Of Believing much and Knowing little

January 18, 2012

Of Believing much and Knowing little

The Economist’s deployed trite conclusions more than substantive facts in its coverage of the Anwar acquittal   (see The Economist article dated January 9, 2012 below)

By Terence Netto (unedited version received via-email today)

Foreign correspondents and the publications they work for often face a dilemma: How to suggest omniscience in their reports about a country of which they know not much on the basis of a few conversations with the locals and a jigsaw of media headlines?

The omniscient pose is difficult to bring off, especially by weekly news magazines that revel in a format that condenses the news and melds it with comment.

While these first drafts of history — as one founder of the genre (Henry Luce) grandly suggested this journalism was — may have width in terms of its coverage of the world, that strength may be vitiated by a lack of depth.

Once acquired, the omniscient tone is difficult to shed which would leave those hard done by this affectation echoing Lord Melbourne’s remonstrance at Whig historian Thomas Macaulay’s pretence to knowing it all: “I wish I could be cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.”

The international news weekly The Economist takes its style from Walter Bagehot, its mid-19th century editor-in-chief more than from Thomas Macaulay, but there are times when the strains of its imitation of Bagehot’s arresting blend of aphoristic statement and enlivening fact do starkly show.

Its coverage of Anwar Ibrahim’s acquittal earlier this week from what would have been a career-stifling charge of sodomy is an example of too many conclusions floating around unsupported by a substratum of fact.

Most glaringly, The Economist said that Anwar, despite the Kuala Lumpur High Court’s acquittal of him after a trial of two years that was lurid in its details, has had his reputation tarnished.

A leader who is valiantly striving against great odds for reform of a system that is deeply sclerotic is acquitted after a lengthy and as it happens second trial for sodomy in Muslim-majority Malaysia has had his reputation tarnished!?

As well say, that the reputation of Vladimir Putin, viewed as a holdover from Russia’s illiberal past of autocratic leaders with a penchant for efficiency that is heedless of human rights, has not emerged despoiled after the recent presidential election in Russia widely suspected to have been rigged.

The ad hominem conclusions in The Economist’s Anwar coverage were rendered the more trivial by a remark that at the age of 64, Anwar “seems a distant and untrustworthy figure to many younger Malaysians.”

The irony here is mordant because Anwar’s supporters contend the reason his eventual accuser so easily inveigled himself into the cohort around Anwar was that young Malaysians, in particular Malays, are attracted to the man’s struggles for political change and are drawn by his charisma.  Anwar is a magnet, especially to the more idealistic among the younger Malaysian set, which is why his party is poised – Anwar had recently confirmed this – to field a high proportion of youthful candidates in the impending general election.

This young slate would be the reproof of The Economist’s opinion that Anwar has “failed to nurture a new generation of opposition leaders” in Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

At just under 13 years, PKR is a still fledgling party that required the rallying focus of Anwar’s wife, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, to hold it together as he fought off corruption and sodomy charges.

Anwar’s now 14-year struggle – seen against the longer background of his stature built up from his youth as a paladin for political change — has had the effect of not only uniting hitherto electorally weak, and ideologically disparate, political parties in Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system, but it has also drawn a wide array of NGO and other activists to the banner of reform. He can be seen as old and superannuated only in the sense that Aung San Sui Kyi, who is of the same age, may be seen in the same way in Myanmar’s politics.

A deeply entrenched, sclerotic system takes a long time to buckle to popular pressure — Anwar’s 64 years is old only in the sense that the African National Congress’ Nelson Mandela was the same when he became his seventies in the mid-1990s, by which time South Africa’s apartheid system was as old as the century.

The UMNO-dominated and warped system of governance in Malaysia is a little more than a half-century old, enough time for it to be barnacle-like in its hold on power. Advancing age is not a disqualifier for someone striving to have the system jettisoned.

Unlike other points of its coverage, The Economist is on less precarious ground in its observation that Anwar has not modernized PKR and “has allowed it to become something of a family-run affair, driven by infighting.”

But even there the weekly’s comment has to be seen against the backdrop of the young sapling that Malaysian democracy is and PKR’s relative newness as a political force.

PKR is an assembly of disparate political, social and religious factions that needs time to jell into a coherent whole. True, Anwar bestrides it like a colossus but the jury is still out on whether he is like a banyan tree, no other sapling can grow under its shade.

Enduring political parties in parts of Asia that have quasi to fully democratic forms of government are family-fostered, from the Nehruvian Congress to the Lee Kuan Yew-nurtured PAP.

A nascent people on a continent whose ancient cultures and religions are not exactly hospital to the concept of individual responsibility for one’s destiny require the mystique of larger-than-life figures for long periods before they can come into their own.

