A culture of fearing the truth

Helen Ang (malaysiakini)
Nov 22, 07

Last week, Kee Thuan Chye opined that many non-Malays have been conditioned to swallow wholesale Ketuanan Melayu propaganda from the exhaustive indoctrination and would probably vote Barisan Nasional again come the general election.

Part 2 of the Q & A continues. The views expressed here are strictly the interviewee’s own and do not reflect the stand of any organisation that he is with.
Helen: Let’s examine the nuances of non-Malay support for the incumbency. Pundits are predicting that disgruntled Chinese will swing to the opposition this time around. So it may actually turn out that a large percentage of the community will indeed buck the status quo.
What I think is that while Chinese are prepared to secretly (they will refuse to tell anyone who they voted for) cast their once-every-five-years ballot in favour of the opposition, their mindset in the remaining four years and 364 days will remain as you say, conditioned: fearful, refusing to engage and self-centred.
But given the uneven electoral playing field and lack of proportional representation, popular disenchantment may nonetheless not translate into a diminished BN influence. Sadly true?

Kee: The gerrymandering that has been done has really made it harder for the Chinese to swing votes in many constituencies. I was in Balakong a couple of weeks ago and the residents there told me that their constituency used to be opposition-controlled, but lately with the redemarcation exercise, the BN has been winning.
There used to be about 70 per cent Chinese in the constituency but that has been diluted to about 50 per cent. The other 20 per cent has been moved to another constituency. They don’t foresee the opposition winning it back this coming election unless a huge majority of the remaining 50 per cent vote for them. Many Chinese, however, tend to vote BN.
Surely they can see that BN is a gross disservice to their community? Who are those still so blinkered?
Those in business, those who fear PAS, those who think BN will provide the peace and order to allow them to pursue their livelihood, those who don’t want to rock the boat, those with vested interests and enjoy the patronage of the ruling establishment – these are the Chinese who will stand by it.
The BN needn’t worry about not winning. It would be a great shock if they lost. But I think BN’s greatest fear – more so Umno’s, really – is not getting a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Without that, they can’t have things their way. The Ketuanan Melayu agenda might not be so easily promoted. They will also find it difficult to settle for anything less when they’ve had it so good since elections were introduced in this country. A loss of the two-thirds could spark the beginning of a decline, which in the long term could result in Umno going through what the Indian National Congress or the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan have gone through.
I agree about the two-thirds majority being a matter of standing and ‘face’ for Umno. But what helps BN keep face is the thick layers of make-up that the mainstream media are prepared to paint on the coalition. The Bersih rally is the most recent example of the MSM’s cosmetic enhancement to conceal the heavy-handed and unwarranted approach by the authorities.
We can note that one of the reforms called for by Bersih is that opposing views have free and fair access to the mass media. Isn’t an impartial media the essence of a democracy?
Yes, that’s the essence of a democracy. This should have been one of the cornerstones of the ‘101 East’ forum on Al-Jazeera TV last week featuring lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, the Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz and Umno Youth deputy leader Khairy Jamaluddin. The forum discussed Bersih’s Nov 10 march ending in the handing over of their memorandum to the King calling for fair and free elections.
Yet for all that Khairy said on the show about the reforms that have been made by the Elections Commission such as the use of indelible ink, transparent ballot boxes, etc, he still ignored the main plot – how can elections be fair if the opposition is virtually blacked out in the media and the usual airing they get is when something negative is reported about them?
I’m sure he’s smart enough to know that free media access to all parties is the key issue, but he also appeared smart enough to deflect it by bringing up the cosmetic improvements.
Nazri, on the other hand, was far less brainy. In fact, he proved to be deficient at debating. And when he ran out of argument, he resorted to arrogance.
He said, ostensibly without thinking, that there was no need to reform the political system, that the views of civil society didn’t carry any weight. He implied that the government was always right because “we are the representatives of the people”. If the people have grouses, use the ballot box. Which he kindly pointed out comes about once every five years. That’s a pretty long time to wait to air your grouses. Why not air them at any time? Isn’t that standard practice in a true democracy? He said what the public demands is not necessarily right. At the end of the day, he asserted, “we will decide”.
So clearly, as you’re saying, we’re not a true democracy, we’re a flawed one premised on an even more flawed electoral system. And, yes, the BN, for which one can read Umno, decides on everything. But this is not something you’d grasp reading our local media. Is this ‘oversight’ due to over-regulating?
Khairy said the PM had announced that in the near future, the media would be allowed to regulate itself. “In the near future” sounds vague. But more importantly, what would be the real point of self-regulating if the media continues to have the Printing Presses and Publications Act around its neck? As we know, that Act requires all print media in this country to obtain a licence that has to be renewed annually – at the discretion of the Home Ministry. What an effective mechanism to encourage self-censorship, don’t you think?
Well, what I think about the newspapers’ self-censorship can only be expressed in unladylike language, I’m afraid.
Can one blame newspapers, which survive or close down at the pleasure of the Home Ministry, for being cautious about what they publish? Obviously, no. But being cautious and being subservient are two different things. Hiding the truth, choosing not to report significant news because it may be damaging to the government, putting a spin to certain events in the reporting of them to protect the government – these are the practices of the subservient. But is there always a choice between being one or the other? There is, if newspapers don’t get instructions from political leaders or their lackeys on what not to publish.

