he pointed out, brutal dictatorships with long histories of torturing their peoples, apparently had little to do with their alleged “choice”. Instead, it’s “disillusionment with the West” and a “lack of ideas” that is “at the heart of the problem”.
Why They Don’t Hate Us before the last embers of what had been the World Trade Center had cooled. Life in New York City was just beginning to reanimate after two weeks in which everything seemed frozen in time. The only thing that seemed to move was the ash and dust from the wreckage of the World Trade Center which daily covered New York City with a fresh coat of death.
Walking through the bowels of the Times Square subway station I passed a Hudson News stand and caught sight of the just published September 28, 2001, issue of Newsweek, with the title “Why They Hate Us: The Roots of Islamic Rage” emblazoned across it over an image of a young boy dressed in traditional garb holding a toy AK-47. The absurdity of the title – as if the world could so neatly be divided into a “we” and a “they” each, playing our respective roles in some preordained clash of civilisations – provided the perfect foil to summarise the main argument of my research on the impact of globalisation in the Middle East during the last two years.
These views, according to the author, have “paralysed Arab civilisation”, and led a region “that had once yearned for modernity” to “reject it dramatically”.
Venality and carelessness, in spades
Zakaria admitted that the United States had been too cozy with the region’s ubiquitous strong-men. But “America has not been venal in the Arab world”, explained, “only careless”. His ignorance – willful or not; the reader can decide which is worse – of American policies and their motivations in the Middle East is as astonishing today as it was on September 12, 2001. But it was absolutely crucial that America at worst be “careless” rather than “venal”. If it turned out that decades of support for some of the most oppressive regimes in the world was the result of deliberate policies, what would that say about “us”?
Declaring himself part of the “we” against whom the Arab world is waging war, Zakaria stated that “we”, “cannot offer the Arab world support for its solution [to the Palestinian problem] – the extinction of the state… Similarly, we cannot abandon our policy of containing Saddam Hussein. He is building weapons of mass destruction”.
We might mention that the declared policy of the majority of Arab states in 2001 was to support the Oslo peace process while Saddam Hussein was not building WMDs. But the facts don’t really matter compared with the powerful perception Zakaria’s attitude helped to generate and sustain in the next decade. That “they” are fundamentally incompatible and unable to live among “us” is too self-evidently true to be challenged by mere facts.
Ayan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch political activist and former Parliamentarian, similarly defines herself as part of the “we” against whom irrational islam is rearing its ugly head. “Once again the streets of the Arab world are burning with false outrage. But we must hold our heads up high,” she begins her article by declaring.
Like Zakaria a decade before, Ali sees little need to explain who “they” are. “Islam’s rage reared its ugly head again last week”, and thus it is Muslims as a collective who are responsible. Ali argues that the murder of the Ambassador and members of his entourage was the result of a “raging mob” who under the watch of a “negligent or complicit” government. That the murders were the result of a well-planned attack by a terrorist group in a region that the government has yet to be able to bring under its control (in good measure thanks to all the weaponry released by the US-sponsored insurgency against Gaddafi) is irrelevant.
Islam is nothing less or more than an anti-Western and anti-modern mob. Whether in Libya or in Egypt, it’s clear that Muslims are making a “free choice” to “reject freedom as the West understands it” in favour of governments that “stand for ideals diametrically opposed to those upheld by the United States”.
|The Stream – Raging against the narrative|
Never mind that the “values” of the United States includes supporting corrupt and brutal dictatorships and occupations, launching wars of aggression based on lies, violating its own constitutional principles to detain indefinitely, torture and even murder suspected enemies (including its own citizens). Or that a small but politically powerful percentage of American citizens seem as determined to incite violence in the Muslim world as their counterparts there seem determined to launch violence against Westerners. If Islam is defined by the rage of a small part of its adherents, the West is defined by the abstract liberal ideals that never have to be actualised in practice to remain the standard against which others – but not the West – are measured.
Disaggregating us and them
Neither Zakaria in 2001 nor Ali today can offer any real advice for how “we” can deal with “them”, for four reasons.
