Sixty-five years ago, George Orwell wrote in his seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, and that “when the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer”.
Orwell was not only criticising the deteriorating standard of the English language, but also bemoaning the suffocating political climate of postwar Europe that had an adverse impact on journalism. He regarded language as “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought”, but found this very linguistic role utterly wanting.
The misery felt by Orwell is precisely what is plaguing Malaysian mainstream media today. Of greater concern to me is the myth – pervasively shared by many – of ‘balanced reporting’. Malaysians seem to be easily fooled. So long as they see news of both the ruling coalition and the opposition parties in the newspaper, they are contented.
Since when has journalism been reduced to a simplistic state as such?
Linguistic transparency matters in any society, for disastrous consequences may ensue when a journalist writes opaquely. The reading public may end up being shielded from the truth, misled or, worst, idiotised - and Orwell would look askance at my choice of the last word.
Sin Chew’s take on Bersih
Take the Bersih 2.0 rally for instance. While it is true that all the major Chinese-language dailies - compared to either Star or Utusan Malaysia - by and large gave greater coverage to the movement prior to the planned protest on July 9, a closer look at their opinion pieces reveals otherwise.
Lim Sue Goan of Sin Chew Daily made it crystal clear that the rally organisers must adhere to the law, or the police had the right to disperse the “llegal assembly”. There was nothing wrong for the deputy editor-in-chief to want to uphold the spirit of the rule of law, but his biggest folly lay in his failure to elaborate on the home truth that Malaysia is in fact ruled by law, quite unlike Britain, Germany, Japan and Hong Kong that he had alluded to in an earlier article.
Another piece of propaganda packaged as ‘opinion’ was that by Lim Mun Fah , in which he seemingly lamented the absence of an “impartial” third party in Malaysian politics. His writing appeared balanced but there was a catch at the end, as he went on to accuse the “confronting parties” of using democracy as their weapons with a view to winning the next general election.
Did it not occur to the executive editor that the coalition for clean and fair elections has always been led by Ambiga Sreenevasan, a renowned and non-partisan lawyer? Wasn’t it the Barisan Nasional parties that had refused to participate in the movement, yet later berated the opposition for “hijacking the Bersih agenda”?
Not to be outdone by his colleagues, Tay Tian Yan , also a deputy editor-in-chief, likened the Bersih to a sandiwara in which each party was obliged to “play its role well to keep the situation under control”. But Bersih 2.0 was formed with a vitally important agenda to reform the electoral system, an issue of national significance that had by then caught much of the international attention.
In his original article , Tay actually wrote “to act well” rather than “to play its role well”, the negative connotation of which was completely lost in the English translation.
Bersih 2.0 was never meant to be a show, and the BN government must one day be made accountable for its ferocity in suppressing the peaceful and constitutionally legitimate movement.
Both Ibrahim Ali and Khairy Jamaluddin were out to fish in troubled waters, but those who were willing to risk their own lives for the sake of Malaysia’s democratic future were not. It was therefore most irresponsible of these senior journalists to demean Bersih. 2.0 organisers, especially when they had remained silent over the relentless attacks by Perkasa and Utusan on Ambiga on account of her religion, ethnicity and gender.
Tay, though, did feel offended when Ibrahim Ali warned the Chinese to stock up food. Would he have also felt indignant about Perkasa’s attacks on Ambiga if she were Chinese?
Tay was heartened by the stadium offer , and saw it as an opportunity for the people to see if the government would embark on the path of democratic reform. Again, he was conspicuously silent when Najib denied having ever made such a proposal.
Didn’t Tay proudly state “when praise is due, we praise; when criticism is in order, we criticise”? I have yet to see him chastise Najib - a man he so admires - for going back on his words.
I always thought Tay and his colleagues were impervious to the world around them. Now that he has been compelled to ‘set the record straight’, I earnestly hope he will do the same with his Chinese-language readers, failing which he will risk being perceived as valuing the opinion of the English-speaking audience more than that of the 1.3 million readers that Sin Chew claims to command.
Virtue of staying ‘neutral’
But it was Tan Lee Chin, a ‘rising star’ in Sin Chew , who became a parody of herself when she admitted she had taken part in the Walk for Justice in September 2007*, only to confess she now regretted it.
Tan used her ‘past ignorance’ to caution that taking part in the July 9 rally would be illegal under the law. In addition to recanting her previous view, Tan could also have helped rescue Sin Chew’ s dwindling credibility by surrendering herself to the authorities given that the Walk for Justice had been declared ‘illegal’ under Section 27 of the Police Act!
I cannot help recalling a famous quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
The only thing is Sin Chew was only neutral insofar as it concerned the state persecution of Bersih 2.0 supporters. As for the government’s position, it has never begged to differ.
But tens of thousands of Malaysians taking to the streets was a slap in Sin Chew ’s face, as the Chinese daily had implied in an editorial that Bersih 2.0 was out to destroy peace.
True to its opportunistic form, Sin Chew changed its position drastically in the aftermath of the massive protest. Views in support of peaceful assembly began to appear, with Tay describing those who braved the crackdown by attending the event as part of the ‘third force’ in Malaysian politics, even announcing the ‘emergence of civil society’. I thought the whole thing was purely a show?
I have taken the trouble to help the readers revisit the opinions above because I want to demonstrate how the best-selling newspaper in Malaysia turned itself into a handy tool for the powers-that-be, its declared mission to speak truth to power notwithstanding.
Culture of patronage
Of course, I do not lose sight of the fact that the symbiotic relationship between Sin Chew and the ruling coalition takes a different form from that between the government and Utusan, which is directly owned by Umno and is a mouthpiece through and through.
