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Monday, March 19, 2012

Similar Scandals, Different Treatment

By M. Bakri Musa

To assert that the Malaysian mass media is nothing more than propaganda arm of the ruling Barisan coalition is no revelation. The personnel in the mainstream dailies, the national news agency Bernama, and the government broadcasting channel RTM are less journalists and editors, more political hacks and spinmeisters. They are, to borrow National Laureate Samad Ismail’s word, the carma (contraction for cari makan, seeking a livelihood) variety.

Less appreciated is the fact that they are hired hands not of the Barisan government but of whatever faction in it that is currently dominant, or trying to be so. Thus one can surmise the tensions and the dynamics of the current swing of the political pendulum within Barisan, specifically UMNO, from perusing the headlines. Perusing is exactly the right word, for there is nothing much worth reading in those dailies.

Consider the contrasting treatment in the mainstream media of the two currently unfolding financial scandals. The first is the National Feedlot Corporation mess (“cow-gate”) that is now ensnaring the husband and family of Women’s Minister Shahrizat Jalil; it had also led to her resignation from her cabinet post. The other is the nearly half-a-million ringgit engagement party for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s daughter and an equally expensive birthday bash for himself that he allegedly tried to on to Treasury, and thus the taxpayers.

Both scandals were first exposed in the Internet through the diligent investigations of Rafizi Ramli, the chief strategist for Pakatan Rakyat. With the first scandal, the mainstream media were quick to pick up on and embellish the story; on the second, there was no mention at all. One can safely conclude that the respective primary players in both scandals, Shahrizat with the first and Najib for the second, are from different factions within UMNO. No marks for guessing which side is on the ascendance.

Rafizi is no rabble rouser throwing off wild accusations here and there. His first exposé of the “cow-gate” was initially dismissed by no less than the chief of police; today the principal player, Shahrizat’s husband, is charged with criminal breach of trust and she was caught in the ensuing wake.

With Rafizi’s track record, you would think that those investigative journalists in the mainstream media would be eager to pursue his leads. At the very least their curiosity should have been piqued. Thus for them to completely ignore the story of the alleged publicly-paid engagement and birthday parties meant that they are journalists only in name, and that they are told what to do.

In terms of monetary value, Najib’s birthday bash and his daughter’s engagement party, both totaling at about “just” half a million ringgit, are but a small change compared to the cow-gate’s RM250 million price tag; cow-gate in turn pales in comparison to the multibillion billion ringgit Port Kang Free Zone Development debacle or the “commission” paid on acquiring the second-hand French submarines that would not submerge.

While the price tag may vary, the underlying mindset of contempt for taxpayers’ money remains. To these leaders the concept of integrity or the diligent exercise of fiduciary responsibility is foreign. At best they are but slogans uttered during election campaigns and then conveniently ignored.

To be sure, this is not a weakness unique only unto Malaysian politicians. In some countries these wayward politicians are caught and brought to justice; in others, well, they continue on business as well, their greed feeding on itself. There is no limit to their avarice. Their “success” would then be celebrated, and they would then become the new role models. Unfortunately that is where Malaysia is today.

What struck me most about this latest scandal, the one involving Najib’s birthday party in particular, was the utter lack of class. Najib has made more than a few UMNOPutras rich through his giving away many lucrative contracts. Surely at least one of them would be generous or grateful enough to host the party for him.

Alas that is the problem with greed; there is literally no boundary to it. Najib’s many rich friends are still expecting to sponge off him! Likewise with Shahrizat’s husband; if he had spread the bounty around just a wee bit as, for example, to include the head of Utusan, Bernama or The New Straits Times to be on the board of directors of his Feedlot Corporation, Rafizi’s accusation would never have gone beyond cyberspace.

Greedy and unscrupulous politicians alone would and could not do in Malaysia. It would take more. There would have to be a general failure of our institutions to allow such abuses and corruption to go on and be tolerated. Toleration soon degenerates into encouragement, and a new cultural norm is established.

This is what happens when the institutions of our society have been let to deteriorate. They are no longer able to function as effective defenders of citizens’ interests. We expect members of the fourth estate to be aware of their awesome responsibility to keep citizens informed. We expect these journalists to be on the vanguard of this sacred task. Alas they too have been taken in; they have prostituted themselves to those in power.

There is an honorable place in this world for cheerleaders, spinmeisters, or even court jesters and others who see themselves doing the bidding of those who hired them, but reporters and journalists they are not. If those in the mainstream media feel that they have to cari makan, then I suggest that they join the advertising and pubic relations industry. If they are talented enough in that endeavor there will get plenty of rewards. They do not need to soil and degrade the hallowed traditions and functions of the fourth estate.

This degradation of our mainstream media is of course not a recent phenomenon, nor is it a subtle. RTM has only a few hundred followers on its Twitter. As for The New Straits Times, if not for its highly subsidized distributions and subscriptions, its circulation would down in the dumps. And if not for the government-paid announcements and advertisements and paid press releases of government-linked corporations, so too would be the paper’s revenue.

Just as the shifts in fortune among the politically powerful are reflected in the coverage of the mainstream media, so too is the dysfunctional leadership among them. We saw this played out during the early days of barely-under-the-surface rivalry between Mahathir and his then deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Their supporters take their cue from how their patrons were covered in the mainstream media. The New Straits Times rivaled Pravda in this regard. This was repeated when Abdullah Badawi took over; then it was Mahathir’s turn to be at the receiving end.

There is no honor among UMNO leaders. Theirs is a world of hyenas; a world of winner takes all, right to last bit of morsel of their prey. Mahathir did it to Tengku Razaleigh when the latter lost a closely contested leadership contest back in the 1980s. Mahathir did it again later, this time at a more vicious level, with Anwar Ibrahim. Then Abdullah Badawi tried to do it to Mahathir, and learned to regret it.

You would expect the women of UMNO to show some gentleness. Yet there was Shahrizat and Rafidah still at it with their cat fight, now more openly and much uglier.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the present pathetic state in Malaysia. Our callous acceptance of wrong doing among our leaders did not develop overnight. We have been taught, and taught well, to accept these misdeeds as anything but that, aided by those cheerleaders and spinmeisters in the mainstream media. — www.bakrimusa.com

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