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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Beyond The Veneer

SEEING IT MY WAY, Malaysiakini.com July 10, 2008

M. Bakri Musa

Third World Reality Beneath Malaysia’s First World Veneer

Book Review: Beyond the Veneer: Malaysia’s Struggle For Dignity and Direction

Ioannis Gatsiounis

Monsoon Books, Singapore. 2008

273 pages Indexed

US $15.95

Soon after Abdullah Badawi led his Barisan Nasional coalition to a landslide electoral victory in 2004, I wrote a blistering critique of his leadership. He had hoodwinked voters, I wrote, with his slick “feel good” campaign, and that sooner or later Malaysians would see through his emptiness. I had the piece previewed by my friend and frequent collaborator Din Merican. He suggested that I hold back and instead give Abdullah a chance. I did.

Little did I know that at about the same time (October 2004) an American journalist in Malaysia, Ioannis Gatsiounis, had written for Asia Times an essay titled, “Abdullah’s Honeymoon is Over in Malaysia.” Although more restrained in tone, nonetheless as judged by the title, he revealed a similar lack of enthusiasm for Abdullah as a leader. His “soft but firm” leadership, Gatsiounis wrote, “has shown … to be more soft than firm.”

That kind of perceptiveness is rare for a foreign observer, or a local one for that matter. Today, as judged by the current headlines, Gatsiounis’s judgment of Abdullah has become the common wisdom.

Such insights and perceptiveness do not come easily or quickly, even for the most astute of observers. Gatsiounis has been reporting from and on Southeast Asia since 2000, beginning first in Jakarta and later in Kuala Lumpur where he now resides. This gives him an intimate knowledge of Malaysia and a nuanced understanding of its racial dynamics and political tensions. He is not easily persuaded by smooth official press releases or slick PR gimmicks.

This volume, Beyond the Veneer: Malaysia’s Struggle For Dignity and Direction, contains his 42 essays written from about 2003 onwards. There are three commentaries on the recent “most crucial general elections in the country’s 50-year history,” one written just before the elections, and two, right afterwards.

“The Malaysian government’s authoritarian instincts,” Gatsiounis wrote in his first post-election essay (“A New Democratic Era in Malaysia”) “were finally checked by democracy at Saturday’s highly anticipated elections.”

Noting the immediate fractiousness among the opposition parties on power sharing, Gatsiounis observed (“The Malaysian Race Card”) that the “Chinese and Indians have become more vocal in opposing discriminatory policies, but they have given little indication that if they were granted greater equality they would rise above their own clannish tendencies.” As I said, Gatsiounis is a perceptive observer.

No Christaine Amanpour-type of Journalism

Today because of budgetary restraints, American media are cutting back on their foreign news operations, relying instead on what I would call the Christiane Amanpour-type of coverage. Fly in your celebrity journalist, interview the top local honchos, pick some cute quotes from the “man on the street,” choose some recognizable backdrops (which in Malaysia would be the Petronas Twin Towers), and then file your brief three-minute report that would appear just before the toothpaste commercial in the evening news.

Thus it is not surprising that Americans are poorly informed on matters beyond their borders. Such ignorance would ultimately percolate up to the leaders and policymakers. The results, as can be seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be devastating both to the natives as well as their “saviors.”

Thanks to the Internet, I have read many of Gatsiounis’s commentaries that have appeared in such publications as the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Washington Times as well as Asia Times. Let me assure readers that his reporting is the very antithesis of CNN’s Amanpour.

His is more along the Independent’s (Britain) seasoned Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk. Had Tony Blair listened to Fisk’s wisdom, he would probably still be Prime Minister today. More importantly, he would have spared himself, as well as those British soldiers in Iraq, much grief.

Malaysia is, as evidenced by the observations in this book as well as explicitly stated in the introduction, “trying to run the rat race of globalization on one good leg.” That is the leg Malaysia shows to the cameras, the gleaming Petronas Towers and the ribbon of smooth highways. The other, the bad leg that is severely handicapping the country, is the rampant corruption, deepening rich-poor divide, deteriorating institutions, and the increasingly dangerous polarization of race relations. To Gatsiounis, Malaysia has all but ensured that its “diversity is a weakness and not a strength.” I could not agree more.

There are no interviews of the powerful in this volume except for one longer than usual essay (“Malaysia’s Leader-in-Waiting”) based on a 40-minute interview with Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, a man very much in the news today, but for all the wrong reasons.

Gatsiounis observed that while Najib Razak “displayed a firm understanding of the kind of world Malaysia is entering and the attributes it would need … to be competitive, … he has also been a staunch defender of UMNO’s status quo … which has hindered Malaysia’s competitiveness and social harmony.”

I would say that Najib, like all UMNO leaders including supposedly better educated younger ones like Khairy Jamaluddin, are not so much defenders of UMNO culture rather that they are trapped by it, unable to escape its suffocating clutches. Their collective response to the March 8 electoral thumping for example, was not to seek changes but rather more of the same. To me, UMNO’s implosion is inevitable, and soon.

Instead of interviewing the powerful, Gatsiounis relies on his own observations. According to official accounts on the massive public Bersih rally calling for clean elections, the shopkeepers were fed up with the demonstrators who had disrupted businesses. In actual fact, as reported by Gatsiounis (“Opposition Steals a March in Malaysia”), those shopkeepers welcomed the increase in foot traffic. Their businesses were rudely interrupted only when the police came rushing in wildly brandishing their truncheons and firing their water cannons.

With such critical and penetrating reporting, I am surprised that Gatsiounis is not on the radar screen of the Home Ministry. One reason could be that those officials think that he writes primarily for foreigners. Those bureaucrats could not be more wrong. Through the Internet, Gatsiounis commands a sizable local audience, as evidenced by the praises on the book cover by such local luminaries as Ramon Navaratnam, Khoo Kay Peng and Ibrahim Suffian.

I asked Gatsiounis whether he felt intimidated by the authorities. Much to my surprise – and relief! – he answered no, although obviously he is aware of the realities. He however, wisely avoids flouting those restraints.

Malaysian journalists and writers regularly blame the myriad of restrictive rules for their timidity. They have to exercise self-censorship to survive, they claim. It is more an excuse. As Gatsiounis has shown, one can still be true to one’s professional ideals even under such trying circumstances. In truth, Malaysian journalists and pundits grovel to the powerful less for self preservation and more for ingratiation.

A challenge in publishing a collection of essays is organization, whether to arrange them thematically (as this one) or chronologically. The disadvantage of the latter would be that readers would have to jump from one topic to another. A combination would be better. On a section about Abdullah for example, arrange the essays chronologically. After all, a highly critical commentary on his leadership written in 2008, when Abdullah had clearly and fully exposed his incompetence, would not have the same impact as one penned earlier.

A further modification would be to have as a footnote at the bottom of the title page the date when the essay was written, instead of at the end. That would save readers from having to flip through the pages to the end of the article to find out when it was written.

With the current headlines filled with sordid details of the sexual escapades (real and imagined) of the politically powerful, and of police reports and sworn affidavits submitted and then retracted by those whose wish to ingratiate themselves to the powerful, we are again being reminded of the pitiful lack of solid reporting and penetrating analyses in the Malaysian media. By publishing this volume, Gatsiounis extends his reach among Malaysians, making them (hopefully) better informed. More importantly, this book also reminds Malaysians of what they miss in their daily news and information staple.


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