Still, Tiong Hiew King could not have realised his dream as a press baron without the backing of the BN government. Seen in this light, it is not at all surprising that Sin Chew ’s writers chose to present ‘the truth’ as it accorded with their employer’s interests.
That Sin Chew would exploit its victimhood whenever necessary is undisputed. Strangely enough, it also praised Mahathir Mohamad to the skies when the man - responsible for its five-month closure in 1987/1988 - stepped down in October 2003. Entitled ‘Thank You, Mahathir’, the special edition made virtually no mention of Mahathir’s destruction of the independence of the judiciary and abuse of power.
Paradoxically, the same Chinese newspaper that loses no time in citing the draconian laws as the reason for exercising ‘caution’ is also the one that brags about its head office being graced by both the prime minister and the home minister. This is what I mean by the Chinese daily succumbing to the Stockholm’s Syndrome.
The degeneration of the Chinese press industry is a general phenomenon. Recently, a doctored picture appeared in Kwong Wah Yit Poh , a Penang-based daily founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1910, in which Koh Tsu Koon was depicted cycling next to Najib, although the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office was nowhere to be found in the original picture, apparently having lagged behind. The tacky act is a testament of the culture of patronage that is cancerous in Malaysian journalism.
But Sin Chew is the pot that cannot afford to call the kettle black. Back in 1999, it altered a picture of a line-up of BN leaders – taken in 1995 - by removing Anwar Ibrahim and replacing the former deputy prime minister with the then incumbent Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Malaysiakini unwittingly sowed the seeds of mistrust with Sin Chew by exposing it, with the BBC following up on the story, much to the chagrin of CC Liew and others.
I don’t understand why Tay would now want to be seen as ‘neutral’. After all, he commended Najib as being “confident” and “adroit” back in April 2009, before the princeling had achieved anything worthy of note in politics. Sin Chew also showered Abdullah with exuberant praises in November 2003, but fell uncomfortably silent when the ‘work-with-me-not-for-me’ prime minister failed pathetically on practically every front.
Why can’t these ‘seasoned’ journalists learn from their embarrassments of the past? Why must they rush as if there is no tomorrow to heap praises on one government leader after another, only to find mud on their faces? Can they live up to their professional values by becoming the sort of journalist who is inherently sceptical of spin?
So long as they yearn for recognition even by an authoritarian state, they never can.
Honesty and logic
One must be honest with one’s thought, and strive to maintain consistency and logical argument the best one can. Mahathir cannot be recognised as the most successful prime minister when his 22-year rule left the country’s public institutions in a terrible shape; a Najib that was truly “confident” and “adroit” in April 2009 could not have offered bribes to the electorate in Sibu in May 2010, and then dithered over a public rally in July 2011.
When the same prime minister suddenly announced the abolition of the ISA, only to stand idly by when Mat Sabu was taken to court over a historical issue, what does this tell us? It certainly cannot be democratic transformation aka South Africa or the Soviet Union’s perestroika, can it? So why must Tay’s commentary on Malaysian politics seem only to make spin sound truthful and “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, to borrow from Orwell?
One important reason why many a Chinese reader has failed – or perhaps refused – to appreciate this not so bright side of Sin Chew is because of the racial factor.
As Chang Teck Peng, a former editor-in-chief of Merdeka Review and himself an ex-journalist at Sin Chew , has incisively observed, Chinese Malaysians tend to believe that the Chinese press - even when it is dominated by a single media tycoon of Chinese origin - will do ‘its part in safeguarding the interests of the Chinese community’.
This, Chang is worried, has made many Chinese Malaysians lukewarm when it comes to fighting for press freedom within the Chinese community.
Indeed, most Chinese Malaysians find it incredulous or even feel affronted when one compares Sin Chew to Utusan . However, some of the modus operandi between the two are remarkably similar. Utusan would pursue Mat Sabu relentlessly, while Sin Chew would churn out one article after another in denouncing Tian Chua and Teng Chang Khim when the duo made critical remarks of the Chinese press, conveniently denying them a right of reply.
Sin Chew is also quick to label its former employees such as Chang as ‘ingrates’ when they criticise the daily – much like Utusan scolding the Malays who support the opposition as ‘ kacang yang lupa kulitnya’ (one who has forgotten his origins).
Most staggeringly, Sin Chew had even allowed some writers to make irresponsible insinuations against Chang, who was a recipient of a Sin Chew scholarship to pursue his tertiary education at Universiti Sains Malaysia. The scholarship gave Chang the opportunity to be tutored by Professors Zaharom Nain and Mustafa Kamal Anuar, two of the most prominent journalism academicians in Malaysia.
Chang was personally grateful to CC Liew for the scholarship and later returned to work for Sin Chew as required under the agreement. In 1998, he parted with the company, but not before he had repaid the remaining amount of the scholarship.
In 2001, Chang started to write critically of the Chinese press industry in general and Sin Chew in particular due to market monopoly and other unethical journalistic practices. Since then, articles casting aspersions on him as a scholarship defaulter have appeared every now and then.
No one in Sin Chew is bothered to clarify on the matter and do Chang justice. Certainly not CC Liew, although he is in the full knowledge of his erstwhile protégé’s having fulfilled his obligation.
Every time one takes Sin Chew to task over public issues, writers with bizarre yet amusing pseudonyms such as ‘Little Media Soldier’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Ends-of-the-Earth Swordsman’ fight back by attributing it to ‘personal vengeance’, ‘jealousy’, or ‘having an axe to grind’.
Dodging the real issues is their favourite pastime. Perhaps CC Liew or Tay should enlighten Sin Chew readers if such behaviour is in accordance with the paper’s image as a ‘voice of conscience’.
Finally, there is one issue that I raised that has quite clearly put Tay in the crosshairs: did he distort the special report on social media by the Economist of July 7, 2011? I will address this in greater depth tomorrow.
JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.