October 14, 2012
Soros, Tun Mahathir, Malaysiakini and I, Bede
by Bede Hong@http://www.malaysiakini.com
COMMENT George Soros is the first and, to my knowledge, only Jewish person I’ve ever met. I remember it was an early afternoon towards the end of 2006. I was sent to a fancy hotel, I cannot remember which, to join a horde of other journalists.
There were at least 30 news people present. A number of foreign journalists, too. I brought along my Nikon with a 50mm lens attached, paid for out of my own pocket.
The tea and stale crumpets were appropriately ignored. The reporters, especially those from the Chinese dailies, were extemporaneously polite.The foreign journalists were gathered in semi-circles with local ones who answered to foreign bosses, deep in conversation about contemporary politics, how amusing it was to eat with one’s hands and topics of that sort. The mostly Malay photographers and camerapersons gathered among themselves.
His daughter, Marina, played hostess. George Soros (right with Tun Mahathir) came into the room later. I was struck by his appearance. The man, supposedly the spectre of Malaysia’s financial travails, looked much less impressive in person.
He could have been unwell. There was an impression that he was at risk of keeling over on a misplaced step. I imagined a forced march up two flights of stairs would be the end of him.
His billions didn’t seem to help with his pasty complexion either. Soros did not walk fast, and in tow was a middle-aged woman who appeared to be his assistant.
Of course, this was before it was revealed that he still had enough of a libidinous drive to cavort with younger women (or ‘shiksas‘, to borrow an American pejorative), eventually breaking off with one particular Brazilian companion to marry a Japanese-American yoga instructor, prenuptial agreement and all.
I still wonder if my impressions weren’t coloured, or maybe the slight elderly shuffle was a put on. Or that I should accept that some men will forever be boys, or maybe one shouldn’t judge at all because people need companionship. After all, it’s a human trait.
Soros, who had come to promote his anti-war book, turned down a request to join Mahathir’s initiative to form a war crimes tribunal. And that was that.
Oh yes, they later shook hands and agreed to bring to an end their contentious relationship in front of 30 eyewitnesses with the accompanying cameras, although none of this was televised. By the way, Mahathir was at war with then-PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the time.
It was during the question-and-answer session that an older web reporter led the way for his better-paid peers, popping the question that was on everyone’s mind: Adakah Tun masih memegang kepada persepsi Tun mengenai Soros semasa krisis kewangan? (Does Tun still hold the perception about Soros as during the financial crisis?)
And Mahathir danced the dance and Soros did his in turn. Despite repeated accusations of being a casual liar, Mahathir does not strike one as someone who could be psychopathic. You feel you could trust your child with him. Well, maybe for a few minutes.
He is certainly an egomaniac and this can be said without malice. (The difference with other egomaniacs is that Mahathir’s power and influence were, for quite some time, not delusions).
Among politicians, Dr M is unique
Of all the politicians one could have had the misfortune to come across, Mahathir is unique in the almost genteel way in the way he talks, carries and presents himself, his measured responses and the tit-for-tat conversations he engages in with reporters. No one has ever heard him raise his voice. Such is unthinkable.
He was an ace of a student, and like any overachiever, he probably comes prepared for any press conference, before any contact with the public. Even when Mahathir appears to be winging it, one gets a feeling that he may have rehearsed.
Whatever final effect he has, and will have on the country, that’s for historians and writers to decide. And which may be why Mahathir dislikes historians and writers.
I remember during one of those daily six-o’clock meetings at Malaysiakini, after Mahathir said he would stop using us to vent his opinions, editor-in-chief Steven Gan quipped: “Well, we’ve lost an ally.” Those were the early days, before the near-defeat of the ruling BN government.
Of course, Mahathir never intended to be an ally. His intent was probably to have Malaysiakini go against Abdullah, like some berserker driving at alleged corrupted practices that were linked to the cancelled mega projects.
That was why Mahathir gave those interviews to us, the interviews that had the editors scratching at their heads. At best, Mahathir’s allegations were hearsay, even if it was from the mouth of a former Premier. The only thing that could be done was to publish and promote the sets of interviews in verbatim – three in all, I believe – and to probe the allegations.
It is surprising that such an intelligent man could have thought that a small news website would go and risk it all by defaming an elected Prime Minister without evidence or sources.
In the evening, after I returned from the Soros-Mahathir press conference, I was pummelled for not having the lead prepped immediately. The foreign wires had their news alerts up. Their reporters had phoned in the quotes to the bureau chiefs, who had the templates on standby.
Malaysiakini did not have such a system at that the time. I wanted to transcribe the whole press conference. It felt important and there were parts in it that I had yet to process in my mind.
The first update came out about 6pm, with the full transcript out after eight, which might as well be midnight the following week as far as breaking news is concerned.
