The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric

September 6, 2016

The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric

by Max Stephenson Jr.

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

Image result for socrates plato aristotle

The Greek philosopher Socrates is famous for suggesting, among other aphorisms, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” When one follows that great figure through his student Plato’s famous Dialogues, one quickly learns that the sage was not arguing for “know-nothingism,” but for its reverse, a dedicated, passionate, life-long and humble pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.

Socrates more than once patiently undid pompously certain or manipulative individuals in exchanges with them, including the rhetorician Gorgias, his student Polus and finally, and most importantly, the Athenian gentleman, Callicles in Plato’s The Gorgias. As he debated each of these individuals concerning the relative roles and merits of rhetoric in that Dialogue, Socrates established that the art of communication may degrade rather than ennoble those who practice it, particularly when the rhetorician’s aim is to employ that art to garner power or riches for themselves. As he talked with his three interlocutors in The Gorgias, Socrates moved their conversation into a deeper reflection on the nature of the good and evil inhering in humankind. In conversing with Callicles particularly, the philosopher completely discredited the pursuit of power and riches for their own sakes and persuaded the Athenian to admit, to his great consternation, that rhetoric harnessed for such purposes is both personally and socially corrosive and worse.

As Socrates made these points in The Gorgias, he suggested how pernicious empty pursuit of power can be while also pointing to abidingly important questions about human behavior and expectations of political life. The philosopher’s sometimes pointed probing of Gorgias as well as that rhetorician’s pupil and sponsor offer several lessons for those active in American politics today.

I sketch three very briefly here: the imperative need for intellectual and moral humility to secure the possibility for knowledge and free human interaction, the profound individual and social degradation and loss of freedom that can result from the misuse of the power that inheres in rhetoric and the often painful political consequences of embracing certainties where none exist, especially when these result in dogma or fundamentalisms of various stripes.

Socrates sought early in The Gorgias to remind his conversation partners of their grotesque, almost comedic, vanity. Not one of the trio with whom the thinker interacted could imagine that their positions were not the height of intelligence and perspicacity. The philosopher’s burden was to expose what their conceit meant for their positions and how they viewed their fellow human beings. Socrates carefully demonstrated to each individual that rhetoric unlinked to truth seeking and knowledge was empty and often cruel, and that their certainties led not to thoughtfulness, but to boasting and brokenness. More, their false sureness led to arrogance and an abiding belief in their own wisdom and standing, and especially in their capacity to persuade their fellow citizens to their views to advance their own pride, power and place.

All of these attributes Socrates deliberately, and sometimes scathingly, showed to be utterly hollow and destructive for those employing them, for those abused (and used) by these arts and for the broader society. Narcissism results not only in personal arrogance and shame, but also social corrosion. For Socrates, while knowledge can certainly be precise, one must ever be open to the possibility that it may be overturned by newfound insights and be humbled by that fact in one’s quest for wisdom and in how one treats others.

One key lesson of The Gorgias is that he or she who would be wise must also be humble and that seeking knowledge demands tolerance. Another message of this Dialogue is that vanity degrades its purveyor even when, perhaps especially when, the individual can ply their skills successfully (i.e., persuades the listener or viewer of their perspective even when that point-of-view may not redound to that person’s interests). Manipulation of another human being, successful or not, damages profoundly the dignity of both the individual undertaking it as well as the target.

It is hardly a stretch to note that today’s equivalent of the rhetoricians depicted in The Gorgias are political consultants who are hired for the sole purpose of persuading enough of the relevant voting electorate to choose their employer to allow that individual to gain power via an election. The metric for most of those in this industry is whether their candidates succeed or “win.” In fact, future contracts depend largely on these consultants being perceived as “winners” in just this sense. With so low a bar for practice it is no surprise that each election season brings fresh revelations of how one or another campaign consultant pressed completely untruthful or inflammatory claims to “support” their candidate.

Such rhetoric is empty in just the way that Socrates warned it could be dangerous so many years ago; it can become untethered to anything but a relentless quest for power and individual gain. Given this concern, it is noteworthy that our polity’s politics no longer is yoked to political consultants only during campaigns, but for daily governance choices as well. Each political party offers daily talking points for its partisans aimed solely at persuasion for perceived partisan advantage, as do countless advocacy groups, and these often bear too little relationship to the facts of the policy challenges at hand, but are instead crafted to mobilize specific voters or to seek to persuade others to support an alternate perspective by whatever claims may appear to “work.” In addition to not always being linked to real, as opposed to salient, concerns, these statements frequently also trend to the fantastical, as when several GOP Senators recently sought to blame President Obama for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to occupy the Crimea militarily.

