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.