Farish A Noor
I once had the misfortune to watch an episode of a program called ‘Desperate Housewives’, and as the title suggests, the program was precisely about that and it reminded me of just why I loathe such chick-flicks and chick-pulp so very, very much.
This particular episode had some forgettable character (Housewife A) in a fit because of her marital problems with Husband A. Housewife A then goes to chat with her neighbour, Housewife B, to vent her spleen about all her husband’s problems.
Though I confess that I havent watched all the episodes of this rather tiresome series, I gathered that Housewife A wasnt the sharpest tool in the box, as she obviously didnt suspect that Housewife B also happened to be the local neighbourhood radio station, so to speak.
In time Housewife B did what she does best, which was to run along to Housewives C, D, E, et al and to tell the whole street about the problems between Housewife A and her husband – namely, that he suffered from erectile dysfunction and there were some problems in his plumbing department. The rest, as they say, is herstory and what a tedious story it was too. The moral of the tale could be summed up in one sentence which would have spared me 60 precious minutes when I could have polished my shoes instead: Dont go gossiping about your problems to people who cant keep their mouths shut. Ho Hum.
Ho hum, indeed. Yesterday I was asked why I rarely write about Malaysian politics these days. The answers are prosaic: Malaysian politics today is boring, tedious, juvenile (bordering on infantile at times) and downright crass and vulgar. I would also like to point out, if I may wear my academic hat for a bit, that to write about Malaysian politics means writing about its political economy, about institutions, power-structures and power-differentials. It is NOT about writing about Dato This or Dato That, or their wives, or their holidays, of their petty bitching among themselves and their fellow party members. That is not writing about politics, it is writing about stupid politicians.
And on the subject of stupid politicians and the stupid things they do (of which there are too many and even facebook does not have enough memory storage for me to upload all of it), allow me to remark on a rather silly thing done recently by at least one politician, Zaid Ibrahim. Of Zaid’s reform credentials I need not speak as they are well known. So is the fact that the man has on occasion taken stands that were not popular and has paid the price for it. Kudos to Zaid for that.
However Zaid’s recent revelations that were displayed for all and sundry in the mainstream press has left me quite baffled, and reminded me of the antics of Housewives A and B alluded to above. For a man who has himself been a victim of media sabotage, I am confounded by Zaid’s decision to speak to the very same newspapers that once hounded and demonised him. We are told that in a free society a politician may speak to any newspaper or media outlet she/he chooses to; and that one cannot talk about freedom of the press if one engages in selective boycotts of the media. True.
However, let us remind ourselves that we need to talk about politics here – and this means talking about institutions, power-relations and power-differentials. In a free, just and equitable society there might be some semblance of a free and independent media. And perhaps in such a Utopian society any politician can go to any newspaper and complain “Mami dat fellow in de committee say he dont want to fren me anymore so I also dont want to fren him and den I wan to sabotage his kempen because he say he dont like my face wan.” (Mommy then pats politician on the head and says “there, there, Dato, here is a lollipop and you can go and create your own splinter party now with some foreign funding from abroad.”)
Unfortunately we do not live in an equitable society where everyone has equal access to the media. Unfortunately we all know that almost all of the mainstream media in the country is controlled directly or indirectly by powerful political parties and their funders.
Unfortunately we also know that there is no truly unbiased non-partisan alternative media either, as the opposition parties are likewise wont to control their respective media organs. And unfortunately we know that the mainstream media’s task is to render all attempts by the opposition to govern as untenable and uncomfortable. Unfortunately life is not idyllic, equal or just: Life sucks, and one should get used to that as one enters adulthood.
Under such circumstances one would be rather stupid indeed to think that one can get one’s way in one’s own party by jumping across the fence to moan about one’s fellow party members to a hostile press. During the days when the Labour Party of England was led by Neil Kinnock, the Labour party was wary of tabloids like The Sun that were instrumental in the campaign to destroy their image.
And even President Obama – everyone’s favoured dude at the moment – has also avoided dealing with the rabidly right-wing Fox News channel. Thats because these are politicians who are smart enough to know that power differentials and structural biases exist in the media industry; and they know that it would be silly to offer themselves to a media that is already hostile to them and their political aspirations. One doesnt need to be a philosopher to achieve such wisdom: Its called common sense.
Some of us had placed some hope on Zaid Ibrahim as someone who might have injected a modicum of objectivity, reason and common sense to the party that he decided to join. But parties are composite entities made up of a myriad of personalities who do not necessarily agree with each other all the time. The need, therefore, is to learn the art of compromise and teamwork, even when the odds are stacked against you.
Occasionally one must also accept that one cannot have one’s way all the time; in which case the time would come to quit and bid a quiet farewell. But no party – not PKR, not UMNO, not PAS, not DAP or even the Labour and Conservative parties of the UK – can or will continue to tolerate mavericks who rush out to the street to complain whenever they do not get their way.
The disappointment expressed about Zaid by some members of PKR is understandable under the circumstances, and it would probably manifest even if he was still an UMNO member who chose to speak to the opposition press. Parties have rules and norms, and collective responsibility happens to be one of them. If you can’t agree with that, then don’t join a party. That’s common sense too.
(Dr Farish is a well-known Malaysian political commentator and a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University NTU, Singapore)