This example is fresh, but new ones occur daily and they illustrate the dangers of disconnecting rhetoric from any substantive ethical claims in efforts to mobilize for advantage to garner power. Pursuit of power for its own sake is always dangerous and that is true in democratic societies, too, particularly when it leads officials to adopt strategies that “other” groups or entire populations, or otherwise manipulate hearers or viewers to take stands against preserving the freedom and rights of all.

A third lesson one may take from The Gorgias for today’s U.S. politics is the danger in using rhetoric to offer the public false certainties. Our politics is rife with officials—both elected and those who would be—willing to offer up all manner of supposed certitudes to voters feeling insecure as a result of rapid globalization, a deep recession and slow economic growth that is leaving many groups behind. In so fear-filled a context, would-be democratic leaders confront an electorate yearning for explanations and “fixes” for their perceived woes and leaders may be tempted to provide voters all sorts of deceptive targets for concern as a way to gain their votes. We have seen just such strategies employed in recent years by candidates and officials willing to blame government for a range of social and political problems, including, in fact, sluggish economic growth. Other leaders have argued similarly that the poor constitute a cancerous tumor on the body politic and their laziness and moral degradation is the cause of much wider woes.

Still others have asserted that immigrants constitute a threat to employment for Americans and that religious freedom is under assault (there is no real evidence for either contention).  In all of these cases, those campaigning for office have offered voters rhetoric characterized by unbridled claims and simple-seeming “certainties” that allege someone or something is responsible for what are, in fact, complicated multi-causal realities.

Each such initiative launched by political leaders and their consultants comes replete with the dangers implicit in unleashing “othering” of either the government or specific groups. There is now ample evidence that these sorts of claims can mobilize a share of voters, but as Socrates wisely realized, such rhetoric often results in and feeds fundamentalist claims and imagined certainties that permit their purveyors to dismiss other groups in society or to blame those groups for all manner of woes, resulting ultimately in the degradation or loss of freedom among both those targeted and those abusing them.

False certainties tied to emotive claims concerning the moral inadequacies of those blamed constitute an especially surefire fast track to tyranny. At their worse these sorts of social contentions have resulted in the horrors of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide, among too many other examples to recount. It is hardly too soon to sound the alarm that a share of our national rhetoric today has taken on a vicious and malignant tone that appears untethered to any claim, but the pursuit of power.  History teaches that such rhetoric is dangerous for freedom.

by James Fallows

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?
By Mark Thompson
342 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.

In the “Afterthoughts” to his book about the decline of public language in politics, Mark Thompson mentions something that for me clarified the 12 chapters that went before. Thompson, who grew up in England and was director-general of the BBC before taking his current job as chief executive of The New York Times Company, was invited in 2012 to give a series of lectures on the “art of public persuasion” at Oxford, his alma mater. From those lectures and subsequent discussions, he writes, “Enough Said” arose.

Knowing the book’s genesis is useful in understanding the kind of value it has, and what it does not do. To oversimplify, the most influential nonfiction books usually exist either to tell a story, as with “Seabiscuit” and “All the President’s Men,” or to advance an argument, as with “Silent Spring” and “The Feminine Mystique.” Ideally they combine the two, as for example Michael Lewis did with his tale of the origins of the 2008 financial crisis, “The Big Short.”

Lecture series, and books derived from them, are different in that their assumed interest comes from watching a thinker engage with a set topic and seeing what insights emerge, rather than expecting a clear narrative or argument to ring through. That’s the case with “Enough Said.” Given Thompson’s standing as a past leader of one of the world’s dominant news organizations and the current head of another, what he thinks about the interactions among politicians, citizens and the press is by definition important. I don’t think this book will change the continuing debates about “bias” and “objectivity,” the separation of the public into distinct fact universes, the disappearing boundary between entertainment and civic life, the imperiled concept of “truth” or the other important topics it addresses. But it offers many instructive allusions, useful judgments and important refinements on these themes — and provides reassurance by its mere existence that someone in the author’s position is grappling so earnestly with such questions.

For me the book is strongest by far when it is most like a story — Thompson’s own story, of his 30-plus years with the BBC. They began in his early 20s, when he was a research assistant trainee, continued with his rise to producer, editor and top executive, and coincided with dramatic changes in both politics and the language of public affairs in Britain. Thompson describes these vividly and well. He emphasizes the shift in political rhetoric from Margaret Thatcher’s forcefulness — “hard-edged, insistent, utterly sure of itself” — to the smoothly sophisticated message discipline and media management of Tony Blair in his early years. He also describes the ways, successful and otherwise, that he and others in the British press tried to keep up. Crucially, he knows the nuances of these people and predicaments so well that he need not stop with saying that certain choices were difficult or complex. He can go on to argue why, despite the complexity, decisions he made were right (for instance, to introduce a new kind of news coverage in the Thatcher era) or why distortions by some politicians (notably Blair’s, in urging Britain into war in Iraq) were worse than others.