Anwar is acquainted with the best that has been said and thought in the realms where democracy has taken hold over the last few centuries which brings us to the gaping void in The Economist’s evaluation of him.

This is the fact that his entire career is tied to a world-historical concern: whether Islam is compatible with democracy, the zeitgeist issue of our times. It  is an issue of epochal significance and the fact that after the verdict he traveled to countries as religiously disparate as India and Turkey to speak at conferences where he is viewed as a Vaclav Havel-like figure is testimony of his category confining-transcendence.

Walter Bagehot, who expanded the sweep of The Economist’s news coverage from national to transcontinental extents, would have understood Anwar’s quest and breadth.


The end of Sodomy 2.0

Jan 9th 2012, 15:47 by R.C.| KUALA LUMPUR

AFTER more than two years of sordid revelations in the media, legal wrangling and political point-scoring, on January 9th the High Court in Malaysia’s capital finally handed down a verdict in Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy case: not guilty. Homosexuality is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia, and if found guilty the former Deputy Prime Minister and current leader of the Opposition could have been jailed for up to 20 years and whipped. The case began in 2008 when a male aide reported to the Police that Mr Anwar had sodomised him. But Mr Anwar and his supporters have always argued that the charge was a lie and that the whole trial was a put-up job by a nervous government, desperate to discredit him after he came close to winning a general election earlier in that year.

Indeed, to many Malaysians the whole case seemed an unlikely re-run of earlier charges brought against Mr Anwar when he was ousted from his post as deputy prime minister in 1998—hence the moniker of Sodomy 2.0 for this case. The first time round he went to prison for six years on corruption and sodomy charges, only to be cleared of the latter by the supreme court in 2004. This time the Judge ruled that the prosecution case against Mr Anwar was too flimsy for a conviction; the DNA evidence, in particular, was unreliable.

Indeed, Mr Anwar claims that all the accusations and legal suits over the past 14 years amount to nothing more than a sustained political vendetta against him by the country’s ruling party, which started after he fell out with the autocratic and long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. Once the golden boy of the United Malays National Organisation, which has ruled the country continuously since Independence from the British, Mr Anwar has been demonised by his former colleagues ever since.

Malaysian politics is an unusually dirty business. But the trials of Anwar, together with the explicit sexual revelations in the press that have necessarily accompanied them in the guise of court reporting, have taxed the patience and fortitude of most Malaysians. Whatever they think of Mr Anwar personally, most Malaysians will be glad that the whole thing is finally over and hope that the trial is not followed by Sodomy III.

If the two sodomy charges really were invented by elements within the government bent on wrecking Mr Anwar’s political career, then these attempts have backfired. The first case rallied huge public sympathy for him. In Sodomy 2.0 he has been publicly vindicated, despite a widespread belief that he was going to be convicted.  The government swiftly tried to spin the verdict to its advantage, claiming it shows that Malaysia has an “independent” judiciary after all, and that “the government does not hold sway over judges’ decision”. But, such is degree of public cynicism in Malaysia, few will take these statements at face value.

How will the verdict affect Malaysia’s politics? It was delivered against the background of an impending general election, and in the short term Mr Anwar’s victory will doubtless give his party and the opposition in general a much-needed boost. It might even persuade the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, to postpone going to the polls for a bit longer, to allow time for the political spotlight to swivel back onto his own agenda.

In the longer term, however, the verdict might not serve the opposition so well. Although Mr Anwar remains a charismatic figure and a forceful speaker, he is at 64, he is too familiar and his ideas and rhetoric have not really shifted since the mid-1990s. He has failed to groom a successor or to nurture a new generation of opposition leaders.

Rather than becoming a vibrant, modernising force in politics his party has become something of a family-run affair, riven by discord and infighting. In prison, so the hard-nosed political operators say, he would have served as a useful martyr to rally the opposition. Now they are stuck with him indefinitely; a man still strong and popular enough to worry the government, but too weakened to win an election or recruit the cohorts of younger voters that they need. As a result, the more savvy, younger politicians will now be eyeing up the following election for their opportunity, not this coming one. And that’s not good for democracy in Malaysia, which is rarely in rude good health at the best of times.


14 thoughts on “Of Believing much and Knowing little

  1. The Economist has always been right leaning and suspicious of political ideologies that threaten traditional power hierarchies. Among Anwar Ibrahim’s most notable accomplishments as a political catalyst I would point to his brilliant substitution of “Ketuanan Rakyat” for “Ketuanan Melayu.” With this theme, Pakatan Rakyat has been able to neutralize the toxicity of Umno’s race-and-religion card while giving voters a new dream – that the new government after Umno/BN will restore the balance in favor of the general population, rather than enrich and prop up a decadent, hypocritical and oppressive elite. Thanks, Terence, for taking on that supercilious “R.C.” and deconstructing his anal-retentive analysis.