It can be stressful being underfunded, unprotected and harassed by the police. We did not have press passes then. The government did not deem us worthy, so we ran around like regular civilians.
The Police did not specifically come after us during rallies but they did visit the office numerous times after someone, or some group, lodged a report against Malaysiakini, for whatever reason. Everyone had their smiles on when the police arrived. Sometimes they took their time interrogating a particular reporter.
Special Branch files
I kept hearing that the Special Branch had files on all of us. I’m still not sure if this was true. If it was, it must be a nightmare on their part, due to the high turnover at Malaysiakini. I also heard they had at least one informer, and that the phones were bugged. I pitied the latter effort, if it’s true. Transcribing is not fun.
Where the chatter was not boring, which it mostly was, there were enough petty teeth-gnashing exchanges to go around, thanks to the stress of working together in such close proximity for so many hours, every day.
I also heard other rumours about us, that we were Zionist agents and that we were funded by the CIA. Yes, I’ve always wanted a compressed Uzi for Christmas. Blogs, always by men, were also teeming with conspiracy theories, such as the one where we were literally an underground establishment.
There are no private offices at Malaysiakini. Everyone in editorial works on the same floor, the second floor, with the editor-in-chief in the middle, his back against the wall.
Reporters were even afforded a share of the company, which was actually not a very good recruiting pitch.
Unless Malaysiakini were to become as valuable as, say The Star, its shares would never be worth much, ever. I was the first in a line of future reporters who no longer received a cut. This was in mid-2006.
Steven Gan is a man of his word in so far as it doesn’t come in the way of his single-minded goal of keeping Malaysiakini alive. He is unyielding in an almost unimaginative way, with an obsessive quality about him that borders on menacing on the worst of days.
It’s a quality admirable from afar. I remember when he gave up his old blue laptop that he owned for God-knows-how-many-years. At the palm rest area of his laptop were two deeply discoloured greenish indentations, where accumulated sweat had corroded the plastic and melded it to its final shape. He had spent incalculable hours staring onto the screen, constantly picking at the website and fixing it, his palms resting on the same place.
He was insistent about being open on company finances. At annual company meetings, the Excel figures were flashed, the sales strategies espoused and discussed. Eyes glazed over. I vaguely remember an explanation that nearly a third of the company was owned by some New York-based investment fund distantly related to Soros.
They had made an investment early in the company’s history. It was also mentioned the company was mostly owned by Gan, company CEO Premesh Chandran, a few other low-level investors as well as part of the Malaysiakini staff.
Ad revenues were miniscule
Advertising revenues were terrible, in the low tens of thousands, as big firms were afraid to be affiliated with the company and because advertisers would rather put their money into a actual physical newspaper than something as seemingly vaporous as cyberspace. Malaysiakini barely broke even then.
It didn’t help that Gan and most of the others agreed not to raise the subscription fees, basically the only proper revenue source, as it would alienate students and a wide swath of the masses. I suspect they also didn’t want to risk being labelled elitists for charging RM100 per month, and risk losing all that goodwill.
It would have been comical if it wasn’t so sad. This was why parking was not paid or provided for. Fuel expenses were capped at RM500.
Barely enough for maintenance. One hopes the car doesn’t fall apart during a journey into some God-forsaken jungle to cover a by-election. I remember contributors also got a raise – they received a whole RM50 for each published article.
What we had plenty of were meetings. Meetings in the mornings for editors. Meetings in the evenings with reporters, where the assignments were meted out and bargained for. Monthly meetings. First-half financial meetings. And the annual general meetings, which were sometimes mercifully held at a somewhat decent retreat.
I was told about a US$50,000 grant to build some software when I first joined the company. It was old news by then. With annual operations costs running into the low millions, US$50,000 did not seem to matter much.
At the retreats, the data we were especially interested in were the number of hits on our stories. A human rights story that took two weeks to write scored 200 hits. A Mahathir story where he verbally attacked the government was read by an estimated 200,000 people the same afternoon.
Nobody cares about the Rohingyas or leatherback turtles. Mahathir sells, Soros sells, Police clashes sell. It gets depressing when your story can get swept aside for the crime of being an unpopular topic. You could realise why some newspapers eventually veer towards sex, scandal and violence.
In such relatively convivial gatherings, it was far from anyone’s mind that the sharks were still circling, always circling. The knowledge didn’t hold one back from having some fun, of course. It’s meaningless to try to deal with, or to even put a face to, that formless mass of purposeful bigotry and backwardness.
The ones that last are those who clock in, do their jobs and then go home to resume their lives. Still, there’s enough private awareness of those truly twisted characters, who, given enough leeway, will not hesitate to bring about an end to this strange entity that’s not directed in any measure by any political party – then and now.