Although Thompson worked in the United States for a time as a BBC producer in the 1980s and returned once he joined The Times four years ago, his feel for American politics is naturally not a match for what he knows about Britain. When providing American examples for his analysis, he often stops at the “difficult and complex” stage. One example: In a survey of books about the dysfunction of the United States federal government, he mentions “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” a prescient 2012 book by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann about problems within the Republican Party. But he dismisses it by saying that “their thrust is resolutely one-sided” and that “blaming an adverse trend in political culture entirely on one party . . . is scarcely a recipe for reducing political division.” This sounds balanced, but it doesn’t acknowledge the influential and carefully argued point of Ornstein and Mann’s book, which was precisely that the extremist forces in modern politics had been much more damaging on the Republican than on the Democratic side.

Another example: Thompson contrasts the “two rhetorics” of public life, what Mario Cuomo called the poetry of campaigning and the prose of governance, and says that Barack Obama is “perhaps the most obvious example . . . ‘the change we need’ giving way almost overnight to tight-lipped and sometimes testy managerialism.” In Thompson’s view, “the word-worlds of Obama the campaigner and Obama the president turned out to be so different that it was almost as if they were twin brothers with contrasting personalities.” In fact, compared with that of other presidents, Obama’s rhetoric is remarkable for how little it has changed over the years. As a matter of achievement, the President Obama who has not closed Guantánamo or cleaned up Wall Street is a disappointment to some of his supporters. But the rhetorician Obama who spoke to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this summer could have taken whole paragraphs from the speech with which the young Illinois State Senator Barack Obama made his national debut at the Democratic Convention in Boston 12 years ago. Both spoke of America’s constantly becoming a better version of itself. Both emphasized what united rather than divided their fellow citizens.
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Beyond British and American politics, Thompson covers a wide range of additional subjects. He discusses the classic Greek elements of rhetoric, including logos (argument), ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (emotion), along with other Greek rhetorical concepts. He talks about the punchy, Trump-like language of Vladimir Putin and the theatrics of Silvio Berlusconi. A whole chapter is built around George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” He punctuates his discussions with sweeping summaries like this one, in reference to social media: “The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius — a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill — is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art but as algorithm.”

Thompson examines the rhetorical extremes through which the British public considered its Brexit vote and the American public considers the prospect of a President Trump, and the ways residents of both countries evaluate rhetoric about climate change. He gives few details about the strategy he is applying in his current job, at The Times, to keep the newspaper economically viable and credible to its readers, but he closes a passage on the digital transformation of news with a lament that “traditional” journalists may have become “a tribe whose discourse no longer has the breadth or the adaptability to reflect reality, but whose befuddlement is such that, even if they are aware of the dilemma, they are more likely to blame reality than themselves. . . . The important question about much old-fashioned journalism is not whether it can survive as a profession but whether it deserves to — and whether anyone would miss it if it disappeared.”

Thompson’s employees, and those at other traditional news outlets, will be relieved to hear that his answer is yes: Journalism matters and journalists deserve to survive. He closes the book with some unexceptional but important advice for all affected parties: Politicians should not say one thing and do another; journalists shouldn’t lie and should be fair; members of the public should be more willing to pay attention and absorb real facts. The destination is not surprising, but there is enlightenment along the way.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of many books, including “Breaking the News.”

A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Watch Your Rhetoric. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Indonesia’s Foreign Policy: Relations with China

May 30, 2016

Indonesia’s Foreign Policy: Relations with China

by Evan A Laksmana

In mid-March, a Chinese Coast Guard rammed one of its own fishing boats to pry it free from Indonesian authorities who had seized it for illegal fishing off the Natuna Islands – the northernmost undisputed Indonesian island group.

The incident has put a spotlight on Indonesia’s foreign policy under President Joko Widodo or Jokowi. Analysts have carefully examined the incident in great detail (seehere and here).

In the incident’s wake, the Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, and Fisheries Minister responded in different, and somewhat overlapping, ways. The Fisheries Minister has become the public face for Indonesia’s visibly angry response, while the military, according to press reports, continues preparations to upgrade its facilities in the Natunas.