I’ve written this time and again. Newspapers toe the line set by their owners, who are the political masters of this country or their cronies. Correct?

Yes, many newspapers are owned by political parties, usually through a third party. And this does affect newspaper policies. Even so, the control was not as tight until Dr Mahathir Mohamad came along. Curbing the press and causing it to cower started with him. His suspension of several newspapers in 1987 was a watershed. Since then, no newspaper – indeed, no radio or TV station either – has dared to criticise the PM. It has become a tradition!
But, surely, the PM can’t always be above censure. He’s here to serve the people. So are his ministers. They can’t speak down from their high horse and declaim, “We will decide.”
Nazri is not the only minister who exhibits arrogance. Some of his colleagues share the same trait. It shows in their intolerance of criticism. Which usually results in their inability to handle flak. Then, they get defensive and start saying the most inane things.
One good example is Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin. From the things he’s been saying in the past months, you can’t imagine he was once a journalist. And a former chief editor, would you believe?
Easily! (laughs out loud). It – the inanity – comes with a Datukship.
Zainuddin’s bungling response to the Bersih march is now famous – or is it notorious? But let me first address what he said more than two weeks ago, just before the Umno general assembly, about young Malay writers being used by the English press to attack the Malays. He even named names – Azmi Sharom and Amir Muhammad. I know both of them well; they’re not the sort who would allow themselves to be used by anyone. They wouldn’t write what they didn’t believe. Zainuddin’s remark amounted to nothing less than an insult. He should apologise to Azmi and Amir.
As for his rebuke against Al Jazeera for its coverage of the Bersih demonstration, he will go down in history as saying that there is no point in holding protests because we have elections in Malaysia. How that logically connects, only ‘he’ knows. In any case, there was a protest in Kuala Lumpur when Condoleeza Rice was in town and another last month against the actions of the Myanmar junta. Khairy himself was involved in both. In fact, he took centre stage. And both were presumably issued permits. So, what gives?
What’s not given! Bersih’s permit application was rejected as was Hindraf’s for this Sunday to hand over their petition (to Queen Elizabeth) at the British High Commission.
In any case, Bersih was not disputing that there are no elections, it only wanted a free and fair one. And even with elections, it doesn’t mean that such protests are unnecessary. If the people feel unhappy about the way things are run in the country, they should have the recourse to make it known. One such recourse is holding a demonstration.
I’m not drawing parallels between Malaysia and the Philippines, but if there had been no People’s Revolution, no masses of people taking to the streets to express their disgust for a corrupt regime, Ferdinand Marcos would have continued to stay in power and possibly milked the country dryer.

BN’s chokehold on ‘the system’ from winning every election has made it impervious to recognising the people’s rights, one of which is the freedom of assembly and, as you say, utilising this freedom to protest.

