Anwar And Najib – Up Close and Very Revealing

In contrast to the mainstream media, the on-line portals Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today chose a diametrically opposite tack. Malaysia-Today published both commentaries in full without any editorial comment. Its editors are confident of their readers’ intelligence to draw their own conclusions. If those mainstream editors wonder why their readership dwindles while those of Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today soar, the answer is right there.

M. Bakri Musa

The side-by-side commentaries by Anwar Ibrahim and Najib Razak in the recent Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal illuminated a couple of salient points, in particular, the state of Malaysian journalism and the quality of our leadership.

Consider first Malaysian editors, specifically of the mainstream media. They missed the essential point that the best way to intelligently inform their readers is to present them with contrasting and opposing viewpoints, as illustrated by what The Journal did. Respect your readers’ intelligence and treat them like adults.

Bernama mentioned the Journal’s articles as a news item but referred only to Najib’s piece. Obviously the Bernama editors’ instinct was to please Najib and protect his image. They see themselves less as professional journalists and more as propagandists for the state. Their reaction was predictable.

That the cue from Bernama was quickly picked up by the other mainstream editors too did not surprise me. They are after all from the same mold. What grabbed my attention however, was what the Sun Daily did. I remember that paper as one that had the courage right from the beginning to be a tad independent, and its journalists less willing to genuflect to the powerful; hence its success despite its recent entry into the business.

The Sun merely reprinted Bernama’s piece, again with no mention of Anwar’s contrasting viewpoint. The Sun’s editors had access to both commentaries (they are available on-line) but chose to follow Bernama’s lead instead of their own editorial judgment. That reflects the challenges in maintaining journalistic integrity in an oppressive environment.

Then there is MCA-owned The Star. It did what cowards typically do: avoid the issue entirely. I am uncertain whether that is better than blatantly kowtow-ing to the emperor, as Bernama did.

As for The New Straits Times, an Umno newsletter masquerading as a daily, its behavior too was predictable. It did not directly report on the two commentaries, presumably deeming both not sufficiently newsworthy. That however, did not stop its editor Syed Nadzri from penning an editorial effusively praising Najib’s literary contribution.

“In approach, tenor and presumably intention,” Nadzri writes, “their articles went in practically opposite directions from the start — the prime minister taking a conciliatory, disarming style, as against the opposition leader’s fault-finding digressions.” What Nadzri calls ‘fault-finding digression’ is Anwar’s trying to elucidate, understand and then educate us on the many daunting problems confronting the nation.

Towards the end even Nadzri’s residuum of journalistic ethics pricked his conscience a bit, for he admitted that Najib’s commentary was indeed a “rah rah piece,” adding, “What else could anyone expect?” Such low expectations!

It would never occur to Nadzri and the others to consider republishing both commentaries; they are of interest to all Malaysians. Or better yet, do what the Journal did, invite contributors with varying viewpoints. While the Journal is an avowedly conservative paper (its editorials leave little doubt about that), its Op-Ed pages routinely carry views from the left and right; likewise, its news coverage. The unabashedly liberal, The New York Times counts among its regular commentators such conservatives as David Brooks. Unfortunately, the likes of Syed Nadzri are intellectually and professionally incapable of such a monumental shift in thinking.

In contrast to the mainstream media, the on-line portals Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today chose a diametrically opposite tack. Malaysia-Today published both commentaries in full without any editorial comment. Its editors are confident of their readers’ intelligence to draw their own conclusions. If those mainstream editors wonder why their readership dwindles while those of Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today soar, the answer is right there.

Top Billing For Anwar

The Journal gave Anwar’s commentary greater prominence; it appeared on top of the page. I agree with the Journal’s editorial judgment. By whatever criterion – persuasiveness, substance, clarity of thought, or most importantly, readability – Anwar’s piece clearly trumps Najib’s. No wonder those mainstream editors dared not carry both side by side; it would embarrass their patron!

Anwar exhorts us to rise above our parochial interests by recalling the great moments in our Islamic history where tolerance and acceptance of divergent viewpoints were venerated. Najib excuses our prejudices and intolerances on the grounds that those have always been part of human nature, thereby condoning if not encouraging those extremists with their “passionate” views.

Najib claims to be “appalled by the irresponsible and dangerous finger-pointing of a few politicians who put personal political interests … [and] try to score political points by hammering on sensitive issues.” He forgot that it was his Home Minister who started the mess with his needless bureaucratic intervention of a long-established practice. Talk about blatant pandering to the political base! Do not expect Najib to have second thoughts on that. Reflection, or for that matter taking responsibility, is not his strong suit.

Najib writes, “…[T]he values we hold dear – religious freedom, tolerance, peace and fairness—remain the bedrock of our nation.” Too bad he does not take that to heart. While Anwar excoriates Utusan Melayu, an UMNO-owned Malay language daily, for inflaming religious sentiments among Malays, Najib remains eerily silent. Many rightly perceive that as tacit endorsement and outright encouragement. One wonders just who is pandering to the ugly Malay mob.

Anwar invokes our Quran and traditions to push us towards our better selves; Najib was only too ready to dismiss and excuse those “extremists.”To Najib, the extremists, like the poor, will always be with us. There is not much that he could or would do.

The clarity of Anwar’s message was elegantly encapsulated in his very first sentence, “Malaysia has once again resurfaced in international headlines for the wrong reasons.” No one, not even Najib, could dispute that assertion. Anwar’s thesis sentence was crisp, clear and stated simply. It may be embarrassing to have that ugly reality exposed, but it would be a serious abrogation of responsibility for a leader not to address it, as Najib awkwardly tried to do.

It was difficult to ascertain Najib’s message; his essay was all over the place – mushy! This fits his leadership style: heavy on homilies, short on substance, and most of all, mushy. He would prefer that our ugly problems be swept under the carpet, to save the nation’s ‘honor,’ or at least his concept of it.

Through the Journal’s initiative we get to view our two leaders. In Anwar we have a leader in command of the situation, someone serious and fully cognizant of the dangers of fanning religious passions. He appeals to our better side to meet the challenges. In Najib we have an individual full of fluff, blissfully unaware of the fury he has unleashed, and totally incapable of handling the ensuing wreckage. He is, to borrow Nadzri’s less-than-elegant phrase, a “rah rah” leader, reveling in his (Najib’s) own Pollyannaish fantasy.

The Journal rendered a great public service to Malaysians in having these two commentaries freely available on-line. Its initiative also reveals the sad state of Malaysian journalism. I keep hoping that one day our media would learn something from the Journal and treat Malaysians as intelligent adults. I also keep hoping that one day we would have as prime minister someone who would treat us with respect and trust us with the truth. We deserve better than what we are being served now.