Several diplomats wrote op-eds slamming Beijing for its disregard of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the rules-based order Jakarta has always pushed for in the management of the South China Sea. Jokowi’s Chief Foreign Policy Adviser, Dr. Rizal Sukma who is currently Ambassador to London, noted the importance of illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing as the common challenge for Indonesia and China; rather than sovereignty as the Natunas are undisputedly Indonesian in the first place.

Yet, after delivering an official diplomatic protest to the Chinese Embassy, the Foreign Minister insisted that the incident had nothing to do with the South China Sea dispute. Jokowi also instructed Luhut Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for political, legal, and security affairs, to take necessary steps but reminded him that China “remains Indonesia’s friend.”

Jakarta has taken a hard stance with those caught illegally fishing in its waters.

Indonesia destroyed 23 foreign fishing boats, as worsening relations over the disputed South China Sea drive countries to take tougher action to defend their maritime sovereignty.

This seemingly incoherent response reveals some of the broader trends in Indonesia’s foreign policy in recent years. First, despite the growing literature on how the post-1998 democratic transition and consolidation has overhauled foreign policy-making, foreign policy remains strongly, perhaps even idiosyncratically, a presidential affair.

This is partially a legacy of the centralised system entrenched under Suharto’s New Order, and partially because successive post-Suharto Presidents never paid serious and sustained attention to developing a professional, well-funded foreign ministry and a well-oiled foreign policy-making system – particularly one that can spans different parts of the government to harness the country’s different tools of regional and global engagement.

For almost two decades after 1998, only the organisational reforms instituted under Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda are noteworthy. But even those reforms were not well-funded, nor were they sustainable given some of the entrenched bureaucratic challenges and the ebbs and flow of presidential support. It is not surprising therefore that the personal characteristics of different post-Suharto presidents shaped and shoved Indonesia’s foreign policy.

What this means is that Jokowi’s personal aloofness on foreign affairs, his seemingly narrow domestic economic agenda, and his concerns with domestic politics, have prevented the Office of the President to marshal the nation’s strategic community to forcefully, coherently, and consistently respond to day-to-day challenges, including in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, the absence of a dedicated foreign affairs staff inside the Presidential Palace (or an executive National Security Council, for that matter), the departure of key foreign policy advisers, and the increasingly lack of chemistry and trust between the President and Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, have further exacerbated this problem.

Second, Jakarta’s over-reliance on the “non-claimant honest broker” position on the South China Sea suggests the `path dependence’ of institutionalist thinking within the Foreign Ministry. Two strands of institutionalist thought are particularly salient: the belief in the virtues of international law along with a rules-based order underpinned by UNCLOS 1982, and the utility of multilateralism and ASEAN.

The first strand goes back to the 1956 Djuanda Declaration and has been sustained and strengthened by a series of influential diplomats and foreign ministers trained in international law for the past several decades. In the early 2000s, there were reports of a growing network of influential diplomats under the tutelage of Foreign Minister Wirajuda that came through the Indonesian representative office in Geneva (all steeped in international law).

The second strand goes back to the founding of ASEAN (1967) and the New Order’s efforts to ensure domestic stability and regime maintenance by pushing for regional stability in Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s leadership of the grouping and its position as the country’s foreign policy “cornerstone”– and the fact that many of Jakarta’s achievements were done within a multilateral framework — has sustained this institutionalist thinking.

According to a former member of Jokowi’s transition team, these institutionalist strands of thought often crowd out other “scenario-based realist” thinking on foreign policy, which is often critical in dealing with developments in the South China Sea. The institutionalist thinking has also led to push backs from the broader  strategic community (including defense and fisheries ministries) in Jakarta concerned with China’s militarisation of the region and its constant encroachment of Indonesia’s maritime territories.

The logic of institutions is powerful but it is also glacial-paced. Meanwhile, as we can see, given the current escalations and rapidly changing “facts on the ground”, so to speak, in the South China Sea, Jakarta may need to realise it is being strategically blinded by its own lens and hindered by maritime governance inter-bureaucratic infighting

Third, given the previous two trends, Indonesia’s foreign policy-making requires better and improved inter-agency coordination and collaboration and larger funding and resources.

When it comes to the South China Sea, the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Political Affairs should get the Foreign Ministry to talk more regularly to other agencies, particularly the Navy, Maritime Security Agency, and the IUU fishing task force of the Fisheries Ministry. The Foreign Ministry should also invest more in sending senior officials to attend regular inter-agency meetings and expand the number of senior diplomats sent to inter-agency courses, such as those run by the National Resilience Institute.