The other day, I was watching Fahmi Reza’s film Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, which documents big demonstrations, big rallies in our own Malaya of 1947. These were allowed then – 60 years ago, when we weren’t even independent. Now we are an independent country and certain demonstrations are not allowed – especially those that don’t belong to the right camp. It’s ironic. What’s the meaning of Merdeka then?
Actually, I think the Bersih demonstration only made the government look bad after the fact because of the unseemly handling of the situation – after the water cannon used on the marchers, after Zainuddin’s boo-boo, after Nazri and Khairy’s confirmation of the government’s double standards, after the news spinning in the media for days afterwards.
If it had been given a permit in the first place and the media had given it neutral coverage, it wouldn’t have attracted such unwarranted attention. An event that big could not have gone unnoticed. The sensible thing would have to been to let it be recorded objectively. Malaysians would have read it and probably said, “Hmmm … okay, it happened” and gone on with their daily lives. Surely, it wasn’t going to revolutionise their lives or change their mindset radically.
When something is a normal part of existence, we don’t respond to it with extra excitement, we just take it as it comes. That is something that the government should surely realise. For instance, if you ban a book because you don’t want it widely distributed, the banning could actually make it even more popular. People become curious. And so, people became curious about Bersih.
Unfortunately, people’s curiosity will not be assuaged by the mainstream media we now have. Aside from getting a true picture of events like Bersih’s Nov 10, why else do we need a free media in Malaysia?
A free media will open the way for us to speak freely to one another as citizens of the nation, regardless of race. Then, we can have dialogue about ethnic issues with our Malay, Chinese and Indian compatriots and express our concerns candidly. As it is now right now, if you’re Chinese, don’t you often feel you can’t discuss, say, the NEP with your Malay friends – and vice versa? No matter how close that friend is, there will be a barrier.
After all, these are – as we are always reminded by our leaders and the media – “sensitive” issues. As long as we think that, we will be wary of not offending each other, an act that could lead to a loss of friendship. I have a Malay friend I consider to be my brother, but I would never engage him in face-to-face discussion of race issues or tell him how disenfranchised I often feel.
However, if there were a free media and any issue could be discussed openly, we would have a different world. I wouldn’t have that same hang-up. It would be the norm to speak freely. I could have a dialogue with my Malay friends, colleagues, acquaintances. Or even just complain about inequalities. We could agree with each other or we could agree to disagree. They would know where I’m coming from, and I would know where they’re coming from. We wouldn’t be holding a knife or a keris behind our backs. It would be actually much healthier. Better than bottling up frustrations and resentments, as is the case now.
When we can speak freely and frankly, only then can there be a real and deep connection among the people of different races. Despite all the government’s propaganda, the so-called racial unity and harmony that we have now is merely superficial. Polarisation is still the order of the day. Central issues are unresolved. All it takes is for things like the economy to take a turn for the worse and the unresolved tensions will flare up and threaten peace and stability.
There is really no need to fear a free media. We are 50 years old as a nation. If our leaders are mature and responsible, they will advise their respective tribes to be rational and take part in fruitful discourse rather than resort to violence. Besides, we have the law.
One excellent test case was the discussion of Article 11 of our Constitution, organised by the Article 11 Coalition and Aliran. That should have been a forum for rational exchange of ideas. Instead, we gave in to the violence-mongers. The authorities didn’t put them in their place and warn them against taking the law into their own hands. Instead, the authorities pampered them, let them have their way, let them get away with their threats.
I feel very strongly about this, so I’m going to have my say here too. The Chinese are too fearful and apathetic, too short-sighted and self-serving! That’s why they will not stand up for Article 11 and Lina Joy, but compliantly bend to the expediency that she’s a Malay-Muslim “problem”. She’s not! She’s a Malaysian issue, and affects every single of us.
You are right, but there are those who will tell you that if we discuss such issues openly, the consequences may be disastrous. I think they are exploiting this to keep us in line, keep us fearful and therefore thankful for their protection. If we go by the rule of law and our police act according to the law, those who threaten violence can be contained. Unless, of course, they are organised by powerful parties.
To come back to your question: why, indeed, do we need a free media? At the very least to expose corruption, malpractices and inexplicable practices. For instance, a free media would surely conduct a thorough investigation into the case of the Perak state building in Belum that collapsed. To get at the ‘real’ truth. And that’s just for starters. The media should indeed give us a regular dose of investigative journalism, but it would be pointless instituting that when there will always be some party blocking you from telling the truth.
We have heard it said many times before that ours is a culture of fear. Truly, it’s also fast becoming a culture of fearing the truth.