Correcting bad press overseas

By R. Nadeswaran, The Sun

KARTIKA Sari Dewi Sukarno may not know it, but she’s the image of Malaysia in many countries. She may have been a model, but for a few months, she had some claim to fame with her photographs donning newspapers, and in at least one case, the front page. Although she was ordered to be caned for drinking beer, her sentence was commuted to community service after the Sultan of Pahang intervened.

But the mere mention of “beer” sends shudders down the spines of foreigners, some of whom out of ignorance think they may get a couple of strokes on the buttocks for drinking beer in Malaysia. And when editors are choosing file pictures to accompany their reports on Malaysia, Kartika’s picture is the pick, accompanied by an appropriate caption.

Why bring up this “old” story, you may ask. Three weeks ago Deputy Foreign Minister Kohilan Pillai told Parliament that Wisma Putra was “monitoring” Malaysians who go abroad and give the country a bad name. Well to be honest, the “bad news” that is emanating from Malaysia is doing much more damage than all overseas Malaysians put together. Forget the so-called critical reports in the Sodomy II trial and the side-shows in and outside the Dewan Rakyat. We can’t go on media-bashing and shouting “biased reporting” every time a negative report is published around the globe. We have to correct the “wrong” reporting, if any, and address the issues of concern that have been raised.

We seem to have fallen into the fallacy that Malaysians tend to forget easily and hence, everyone else has the same trait. Wrong! Malaysia should not be remembered for all the wrong reasons and it is paramount that correct information is given about the country, the government and its people. Forget religious groups calling for the ban of one artiste or another, but the negative reports on Malaysian society as a whole are worrying.

Ten days ago, many newspapers reported that Malaysian authorities confirmed having caned three women convicted of having sex outside of marriage. This has not been helped by a report by the London-based rights group Amnesty International which says “caning in Malaysia has hit epidemic proportions with thousands of people subjected every year to beatings which leave permanent physical and mental scars”. The author of the report, Lance Lattig, says: “According to our figures, more than 10,000 people are caned by authorities in Malaysia annually and this number is actually a conservative estimate.”

How the author arrived at such a figure is unclear, but this report has been circulated worldwide, leading many media organisations to pick it up and use it in their reports, broadcasts and telecasts. Instead of addressing the issue and defending the use of the cane, we have chosen to remain silent. The BBC and hundreds of other media organisations latched on to the stories. Our foreign missions around the world have chosen to ignore the report, believing it will die away.

If this was not damning enough, Associated Press put out this report on its wires, prompting even the Washington Post to pick it up: “A
14-year-old girl and 23-year-old man have celebrated their recent marriage in public in Malaysia’s largest city.” The report said the union was arranged by their parents after obtaining permission from an Islamic court. “It has been hard trying to juggle two roles – as a student and a wife – but I am taking it in my stride,” the report quoted the bride, Siti Maryam Mahmod, who studies at a religious school, as saying.

Ten days ago, this appeared in the New York Times: “The baby boy’s umbilical cord was still attached when a woman and her daughter discovered him crying in bushes underneath a bridge in Tapah, about an hour’s drive north of Kuala Lumpur. Doctors who examined him determined that he was just two hours old. The boy, who has been placed in a children’s home awaiting adoption, is one of nearly 80 abandoned infants who have been found in Malaysia this year, some already dead, prompting much soul-searching and calls for action.”

So, Malaysia is a land where people are caned for drinking beer and having sex outside marriage; we are barbaric in the sense that we use the cane on up to 200 people a week without any reason or rhyme; the leaders condone child marriages; and new-borns are abandoned all over the country.

Can someone stand up and give placid and good explanations for these “negative reports”? Isn’t there anyone in Wisma Putra or our foreign missions who can dispel all these assumed notions about the country and its people? Why do Malaysians have to fly thousands of miles to give their country a bad name when instances of people shooting themselves in the foot and putting their feet in the mouth are available at the press of a button? Instead of “monitoring” Malaysians abroad and their activities, Wisma Putra would be better off taking their overseas officers to task for non-performance of their duties.