Given the prevalent view that Indonesia’s best and brightest tend to join the Foreign Ministry, policymakers should not let it become an isolated actor within the broader national security system and establishment. Additionally, House of Representatives’ Commission for Defence, Foreign Affairs and Information – charged with discussing issues related to its portfolio and formulating plenary bills for consideration by parliament –needs to be more involved in foreign policy-making and increase the budgetary resources for the Foreign Ministry.

The current budget only stands at roughly $549 million, with roughly 80-85 per cent devoted to routine expenditures and personnel salaries. This lack of budgetary support is not unique to Jokowi of course. According to budgetary documents compiled by CSIS Jakarta, the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget from 1999 to 2014 leveled at around $305 million on average, or roughly 0.69 per cent of the national budget.

We should bear in mind these broader trends and limitations in Indonesia’s foreign policy-making when expecting Jakarta to play a more proactive role in balancing the ongoing US-China strategic rivalry, and the peaceful management of the South China Sea disputes.

Evan A Laksmana is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta, and a political science doctoral candidate at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.


Malaysia’s Press Freedom Crisis

March 23, 2016

Blocked Site’s Closure Underscores Malaysia’s Press Freedom Crisis

Blocked Site’s Closure Underscores Malaysia’s Press Freedom Crisis

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) interviews Malaysian Insider editor

On March 14, The Malaysian Insider abruptly closed its editorial operations less than a month after the state media regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, blocked local access to its news site.

The Edge Media Group, owner of The Malaysian Insidersaid in a statement that despite the site’s “courageous news reporting” it “did not receive enough commercial support to keep it going.” In a statement posted on The Malaysian Insider website, Editor-in-Chief Jahabar Sadiq confirmed the site was closed for commercial reasons.

The closure of the English language portal comes amid a government clampdown on independent media, particularly outlets that have critically covered the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal that has engulfed Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration. In recent months, CPJ has documented how authorities have censored, harassed and threatened individual journalists and media outlets in retaliation for their critical coverage.

In an email interview, Sadiq spoke about the government pressure his now-shuttered site experienced and the broad deterioration in press freedom in Malaysia.

CPJ: Last month, The Malaysian Insider’s website was blocked by the state’s media regulator. What article did authorities cite to justify the censorship and why did they consider it sensitive?

Sadiq: Until today there is no official explanation by way of a letter to The Malaysian Insider as to the reasons for the block. All we have is a minister saying we were blocked for an article that was confusing the people of Malaysia and a foreign ministry statement saying that the article was a threat to national peace and harmony.

The news related to an unidentified panel member in the local anti-graft authority saying they had prima facie evidence to back criminal charges against the Prime Minister over a huge sum of money found in his private bank accounts. The Attorney-General had earlier said there was insufficient evidence for a charge.[EDITOR’S NOTE: Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing.]

CPJ: Before the commission’s censorship order, did The Malaysian Insider face any official harassment, warnings or threats over its critical news coverage, including of the 1MDB scandal?

Sadiq: We faced investigations for another case last year, but not related to this. However, the Internet regulator issued a general warning to all news portals last July over news coverage, specifically the 1MDB scandal, and the need to avoid using “unverified” news from other sites. There has always been unofficial harassment and threats by supporters and activists linked to the government.

CPJ: How did the government’s blockage of your news site impact your readership? Were readers able to work around the block or was your site, in effect, blacked out?

Sadiq: Our news site saw traffic decline up to 30 percent after the block. Most readers were able to work around the block and traffic remained ahead of other news portals, but eventually it affected our earnings more as advertisers pulled out. In a sense, that loss of revenue led to a permanent blackout.

CPJ: How did the censorship impact your news site’s financial situation? Do you think Najib’s government has a deliberate policy of using economic means to bring down independent online media?

Sadiq: The block led to the permanent blackout as revenue plunged. Only one advertiser insisted on putting advertisements despite the block and, ironically, it was a government agency. I have no proof that there is a deliberate policy to use economic means, but advertising agencies have told us that government-linked companies have been discouraged from advertising with us. In our time, only one bank, CIMB, which is owned by the state sovereign wealth fund Khazanah [Nasional Berhad,] has consistently advertised with us. The others did not.

CPJ: What role, if any, did government pressure play in the final decision to close The Malaysian Insider?

Sadiq: As far as I know, there is no government pressure in the decision to close down The Malaysian Insider. The shareholders had indicated from January that they wanted to sell the business and received several inquiries. But the continued block was a factor that affected the sale price of the news portal and perhaps pushed the decision [by the Edge Media Group] to shut it down rather than sell at a lower price.

