Kee Thuan Chye, who created a record in the 36-year-old The Star by running the shortest-lived column in the newspaper he serves — just two articles before it got killed — gave a two-part interview to his former colleague who now freelances for Malaysiakini.
In Part 1, he talked about Kerishamuddin and the ‘de-sensitising’ of non-Malays by raising the Malay keris; the fallacy of Abdullah Badawi being the ‘Prime Minister for all Malaysians’; the astronaut aka space traveller; the ‘paean to Bumiputeraism called Putrajaya’, among other things.
In Part 2, Kee played fool on the culture of fearing the truth: BERSIH Rally; non-Malay support for the incumbency and gerrymeandering; the Chinese who fear PAS and continue supporting the BN; the Son-in-Law’s posturing on his Father-in-Law’s so-called contribution in implementing electoral reforms post-Mahathir; about the de facto law minister who is “less brainy” and often proved to be deficient at debating, and when running out of argument, who resorted to arrogance; AND free media and Mr Maidin, which can ‘only be expressed in unladylike language’.
It’s a gem… only that there is a caveat: (The views expressed here are strictly the interviewee’s own and do not reflect the stand of any organisation that he is with)
Kee to deciphering Umno semiotics
Nov 15, 07 12:51pm
Helen: You’re someone who works intimately with language and having broad experience of the mass media – which in Malaysia is the channel for communicating the dominant narrative. As such, I’d like to get your reading on the ideas behind some of the things said and done at the recently concluded Umno general assembly.
Let’s start with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi saying: “The act of unsheathing and kissing a keris is part of our cultural heritage but its meaning has been twisted to spread fear among non-Malays, and the image of Umno and Malaysia has been smeared overseas.”
The PM was referring to Youth chief Hishamuddin Hussein who at the wing’s assembly in 2005 started his so-called ‘tradition’ of brandishing the keris. He has since said he expects non-Malays to eventually become “de-sensitised” to his waving this ‘symbol’, and in fact pronounced that naysayers should get used to it.
Deputy PM Najib Abdul Razak believes the act should be celebrated by all races. What do you make of the semiotics of the Umno keris? Is it a “symbol of protection for everyone” as Hisham and the local media would have us think?
Kee: I certainly don’t think it is a symbol of protection for everyone. This kind of talk is typical of Umno politicians who often twist semantics for the purpose of fooling the people. Well, it can fool those who are easily swayed by superficialities but not the intelligent public. Many Umno politicians appear to be pretty superficial themselves and therefore tend to misperceive that the thinking of the rakyat is mainly of the lowest common denominator.
The keris is a striking visual image. When it was first brandished in 2005, it naturally sent fear waves among the non-Malays. The body language of the person wielding it and the words uttered in accompaniment and, more significantly, the tone in which they were uttered combined to even more dramatic effect.
In 2006, the second time it made its appearance, the event looked choreographed – with Hishammuddin raising the unsheathed keris heavenwards and his Umno Youth brethren raising their fists in unison alongside him, in rows of solidarity. It was fearsome, like a military phalanx. All the signs pointed to aggression.
Hishammuddin was theatricalising a moment, and it was theatre with a powerful message – all the more effectively communicated because it was televised ‘live’ and it went out to millions of viewers.
And when you unsheathe a keris and hold it in that way, you’re bound to incite certain sentiments among your followers and to provoke them to ask when you are going to use it, as Hashim Suboh did. This inevitably recalls the moment of a day 20 years ago when Najib reportedly wielded a keris and vowed that there would be Chinese blood on its blade by the end of that day.
In Hishammuddin’s theatrics, the context was clear. It was an Umno Youth assembly, which is a strictly Malay gathering. The aggressive stance, the iconic Malay keris and the invocation to uphold the Malay struggle – all these pointed to an ethnocentric concern.
Other races were certainly not being defended; on the contrary, they were implied to be the enemy.
With weapon in hand, Hishammuddin was unequivocal in his assertion that Umno Youth wanted the return of policies favouring the Malays and would take action against those who opposed the movement’s proposal to revive the NEP. He later said that the keris represented Umno Youth’s “renewed spirit in empowering the Malays”.
