Recognise Malaysiakini Columnists, writes SIM KWANG YANG
Tonight (November 28), Malaysiakini will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a big bang. I am sure the dining will be fine and the entertainment amusing, but like my fellow columnist Dean Johns, I will not be able to attend. I too will celebrate the occasion in spirit.
While we are still on this spirit of congratulatory joy, I would also like to pay tribute to the columnists who have travelled this long and sometimes arduous journey with co-founders Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran. I believe that we Malaysiakini columnists have also contributed in no small measure towards building the distinctive journalistic identity on this website.
Of course, we all know that news is the hard currency of journalism while opinions are free. Every day for the past 10 years, dedicated reporters, journalists and news editors work tirelessly to bring the latest news to their readers, often hours before they appear elsewhere.
I have seldom met them, having been to the Malaysiakini office in Bangsar Utama once or twice. They too have to overcome all kinds of problems, like getting to attend government functions and the press conferences called by government ministers. I do share a spirit of fraternity with them though, because we are working for the same goal – furthering the freedom of the press and promoting democracy in Malaysia.
The columnists, on the other hand, play an equally important goal. While the news stories provide you with hard facts, the who, the what, the how, the where, the when, and the why of significant happenings, the columnists add flesh and bone to the hard cold facts, drawing out the nuances behind the events, extracting inferences and implications from mere happenings, and putting the latest development of any issue in a meaningful context.
The columnists do this by contributing their specialised and general knowledge, their experience, and their native wisdom. They also learn from reading one another.
I had been a columnist for the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily and Nanyang Siang Pau since the mid-1980s. The editor would always tell me what subject area to avoid for the sake of their publishing and printing licences. Writing under self-censorship felt like castrating oneself spiritually. Those were unhappy years.
You could imagine my joy of writing a column for Malaysiakini when I was left completely alone to write whatever I wanted to. It was like being liberated from a mental prison and breathing fresh air for the first time. It was a Malaysian writer’s dream come true.
My Role Model
With freedom, comes heavy responsibility. I and other writers in Malaysiakini have to show the way on how critical, independent and fair commentary can be like in Malaysia.
We can be politically engaged, and yet remain non-partisan. We must always be committed to telling the truth even if it is just our subjective truth. Our only agenda must be one dedicated to the betterment of our country and her people, and as far as possible, we ought to give a feeble voice to the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the marginalised.
These are the noble values of the European Enlightenment, but while many of the Enlightenment values are less talk-about lately, their aspirations for universal values such as knowledge, justice, truth and emancipation ought to be emulated.
For a role model, I looked to the late Hugo Young, the very distinguished columnist for UK’s Guardian. When he died on September 22, 2003, even the then British prime minister Tony Blair led a national accolade in praising the rich journalistic legacy he left behind.
The accolades that poured forth during Young’s funeral services painted him as a journalist of the highest order, “A beacon of enlightenment in what can seem like a tarnished world”, “A lifelong defender of truth and decency”, and “He set the bar in quality, moral authority, and genuine influence.” He was indeed all that.
Nowadays, I still read almost every column article by Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd on New York Times online. Their kind of English is typically American, and takes some deciphering for us at times. But I admire their knowledge, their razor-sharp intellect, and the fearlessness in their pursuit of truth.
Naturally, I hardly read columnists in the Malaysian mainstream media for I know first hand the kind of constraint under which they have to work. Perish the thought that they should one day invite people like me to write columns for them. First, we have to change the government, and then the Star and the New Straits Times will have to change ownership.
So I have been proud of being a member of the Malaysiakini team. I always try my best to give my best to the readers. I seldom miss a deadline without good reasons. Professionalism does demand commitment. Above all, I always try to be original, because being boring is probably the worst sin for any columnist.
Vibrant Public Platform
I have been a columnist for Malaysiakini for the last six or seven years. I have received hundreds of emails from numerous readers. Most of them are polite and encouraging, though I still get the odd ones from readers who have problems reading my simple English. I try to reply to every reader who takes the trouble to write me.
If there is anything I complain about the Malaysiakini readership from within Malaysia and abroad, it is this: they agree with me too much. No columnist can always be right, and sometimes, apart from factual mistakes, there must be flaws or incompleteness in argument. A vibrant public sphere will draw many readers into debate with their columnists, and with one another.
Perhaps such a healthy public sphere has never existed in Malaysia until the opportunity arises when Malaysiakini and other Net news portals came along. We have never really begun to engage one another in a honest, critical but courteous debate on major issues of the day.
In the comments posted by readers after all those Malaysiakini column articles and news items, readers are still prone to knee-jerk comments, lacking reasoned arguments and penetrating insights. In many cases, comments degenerate into name calling and ugly profanity.
In a civilised society, we address our opinions to the ideas of others and not to their person. Just because we disagree with them does not make them bad people. Diversity of views is always good for the growth of a vibrant public platform for the different narratives to find their niche.
In any case, we are a young democracy, and we have a lot to learn as a people. At least, we still have a free and fair forum like Malaysiakini to try out our craft, and to practise what we perceive to be authentic, transparent and progressive journalism.
Happy 10th Anniversary, Malaysiakini!