First, so many of their facts were and remain wrong that their larger arguments aren’t very useful. The problem is actually more damaging to Ali because, unlike Zakaria, she has a very powerful personal story of suffering at the hands of an oppressive, violent and patriarchal culture in her native Somalia that deserves to be heard. Sadly, it is undermined by broad generalisations and inaccurate claims she makes.
Second, both authors completely leave out the history and ongoing realities of Western/US support for violent and even murderous regimes across the region, which lies at the foundation of much of the quite understandable anger and rage of Muslims against the US or European governments. It is not the only reason for it, and it doesn’t excuse terrorism against civilians, whether Muslims or so-called “infidels”, or the widespread religiously grounded prejudices or oppression across the Arab/Muslim world. But the rage for which they are attempting to account simply cannot be understood, never mind addressed, without placing such policies at the centre for any analysis.
Similarly, both authors make scant mention of the quite long history and ongoing reality of “irrational” rage among “Western” Christians or Jews against Islam which, aside from its role in the present video scandal, has had at least as profound an impact on the policies of the American or Israeli governments towards Muslims as Islamic rage has had on the policies of most Arab/Muslim governments towards the US or Israel.
Third, both Zakaria and Ali, and their colleagues (both fellow Muslims like Fouad Ajami and Irshad Manji and the broader mainstream and conservative punditocracy), generalise from the most extreme segments of Arab/Muslim societies to Arab/Muslim “civilisation” as a whole. The simple fact is that the vast majority of Muslims have not been engaged in an irrational hatred of the West or unwillingness to engage with the basic tenets of modernity. As with their counterparts in Western countries and globally, they are just trying to survive and build a better life for their children.
No matter how reprehensible is the behaviour of violent protestors during the most recent protests, they comprise only the smallest percentage of the world’s Muslims, and their actions in fact have produced a wide backlash against them, from citizens attacking extremist headquarters in Benghazi to progressive Muslims writing detailed rebuttals to the ideologiesunderlying such actions. Moreover, no matter how unacceptable the ongoing oppression of women or minorities in the Muslim world is, such actions are neither unique to the Muslim world, nor are they the primary source of the rage these articles seek to explain.
Too much of the reporting on political events within Malaysia is based on fabrications, rather than analysis anchored in research and responsible journalism. There has been noticeable decay in the professionalism of journalists, either from selling out their principles to engage in partisanship, or through the lack of proper mentorship or training.
Some of this is a product of the growing competitive political environment, where formerly more reliable mainstream papers have compromised their integrity for their political masters, while in other cases, the drive to publish the story first and make it the most sensational has comprised the due diligence of proper reporting.
Simple things, such as checking facts and quotes, have gone by the wayside. Worse yet, it has become acceptable for some to publish shoddy work, and rather than be chided for this practice, it is openly encouraged and financially rewarded.
Readers sometimes take what is published at face value, rather than adopting a more discerning approach to what they are reading. Too much of the discussion of politics is tied to misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
It is a time of political transition in Malaysia. The incumbent party that has held onto power since 1957 ― 55 years ― is facing the most competitive polls in history. At a public forum on Monday September 17 in Kuala Lumpur, I explained why based on polling trajectories and fieldwork, the Barisan Nasional (BN) has not regained significant ground since March 2008.
I suggested, however, that voters alone will not decide the electoral outcome. Concerns involve the fairness of the elections. The impact of a widening unlevel electoral playing field is not yet known. We have also seen over the last three years since the March 2008 polls that the situation is very fluid, as Najib Razak’s administration reached a high in support last November and has been declining in popularity since the April BERSIH rally, although at varied levels among different communities.
While most Malaysians have decided how they will vote, the middle ground is in flux and has the potential to move again as the campaign evolves. As such, the election is difficult to call. My own analysis indicates that a third of the seats are extremely close. I pointed to the states of Sabah, Pahang, Perak, Johor and Selangor as the states with highly competitive seats, but argued that every seat will matter in the upcoming General Elections.