CPJ: How has Malaysia’s independent online media’s reporting on the 1MDB scandal differed from the state-influenced mainstream media’s coverage?

Sadiq: Well, it is as clear as night and day between both mainly. Several mainstream print media have tried to be as comprehensive as the online media’s wall-to-wall coverage, but the threat of losing their license has curbed them. Most of them have been defending the government in the 1MDB scandal, while the online media has reported the issues and exposés reported by foreign media and whistleblower websites.

CPJ: The Malaysian Attorney-General has proposed intensifying penalties, including possible life in prison and judicial caning, for violations of the Official Secrets Act. What impact would such revisions, if implemented, have on journalists, whistleblowers and press freedom in general?

Sadiq: The proposals, if true, are chilling. No one would want to work as journalists or if they did, they would just censor themselves rather than run the risk of jail or caning for reporting something remotely seen as a secret. There are whistleblower laws but this seems to contradict the laws that seek to keep the government transparent and accountable. Such revisions, if passed, will just mean the death of professional journalism in Malaysia, and what a sad day that would be.

CPJ: What is your broad assessment of the press freedom situation in Malaysia? Is there still a future for independent journalism, or is the government effectively moving to outlaw its existence?

Sadiq: I have always maintained that there is press freedom in Malaysia and our existence was proof of it. But I guess I am wrong now–we don’t exist. There is a future, but it is under severe attack if people shy away from funding it or think that it is someone else’s problem to fund and run it. The government does not have to do much except ensure that there is enough sycophantic media to lavish praise at it while market forces and bureaucracy stops us from doing our job.

Today, news sites can only exist and do well if they don’t actually cover the real news of governance and scandals that plague Malaysia. The authorities would be happier if we covered entertainment, gossip and travel shows. Anything else threatens their well-being and, in turn, the media’s well-being.

Reprinted from the Committee to Protect Journalists website, CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin is based Bangkok in where he has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 15 years.  

Sue M C Commission

March 2, 2016

Sue M C Commission

by Ista Kyra Sharmugam

The Malaysian Insider chief executive officer Jahabar Sadiq and four other journalists had their statements recorded at the Bukit Aman police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Friday over a report on the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s operations review panel. – The Malaysian Insider pic, March 2, 2016.

The Malaysian Insider Chief Executive Officer Jahabar Sadiq and four other journalists had their statements recorded at the Bukit Aman Police Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Friday over a report on the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s operations review panel. – The Malaysian Insider pic, March 2, 2016.

Websites blocked by the Multimedia and Communications Commission (MCMC) without an official court order can challenge the ban with a judicial review, lawyers say in light of recent bans on blogs and a news portal.

This is since the main law used to regulate online content, the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA), does not allow the agency to block arbitrarily online content without first going to court.

They said MCMC must first prove in a court of law that a website had breached the CMA before it could be banned, said Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen.

“There was no due process as they just decided one fine day that they would block a legitimate online news site.MCMC is acting beyond its powers and behaving like the Prime Minister’s personal online bodyguard, protecting him from critical online news,” Paulsen said when contacted.

Another lawyer, H.R. Dipendra said the CMA was silent on whether MCMC has powers to block unilaterally websites. On February 25, access to The Malaysian Insider was blocked by government-linked telecommunication companies Unifi and Celcom on instruction by MCMC.

Access to the site was still available on the Maxis and DiGi networks until February 27 when all Malaysian telcos enforced the block. The agency claimed TMI breached Section 233 of the CMA which deals with the improper use of network facilities and services.

But Communications and Multimedia Minister Dato’ Seri Salleh Said Keruak later said TMI was blocked because it had “caused confusion” with its report quoting a source from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s operations review panel about investigations into Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak.

Even before the block on TMI, however, MCMC banned access to blogs, such as such as Syed Outside the Box, Tabunginsider, jingo-fotopages and Din Turtle late last month.

Other sites it has blocked are UK-based whistle-blower website Sarawak Report and local news and opinion aggregator Malaysian Chronicle. It has also blocked publishing platform Medium which carried an article by Sarawak Report on Najib.

Paulsen said sites affected by the ban could file a judicial review as the agency has acted beyond its powers.

“The only way is to challenge the decision in court through judicial review,” he said.

Another lawyer, Yusmadi Yusof, urged TMI to create a legal precedent by filing a judicial review.

“The Malaysian Insider should lead the way by doing so. This will give a chance for a correct interpretation of the law to be applied through the courts.”