  2. Netto gives us an invaluable insight into the struggles of a Malaysian political leader who, like Richard Nixon, has been through a series of personal crises brought about his adversaries. The crises have strengthened the man’s resolve to fight for freedom, justice and democracy. At 64, he is strong and very focused, determined to change the way we engage in politics and administer our wonderful country.

    I hope the Editors at The Economist now have a better appreciation of what Anwar Ibrahim stands for. That he is ambitious, of that there is no doubt. It’s ambition to serve the downtrodden that sustains him. That he wants to be Prime Minister, nothing is wrong with that either. Najib is Prime Minister now and wants to keep his job. I do not see anything sinister or bad with that too. But if a leader has no connection to the very people who voted for him to be in the job, I think that leader has a huge problem on his back. In fact, he deserves to lose his job.

    I used to accompany Anwar Ibrahim during the election campaign of 2008 to remote places in our country, where I had never been before, and it pained me to see kids with bloated stomachs running naked as our campaign vehicles arrived to deliver our ceramah in their village. I wondered what difference their lives would have been if their parents had better incomes and their community had a good school, good clinic, electricity and proper roads, and clean drinking water. What happened to the money allocated to the Ministry of Rural Development? Minister of Rural and Regional Development,Mohd Shafie Apdal, should answer this question.

    Merdeka, what I ask myself, if we cannot do better in caring for our citizens than the British colonial masters who we replaced . It was a humbling experience for me and you cannot now blame me for getting angry when I read about NFC and other scandals, and rampant corruption involving billions of taxpayers money. –Din Merican

  3. Well, in Ipoh you don’t have to go far. Just pop into the slums of Buntong and see things for yourself. The marginalized Indians are still where they were decades ago. Their shanties are slightly better than cow sheds. This is baffling indeed after all the place is so close to city centre.

    In the Malay enclave of Manjoi things are slightly better but attempts to bring developments here are being stymied by poor infrastructure, especially a proper road and drainage system.

    Of course, promises by politicians are aplenty but delivering them is something else.

  4. I’ve nothing to say about the article in ‘the economist’, except that yeah, it’s absolutely trite and inane. Being conservative does not mean to be an opinionated piece of shit.

    Ministry of Rural Development? What’s that? Died with the Dinosaurs a long time ago. The problem that afflicts all our ministers, ministries and their lackeys is that there is no team-work. They focus only on their pathetic duties, without a shred of empathy or being able to see the “Big Picture”. Their functional motto, is as always: ‘Ain’t my/our responsibility!’

    So you have these idiots who would connect telephone poles but refuse to give the phone. Or teach the value of a nutritious diet without getting rid of the worms. Or setting up schools for ‘geniuses’ only to see them take up the second oldest profession of ‘civilization’, ‘cuz they can’t see the Light.

    So tell me about ETP and all those wonderful acronyms. You guys can take your time talking about the ‘Typology’, ‘Characteristics’ and ‘Manifestations’ of leadership. But one thing I know, it ain’t just about the words spoken, the clothes you wear, the titles you have or other ‘traits’ – it’s about what you do and the true intentions thereof.
    Most of these politicians claim to have good intentions, but these intentions pave the road to hell. Empathy, CLF, is Greek to them. Life is easy. Run out of money? Well, call businessman Ah Kow, who is ever willing to fork out the money for 10x of the amount given back in contracts. Once the politician is in Ah Kow’s grasp, he loses control. That is how someone like Azalina Othman Said, the former Minister of Tourism can own, inter alia, a fleet of expensive cars. RM300,000 is also okay for her.–Din Merican

  5. I’m put off by Netto’s use of colorful language and a literary style more suited to the theatres. If he keeps on to the same style of writing, I seriously think he is a man ill-suited to analysing mundane issues on politics and economics — simply because few could understand his ramblings. Netto needs to have both his feet on the ground.

    Having said that one should not be looking to the Economist for any meaningful analysis on the political situation in Malaysia. Try Newsweek which is a liberal (though a fledgling magazine according to FOX news) magazine.

  6. what? Newsweek, a fledgling magazine?
    maybe umno/APCOs tentacles have got to The Economist after the BBC debacle.

    Netto’s language must be fine tuned to the level of the audience it is intended for. Isn’t Netto’s English a proof that the malaysian english education is above par excellence?
    Netto writes to educate and challenge.Rise up to his standard by improving one’s English through reading, writing and speaking. Also learn to use the dictionary to increase one’s vocabulary. He and I discussed the matter before and I said to him that he should not lower his standard. Rise up or be left behind.–Din Merican


  7. “As a result, the more savvy, younger politicians will now be eyeing up the following election for their opportunity, not this coming one. And that’s not good for democracy in Malaysia, which is rarely in rude good health at the best of times.”