So now for Hishammuddin to say that he would use the keris again in 2007 as a protector of all Malaysians – not just Malays – is disingenuous. Any intelligent Malaysian can see through the doublespeak.
What is even worse – and insulting – is what he said about “desensitizing” non-Malays to the issue of the keris. Only a person with a supercilious attitude would behave that way. What he implies by that statement is that non-Malays must accept what he does, no matter how revulsed they are by it. It’s like slapping someone in the face and then slapping him again and again, and telling him that he has to tolerate it each time until he gets used to it. What arrogance!
The arrogance surely stems from the idea of ketuanan Melayu that has been the focus of Umno’s propagation the last few decades. One could read into that “protection” doublespeak an implicit statement of Malay supremacy lording over the other races. This is the same kind of arrogance exhibited by Puteri Umno in its recent criticism of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). A mere wing of Umno had the gumption to tell a partner of the Barisan Nasional to “stop making noise”.
This is the same kind of arrogance exhibited by Hishammuddin when he issued a warning to the MCA leadership last July to stop saying that Malaysia is a secular state. The leader of a Youth wing had the gumption to tell a senior partner of Umno’s in the BN to shut up. On an issue of national significance, to boot.
In supporting Hishammuddin’s keris antics, Abdullah reveals himself to be contrary to what the mainstream media have hailed him as – “a Prime Minister of all Malaysians”.
It undoes what he had been trying to do throughout this year’s Umno general assembly, which was to be conciliatory towards the other races by not bringing up issues that would be sensitive and threatening to them, particularly religion. No doubt Abdullah knows he cannot afford to alienate the non-Malay voters in light of the upcoming general election. He could have reminded the Umno delegates about this on the eve of the assembly when he briefed them on what issues to avoid. He could also have advised Hishammuddin to take that soft approach with the keris this time.
It was all rather predictable. Umno is inadvertently transparent that way!
In any case, how could Abdullah be considered a PM of all Malaysians when he was the one who stopped any further discussion of Article 11 of the Constitution; did little to clear the air about whether Malaysia is not a secular state; did nothing to quash a proposal by none other than the Chief Justice (then) to replace common law with Syariah law; rejected a proposal to set up an inter-faith council; told ministers within his own Cabinet to withdraw their memo to him calling for a review of laws that affect the rights of non-Muslims? One could go on.
Well, to go on to next in the hierarchy, Najib’s address this year was themed ‘Reaching for the Stars – Elevating a National Civilisation’, doubtless to ride on the “Malaysians walking a few inches taller” hype generated by the first Malay to go into space. I note a resolute semantics when one man’s ‘space tourist’ is another man’s ‘angkasawan’, while a cynic’s ‘joyride’ is the administration’s ambitious ‘space programme’.
The use of ‘angkasawan’ is blatantly deliberate; I find the English papers parroting this Malay word too. I’d read earlier that Nasa does not see Dr Sheikh Mustaphar Sheikh Abdul Shukor as an “astronaut” but rather a “space participant”. Is the ‘angksawan’ another case of Boleh creative accounting (adding and subtracting)?
Given the political reality we are in, a reality that has evolved under a campaign of institutionalised racial discrimination over the last 30-plus years, very few Malaysians would have expected the candidate for space to be other than a Malay. The non-Malay contenders were, to put it brutally, merely tokens. The final selection came as no surprise then.
The more cynical among us would also have deduced that it was all part of the Malay agenda of creating “towering Malays”. And there was not only one candidate, there were two. The second is now a spaceman-in-waiting, and to all intents and purposes, he will get his day in the stratosphere, because he will add to the list of “towering Malays”.
(I like the use of the term “spaceman” to describe each of our two aspiring angkasawan; as my dear friend Azmi Sharom pointed out astutely in his column for The Star recently, Sheikh Muszaphar is a man and he was in space.) More important, however, are the questions on a lot of people’s minds: What did our spaceman really achieve? And what has our nation achieved? Did we build our own rocket? Did we find a new way of going to space?