Yusmadi said MCMC’s clampdown amounted to censorship and contradicted Putrajaya’s commitment to transparency when it signed up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

“They are joining TPPA as if they are ready to embrace international law, but this type of blocking on the Internet shows they are not ready for criticism or dissent and do not understand right to reply.It reflects a more authoritarian regime which is not going to fly in the future.”


Liberalism and Faith

November 6, 2015

Liberalism and Faith

by Rom

J Locke's QuoteFor many, ‘liberalism’ in what is often described as a ‘plural’ society like Malaysia has meant anything from John Locke’s belief in the individual’s right to life, liberty and property to the broader assertion that liberalism, as a political philosophy, ‘supports ideas and programmes such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, and democratic societies’.

But what is liberalism largely seen as in the context of contemporary Malaysia?From the way our political leaders, our religious pundits, some of our mainstream media, and even our education system have begun to put it, liberalism seems to have shifted from being seen as something neutral, desirable even, to something that is negative and not suitable for Malaysian society.

This is similar, I would say, to the way ‘democracy’ was criticised in the 1980s and 1990s as being an invention of the West, a tool meant to continue subjugating us to Western interests.

Philipp RoslerThen there’s this concept or assumption of a ‘plural society’. Despite the many valid scholarly critiques of this description of Malaysian society, it is one that still enjoys wide currency.

Pluralism implies equal, competing voices and centres, and a free market of ideas competing in a fair environment. This, for quite some time now, has become rather doubtful in Malaysia. Competing voices, ideas and practices there certainly may be, but it would be unwise, indeed delusional, for us to believe that they exist in a fair environment. In many, many cases, there is indeed no level playing field.

Take the media system in Malaysia, for example. Since the 1980s at least, there has been oligopolistic control over the mainstream media.

UMNO in PowerThe tentacles of the ruling parties, especially UMNO, are spread far and wide, ably aided by the virtually all-encompassing 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and the increasingly (ab)used 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act.

And not to mention, of course, the Sedition Act.It used to be said, especially in the bad old days of the Internal Security Act, that there’s freedom of speech in Malaysia but NO freedom after speech.

But now, despite a short period of respite, it would seem that even such limited freedoms are being taken away by what appears to be a desperate regime that blocks news websites that provide crucial information, suspends publications that don’t toe the line, and detains respected, flea-bitten journalists for no valid reason, save to intimidate them and others.

It is also hardly a fair environment when we look at the education system – one that provides homogenised fare for the masses, arguably with the aim of dumbing our children down, rather than liberating their minds.

Then, of course, there’s the Judiciary, once reputed to be one of the finest and fiercely independent in the region if not the world, but now the less said about the better.

And when we locate what I would kindly call this ‘mess’ within the wider context of a political economy that is rife with practices that scream ‘inequality’, I think we would find it quite difficult to call ours a ‘plural society’.

Liberalism and whose faith? And whose version of that faith?

Recognising the lack of plurality in Malaysia allows us to ask a number of questions of the term ‘faith’. Is there plurality of faiths? If there isn’t, which faith dominates? Whose version of that faith dominates?

Does this dominance lead to a benign situation where other faiths are not only recognised and tolerated but, more importantly, seen as legitimate and respected?

If it doesn’t, is it the fault of the faith, the followers, and/or the keepers and ‘controllers’ of the faith? Knowing this non-plurality (or inequality of the position of different faiths) enables us to recognise power relations.

In this regard, let us address some of the main issues often raised about liberalism and faith in contemporary Malaysia.First, the myth of Malaysia being a liberal society. Two clear facts rubbish this myth – impediments to freedom of speech and inequality before the law.

Freedom of speech remains a myth when we have, among others, the PPPA, the Sedition Act, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota), PPPA, and now Section 124C of the Penal Code (`attempting to topple the government’).

Then, there’s the myth of equality before the law – opposition politicians, civil society members, dissidents, are even now hauled before the courts; civil servants have been ordered to remain silent, and, more recently, top civil servants have not only been silenced but also have been removed from office.

Hence, what currently exists in Malaysia is NOT the purported greater freedom that a liberal society provides, but the lack of a liberal environment.It is precisely this environment that is leading to greater polarisation and the construction of narrow ethno-religious silos.

This has led to a lack of exchange and interaction between different, aggrieved, indeed oppressed groups and communities.

Divide and rule is evidently still the mantra of the regime.

Within this environment, greater exchange, greater understanding – which can only come about through acknowledging and respecting each other – is needed.Not greater control (political, cultural, religious, ethnic).It is perhaps the only way forward if genuine liberation, genuine participation by all Malaysians is what is envisioned.It is freedom that is required, not control.