    To a western observer, it is all about the process. It is about rights. And rightly so. But in a stunted political system like Malaysia that has stubbornly resisted the natural progression from a one party dominant system to a two party system, and has been all about personalities rather than ideology, ideas and issues, you cannot say it is good for democracy — certainly not the western liberal democracy that we see in the West.

  8. Every writer is entitled to write the way he wants. Netto has his flair with words and so does Shakespeare. Netto writes well. He expresses himself well.
    And damn it, THAT IS HIS STYLE.

    If Bean is put off by his colorful language, then don’t read his pieces. Why should Netto, compromise his style to please some disgruntled readers who are more concerned with the form than substance. In any case, Netto’s in depth analyses of Malaysian issues are aeon years ahead of those we read in The Star and NST.

  9. Tok Chik,dinobeano et.al….

    Children & even elderly people in villages and remote places, with bloated tummies are about malnutrition due to poverty, unlike those in urban settings, their bloated stomachs are from the greed & often ill-gotten enrichment – gluttony perhaps due to the ‘Nafs’ , Inane Desires….

    But who cares ? Politics in the country is about Personalities, not ideology, ideas or issues, and someone rightly says ” not working for a living but Voting for a living ” – how aptly corrupt !

    Yes about issues not Party-inclinations…Whether BN or PKR in power, in order to Win, you have todo away with current faces of esp YABs in the various States who are REAL Goons…people are disgusted with their ‘faces’ ( naik jemu…they say ) – the perception of Mentris Besar-kepala…that’s what it is….

    Btw, this is ‘psychological’ – If or when PKR takes up power, please kindly do the needful : Remove all the acronyms or APPELATIONS/Appelatives in cliches like ” Besar ” and ” General ” attached to the Posts, Eg Mentri Besar, besar this & besar that….it goes into their heads that they are indeed Demi-gods, & rakyats’ complain generaly that its easier to see ” Agong ” than these creatures. ” Secretary-General” , the appelation sounds more familiar to the Triad-underworld ‘traitts’ – big headed…
    ‘Minister” a glorified term as ” Servant” of the Crown…. So, YBs are mere ” Berkihdmat” , not rubbish like Yang Berhormat….psychologically corrutible….

  10. No, excuse me…..yes Netto writes quite well or ‘ beautifully ‘, EXCEPT that more often Readers like me when we are about to reach Orgasam…its suddenly left hanging there….like an Anticlimax…..

    To me, Incisiveness matters : compare CLF, yes he writes allegorically, with metaphors or figuratively, but his Incisiveness in the end well understood….

    Me too, i have to improve a lot….my problem is my tendency to hurry & condense everything, but in trying to Digest…it often leads me to ” indigestions”…… sorry folks….

  11. It is CLF, about what one does and one’s true intentions . I agree whole heartedly. especially in M’sia where they have lost their way.

  12. thanks for the comment Dato’. I did’nt criticise Nettos English and his choice of words, it was more a tongue in cheek comment. I prefer his writings to others who go bombastic and miss the point.
    what you say is very true, rise up or be left behind, which especially the ruling elites of malaysia don’t comprehend.

  13. Freedom of the pres belongs to the person or persons who own the newspaper or magazine. We must do become dependent on primary sources of information for our news. And I hope that with the growing influence of the internet people will read more and try to come to their own conclusions instead of spin thrown at us in the name of newspapers and magazines that masquerade as independent news organizations.

  14. This Economists article reminded me of a discussion I had with my colleagues who were expats a decade ago. When they land in Malaysia they expect everything to be like their country including politics.

    I reminded them Malaysia is not comparable to the US as we are quite a young nation. Robust public discourse is not something they would see here. Having said that I did mentioned that comparatively we have achieved more in our 50 years that the US in their first 50 years.

    Well, the Economists can’t have the best of both worlds. Its either wide coverage or deep analysis, considering its weekly nature. It’s just that they need to be reminded that a little knowledge is always dangerous.

    Dato’, I can connect with your experience because that’s my root. I used to walk through acres of rubber trees to reach the main road to catch a bus to school. Those were the days.

    In the light of the impending change it would be good to remind ourselves that we shall never let the politicians be on their own device anymore after the coming election. We must always be vigilant and actively participate in our small ways for nation building.

    Political awareness must be inculcated among the young. It must be drummed into them that their future well-being is dependent on their level of participation.
    Otherwise our politicians will revert to playing us out.
    While we may not be politicians, we can certainly be good citizens. Life was tough when we were growing up. But we learned good values from our parents and neighbours. Money was important and still is, but not the pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of ethics. –Din Merican

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