I would say we found a new ‘leng chai’ poster boy to set women’s heart aflutter … but in any case, to look back, there was the less than enthusiastic reception of the Everest conquerors that were Indian. Whereas a Malay man swimming the English Channel was rewarded with a Datukship – a feat that even a 12-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy (Thomas Gregory / 11 hr 54 min in 1988) accomplished minus the sort of state support and sponsorship given our Malaysian ‘hero’ Abdul Malek Mydin (17 hr 40+ min).
Non-Malays who have accomplished greater feats tend not to be lionised as much. As you rightly pointed out, the Indians who scaled Mount Everest got short shrift. This also happens in the field of sports.
The Sidek brothers were elevated to legendary status for their success in badminton, totally overshadowing the non-Malay greats who had led the way long before them (Wong Peng Soon, Ong Poh Lim, Ooi Teik Hock, Eddy Choong, Tan Aik Huang, Tan Yee Khan, Ng Boon Bee, etc).
When Mohd Hafiz Hashim won the All-England singles title in 2003, he was rewarded with a car, land, money and a hero’s welcome home. When Koo Kien Keat and Tan Boon Heong won the All-England doubles title last March, they were rewarded with only a fraction of what Hafiz got. Not that such rewards are necessarily good. Sadly, Hafiz hasn’t outdone himself since 2003.
Lack of a maintenance culture.
I have a theory that our performance in sports started to decline with the inception of the NEP. Before that, we had great athletes like Jegathesan, Rajamani, Ishtiaq Mobarak and Nashatar Singh, and our football team was as good as South Korea’s. But from the ’70s onwards, things took a turn for the worse. I put it down to the decline in national morale. And of course also to the team selection criteria.
Where does it all lead?
It all leads to further superficiality. That’s what our leaders are good at – creating the myth of Bolehness by resorting to the accomplishment of superficial ‘feats’. These would include having the tallest flagpole in the world, at one time the tallest building in the world, the paean to Bumiputeraism called Putrajaya (which now appears to be a white elephant), etc, etc. Is there a biggest ketupat in the world too?
Most certainly, but could have been eaten by now.
But what it amounts to realistically is spending millions and billions of ringgit, which you and I contribute to whether we like it or not. To the movers of the cause, it doesn’t matter what the cost is as long as it serves the Bumiputera-building exercise. I think that’s unfair. Non-Bumis also deserve an even chance. We contribute too. I was disgusted when I visited Putrajaya at night a few weeks ago – all that money spent on maintaining it, all that energy to light up the streets and the buildings, and all for what?
To blink at spacemen in Russian stations? But do go on …
I’ll tell you what disgusted me even more recently. When I visited the Independence Memorial in Malacca last May and looked at the exhibits (pictures, write-ups, etc), I found almost everything centred on the efforts of the Malays. The contributions of non-Malay nationalists were blatantly neglected or marginalised. A handful of Chinese and Indian leaders got mentioned in passing, but that was about all.
Unless I missed it, I didn’t even see a single portrait of Tun Tan Cheng Lock in there. And he was the leader of the MCA at the time. Not only that – his record shows that he was a true nationalist who was president of the All Malaya Joint Council for Action (AMCJA) which, together with Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera), rallied for Merdeka long before Umno got wise to the idea.
I don’t buy that ‘National Civilisation’ hogwash. “National” is just another abused word for “Bumiputera”. But many non-Malays have been conditioned into believing the Umno propaganda, first from having their mindset programmed in school, then from being exposed to the spin-doctoring of the mass media daily and the grand-scale theatrical extravaganzas staged by the BN government occasionally.
When the general election comes around, they will probably vote like they have been doing over the decades.
A culture of fearing the truth
Nov 22, 07 12:45pm
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.
Kee Thuan Chye is an author, actor-director and dramatist. He has written four major political plays: ‘1984 Here and Now’, ‘The Big Purge’ [read at the Soho Theatre in London, 2005], ‘We Could ****You Mr Birch’ and ‘The Swordfish, Then the Concubine’ [adjudged one of the top 5 entries to the International Playwriting Festival 2006 organised by the Warehouse Theatre in the UK].
He’s also a journalist of 30 years’ standing, beginning his career at The National Echo in 1977.