The campaign, candidate selection and use of state resources will also shape the final outcome. The majority of my other remarks focused on new trends in voting behaviour, issues that will be presented in future articles.
The quality of the media coverage of the forum raises concerns and provokes a call for greater constructive and responsible dialogue as Malaysia enters new uncertain political terrain. When the forum began, we asked the media to check quotes with speakers and to operate with professionalism.
Instead, a reporter from The Malaysian Insider (TMI) and subsequent media reports by journalists who were not at the event, have distorted the discussion, misquoted remarks and acted irresponsibly. None of the reports on the event have followed the request to check their facts and most of the reports of the event are second- and third-hand reports made from the original flawed report TMI report.
Initially, there were two areas of concern. First of all, the TMI media report of the event focused on the response to the last question of the night in the two-and-a-half hours of discussions, rather than covering the discussion in the meeting as a whole.
The mischaracterization of the forum as a discussion of “casting doubts about Pakatan” was from the onset a distortion. The article’s headline was misleading and not reflective of the proceedings. This is a troubling trend in Malaysian reporting ― a focus on sensationalism rather than substance.
The issues that were discussed covered a range from human rights concerns and Sabah politics to the rising environmental movement and the role of morality in voting.
Second, the TMI report had a number of factual errors. For example, my position to the question whether “Can Pakatan Rule?” was not reported. I clearly stated that “Malaysians voters should decide.” Subsequent interpretations of this inaccurate reporting of my response have been misconstrued to imply that I support one side or another.
My remarks in the forum highlighted the challenges both sides will face in governing. I noted that whoever won the election would face a trust deficit among a share of voters, as Malaysian voters are polarized.
In another example of error, the TMI reporting completely misconstrued the discussion of Dr Mahathir’s legacy on Malaysian politics. My remarks discussed the challenges UMNO as a party faced to reform, pointing out that it has not reformed since 2008, and arguing that this had to do in part with the legacy Mahathir left on the party.
I argued that both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Datuk Seri Najib Razak faced difficulties in carrying out reforms due to pressures from this legacy of constraint. The overall context of the discussion was left out of the report and mistakenly interpreted as praise for either Mahathir or Najib. The irony of the errors in the report by TMI is that they completely missed the key points of analysis.
To compound the original problems in the reporting of the forum, other journalists who were not at the event and also did not check their facts used it for their stories. In one column for The Star newspaper by columnist Baradan Kuppusamy, elements in the original article were embellished with such partisan gusto and mischief that it had evolved away from misconstrued reality to fantasy.
To suggest, for example, that the speakers buttressed “Najib’s reformist credentials” is factually incorrect. This is a complete fabrication. My own remarks centred on public concerns with corruption and public perceptions of the lack of substantive reforms. I never used the word “reformist” or “reformer”.
The focus of my remarks was on factors affecting voting behaviour and their possible impact on the next polls. The column is embarrassingly riddled with multiple factual errors, as the columnist was not present at the forum nor did he follow due diligence in checking the facts. It is a sad day when this sort of reporting is paid for.
In the initial TMI report, the reporter was inexperienced, and my original tack was to have a quiet word to encourage better practice. Also some of the original report did accurately account some of the issues that were raised, even if the context was not provided and the headline misleading.
The situation became even more egregious when reporters who did not bother to do any homework opted to use a flawed report as the basis of a story or in at least one case a fable. I understand that in the Malaysian context misreporting is common. It is unfortunately clear that fabrications are also becoming more common as well.
This does not take away from the reality that these practices are wrong and destructive. Media integrity and low standards of professionalism are serious problems and those that are hurt by them are ordinary readers. They are undermining the constructive discussion that is needed to strengthen Malaysia as it moves toward a better future. Malaysians deserve better.
TMI Editor’s Note: The Malaysian Insider apologises for misrepresentation and errors made in its report of the forum after checking with the reporter’s notes and recording. The news report has been corrected with the full quotes made by Dr Bridget Welsh in the forum to the question that was asked. Once again, our apologies to the speakers in the forum. Thank you.