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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Holding Malaysian politicos to their words

Asia Times (7/11/2007): Over the years the Malaysian politician has displayed an almost preternatural gift for delivering ear-catching quotes. What his or her words may lack in vision and profundity they often make up for in what they unwittingly reveal about the speaker, if not the broader state of the country's political leadership.

Within the past month alone, Malaysians have been treated to the information minister saying the prime minister's desire to "hear the truth" does not apply to the media; a member of Parliament telling another that the latter's use of a wheelchair is a punishment from God; the country's de facto law minister dismissing the march of around 1,000 lawyers to the country's administrative capital seeking judicial reform as no "big deal" because "1,000 of 13,000 [registered members of the bar] - is that a majority?"

Politicians often deal flippantly in subjects Malaysians are warned not to discuss openly - race, privilege, abuse of power, corruption, religion, even sex. In other nations claiming (as Malaysia often does) to be progressive, such utterances might well curtail the speaker's political ambitions. In Malaysia's race-based and religion-divided political landscape, they have a tendency to announce politicians as party stalwarts and have even been known to advance political careers.

When the education minister waved the traditional Malay dagger in a clear warning to Malaysia's minority communities last year, he was roundly applauded by party delegates. His name continues to be thrown around as a future candidate for prime minister. Any public outrage the speaker may evoke is usually drowned out by a state-run press that spins the comments in the politician's favor - assuming he or she is in favor with the ruling elite. In particularly egregious instances the mainstream media simply omit the quotes.

The lack of accountability may partly explain the frequency with which Malaysian politicians say the things they say and why the jacket of a new book titled, Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things is stamped "Vol 1". The book's compiler, filmmaker and writer Amir Muhammad, was motivated in part by the home affairs minister's justification for banning one of Amir's documentaries last year on the grounds that it wasn't violent enough.

The 100 quotes included in the volume span nearly three decades and run the gamut, from obtuse and malevolent to witty and endearing. Some are to be taken with a grain of salt, such as this one from former culture, arts and tourism minister Kadir Sheikh Fadzir: "[Taxi drivers who cheat tourists] should be lined up against the wall and shot. They are the new enemies, the same as communists. I am not joking, this is a serious matter. If they can be shot, all the better."

Others provide a worrying window into certain senior politicians' worldview, including this 2003 passage from current information minister Zainuddin Maidin: "The Indonesians and Filipinos don't even have enough to fill their stomachs. Who are they to lecture us on press freedom? We are more qualified because we have full stomachs."

Collectively the book serves as a light-hearted yet indispensable history marker in a society where the words and deeds of political masters are all too often forgiven, if not forgotten. The sanctimonious are cut down to size - using their own words mots justes in a place where the political elite are infamously averse to criticism and wield a host of draconian laws to protect their fragile egos.

Many of the book's more recent quotations are reminders of how entrenched Malaysia's system of patronage is. It is telling that many of the featured quotes were spoken in an era in which Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi had promised greater transparency and to weed out corruption without fear or favor. Here, for instance, is de facto law minister Nazri Aziz last year defending the United Malays National Organization ruling party that Abdullah heads:

"UMNO members only have to answer to the disciplinary committee and are punished according to party regulations for party dealings. They have immunity to laws outside the jurisdiction of the party. This is because their actions in the party have nothing to do with the public business ..." On the previous page a senator laments not having given his son, who was implicated in a scandal, better tips on how to become a fraudster. He is still a serving senator.

Mixed messages

Malaysia is hardly the only country with politicians making egregious remarks. The malapropisms of US President George W Bush alone have already filled books. There's no Mahmud Ahmadinejad threatening to wipe Israel off the map; no Idi Amin saying, "I want your heart. I want to eat your children." Although Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein came close when he said he wanted a "pound of flesh" from an undergraduate who made a rap video clip posted on YouTube which addressed Malaysia's police corruption and discriminatory affirmative action policies.

What perhaps distinguishes the habit among Malaysian politicians is that as a unit they are exceptionally preoccupied with the country's image abroad. They have invested heaps of time and money toward presenting Malaysia as a world-class country. But what they say often undermines those public relations efforts.

The long-ruling prime minister Mahathir Mohamad supported bank-busting mega-projects like the Petronas Towers specifically to put Malaysia on the global map of shiny economic success stories. Arguably, however, Malaysia is more associated internationally with Mahathir's famous anti-Western rants, such as the time he said Jews rule the world by proxy, than its first-world infrastructure.

The same country now promoting itself as a progressive role model for the Muslim world has a foreign minister who last year said Muslim nations should consider arming Hezbollah. Its tourism minister in March, during "Visit Malaysia Year", stereotyped Malaysia's growing blogger community as "jobless, depraved women".

The comments reflect a larger disconnect here between notions of progress and the business of actually getting there. Comedian and playwright Jit Murad brilliantly captured the gap during a standup performance in May in which he played a Malaysian politician at a press conference espousing Abdullah's "feel good" campaign. "Some people say they are concerned about the increase in reports of violent crimes," the politician says. "We are also concerned - that every day we get reports. Do not worry. We will cut down on the reports that make us feel bad."

Indeed, leadership in the Abdullah era has placed ever more emphasis on appearance over substance. The administration's anti-corruption drive finds cops wearing "I am against corruption" pins, but by many accounts corruption is as rampant as it has ever been. Key institutions like the judiciary, police force and print media are all still badly in need of reform.

Abdullah speaks abroad about Islam Hadhari, or civilizational Islam, the country's "model approach for development and progress", as atavistic religiosity gains influence in the educational and judicial systems. The rise of blogs and web portals has put the words and deeds of politicians under greater scrutiny, a fact that politicians are all too aware of but have yet to come to grips with. The information minister, for instance, has made a habit of lashing out at bloggers, only to set up himself and the administration for another round of online thrashing.

To be sure, one should not walk away from Darndest Vol 1 thinking all Malaysian politicians are buffoons. Malaysia has fared better economically than some of its neighbors since independence and Malaysian leaders no doubt deserve some of the credit. Indeed judging a person by his words alone, particularly his most unflattering, can be a deceptive business. Mahathir, for one, was known to perorate eloquently on a wide range of issues.

Then again, it's hard to overplay the significance of a prime minister who came to office four years ago promising greater accountability and transparency and seeing few tangible efforts toward that end. Curiously the prime minister is not represented in Darndest Vol 1. It's a reminder, perhaps, that the printed word can sometimes hide as much as it reveals.


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