Is liberalism incompatible with faith and religion?

It is often asserted by some hard nosed quarters in Malaysia these days that liberalism is incompatible with their version of their religion.But surely it rt really depends on what one’s perception of one’s religion and its role in society is? For many it’s a choice between liberation, the freeing of human beings, on the one hand, and control.

Sure, there are grey areas in between. But right now, unless there is political will – which we see very little of among our ruling politicians and their apparatchiks in our religious organisations, our education system and, certainly, in our media – we appear to be drifting towards greater repression than liberation.

Faith and religion are being manipulated by this class of individuals to legitimise their control, to further their self-interests. In so doing, aware that liberalism, if not something more radical, would indeed challenge that hegemony, defy that control, those, certainly those dominating faith and religion in this country, will invariably disparage, deride liberalism – or indeed anything remotely questioning that control.

Bearing this in mind, I would like to leave it to a wise and, certainly, sad Malaysian, Philip Lok, former president of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, who wrote in The Malaysian Insider (September 16, 2015), in the aftermath of the red shirts rally of hate in Kuala Lumpur:

“But for me, there is nothing we can boast of, if my fellow Malaysians are living in fear of one another. There is nothing to celebrate if Malaysians are still differentiated by the colour of their race and the faith in their hearts. There is nothing to rejoice over, if freedom to live together as one ‘bangsa’ is still a distant dream.”

Congratulations, Malaysiakini

October 30, 2015

To my friends Premesh, Steven, Guna, and the men and women behind MalaysiakiniDin Merican@Rosler and Kinibiz, congratulations on this significant award from me in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. May it be Gold the next time.

Because of the Internet, I,  as a loyal subscriber and keen reader, am able to access your portals and as a result, I am up to speed on political, economic and social developments in our country. I thank you very much for this service, and urge to keep up your good work. Please try to challenge yourselves and explore ways and means to communicate better. Being in the news business, you know, as well as I do, that we cannot please everyone. But we must never fail to try to be balanced and fair.

Your portals and I have been identified as being pro-Opposition. Nothing is further from the truth than that. We may be critical but we are not pro any coalition or party and certainly not anti-government which is elected by Malaysians, irrespective of the flaws in our electoral system. Unfortunately, I have had a hard time to convince UMNO and BN supporters that I am not the “enemy”. I have not stop trying.

Since coming to Phnom Penh and being an academic at Cambodia’s top private university, I am conscious that my friends and associates here look at me as a Malaysian and judge me on how I conduct myself as a Malaysian and on the quality of my pedagogy and research work, although when they read my blog, they know that I have been critical of my country’s leadership and their policies. Stereo-typing is convenient, but never helpful.

We are going through difficult times, to put it mildly. But as an optimist, I am embracing myself for better times ahead, anchored in my belief that tough times do not last, but tough Malaysians do.  Lest we forget,  Malaysia is not just Najib and his henchmen in UMNO-BN. Malaysia is all of us. We must work together for a great future.–Din Merican

Congratulations, Malaysiakini

Independent news portal Malaysiakini has been hailed as one of the top brands in Malaysia at the 6th Putra Brand Awards (tonight). While Malaysiakini has won awards on two previous occasions, it is the first time the portal bagged the silver in the Media Network category.

It picked up the bronze award last year and at the inaugural Putra Brand Awards in 2010. Wayne Lim (photo, left), CEO of Malaysia SME, handed over the award to Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran at a gala dinner in Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur.

The other media outlets that won awards in the Media Network category were Astro, TV3, and Era (Gold); Hitz FM (Silver); and The Star, ntv7, and The Malaysian Insider (Bronze). Meanwhile, Maybank, Malaysia’s leading bank with the widest network, won the Putra Brand of The Year award.

According to the brand awareness award host, the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia (4As), the Putra Brand Awards is unique as Malaysian consumers themselves are the judges.

A consumer research polling system involving 6,000 people helped select Malaysia’s most preferred brands across a spectrum of 24 categories, with the top three brands in each category being honoured with a gold, silver, and bronze ranking.

This is the largest consumer research sampling of its kind nationwide, covering both East and West Malaysia.

We thank our subscribers, readers, advertisers, and most of all the Malaysiakini team, who work tirelessly to give the country the news and views that matter. “The awards reflect that the internet today is the mainstream, with two internet brands winning awards,” said Premesh (photo).

Malaysiakini, launched in 1999, is the country’s top news website.According to comScore, the portal has the highest number of visitors in the first half of this year, ahead of both Star Online and The Malaysian Insider. American-based comScore is a global leader in digital media analytics.