Late last week, an interesting rejoinder was offered to my two-part retrospective account of GE13, Malaysia’s recent national elections “GE13: What happened? And what now?” (The Malaysian Insider, June 12 and 13).
A news and political commentary site that goes by the name “The Choice” published a critique of my analysis, and of my attitude and approach, entitled “An Artful Exercise in Pseudo-Intellectual Spin”).
It can be read at: http://www.thechoice.my/top-stories/64889-an-artful-exercise-in-pseudo-intellectual-spin#sthash.du76qoeY.uxfs and reading it is without doubt a worthwhile use of time and mind.
It is no “cheap shot”.
In its own way, it takes what I had to say very seriously. Somebody clearly thought my GE13 review worth the effort of a serious response.
And it is quite exquisitely written. By someone who evidently enjoys a wonderful “native-speaker” command of the English language — and the benefits of a far better education and apprenticeship in this kind of writing than I myself ever had.
It does not come from the pen of any amateur.
So regardless of its content, I welcome it. And not just as an unintended acknowledgement of my own commentary. More, as a much needed contribution to raising the standard of political writing and public debate in Malaysia.
More well-written, incisive and decidedly opinionated comment from people who clearly know their own minds is much needed. One has only to consider the woeful level of so much political writing in Malaysia these days to see how great that need is.
So this was, in my mind, a welcome contribution.
Welcome even though I consider it altogether wrong-headed.
As I hastened to suggest to the editor at “The Choice”.
An immediate response I wrote as follows:
“Thank you for providing this the wonderful portrait of who I really am.
“It is so clever I can scarcely recognise myself in it!
“Yes, I have at times, and especially of late, been critical of Barisan Nasional and Umno, for falling short of what they might be and need to be. Of what the obligations of genuinely inclusive national leadership require of them.
“And I am often criticised by opposition people for being a closet government sympathiser. For seeing, and for asking (those on the government side) to display and act upon, what is good on that side of the political fence.
“And, what is more, various opposition people often do not like what I say about their side and its leadership, as well as its failure to articulate a clear political identity, programme and policies.
“I know that you cannot please everybody.
“I generally please nobody.
“And that is how things should be.
“That is what happens when you are not a partisan but try to apply some clear analytical vision to everybody.
“Oh, yes, and one other thing.
“I put my name on what I write.
“That is my ‘CHOICE’ and my commitment.
“Where do you guys stand on that?
“Do you dare put your names on what you write?
“Today would be a good day to start!”
The main objection
The main objection voiced by “The Choice” is that I chose to present a different view of what happened — of how the Umno/BN campaign was conducted, especially at the “ground level” among the conventionally-minded Malay majority in the in the Malay heartlands — than most of the international press.
Well, yes. True. I did present a different view.
Different does not, of course, necessarily mean wrong or unacceptable. Whether you quote the tenets of liberal democracy or some well-known prophetic hadith, difference of opinion is to be welcomed as a source of vitality in public life, not condemned.
Here, my view of these matters is different from the standard or official view that “The Choice” seems to welcome and encourage for several reasons.
Unlike the members of the international press, I am not a journalist. So, unsurprisingly, I see and experience what happens here differently from how they do, and I write, as I can only do, on that basis.
I am a scholar, one who has devoted a great part of his efforts over more than half a century considering and seeking to fathom, in an informed way, the deep currents flowing through Malay, Malayan and Malaysian society.
Even as a scholar, I am not a political scientist. My initial education was in anthropology, sociology and Asian social history.
So my work, when I write about Malaysia, often differs, or is differently “pitched” and expressed, from what the expert or specialist political scientists write.
I write about Malay and Malaysian society and culture more generally than they. I see politics within that broader context: as an aspect of a wider story, as a theme in a more complex panorama.
And when I write, it is the wider society that interests me, not the political struggles that throw light upon it. Bismarck was right when he observed that the business of politics is very much like making sausages; it’s best not to look too closely at what goes into it and how it is done, and instead simply to focus upon what comes out from it.
And I try to see Malaysia as a normal country, not a special case. I think and write about it in the same way that I write about and comment upon developments in some other countries that I know and care about — including Australia, where I was born and mainly live, in England where I lived for several years, and the United States, for a decade.
In all those places — not Malaysia alone — politics, for me, is to be understood in more than narrow and conventional political terms. I view political life with the distinctive eye of a “broad-gauge” scholar, one whose scholarly work over the years has ranged across perhaps some half dozen different academic field and disciples in the social sciences and humanities, not a specialist political scientist or political writer.
So, do I often have a different view than others of these developments? A different “take” from the standard or “default mode” view of these matters?
Of course I do. Not all the time, but frequently.
And if I did not, I would not bother, or waste my time, to write about them.
My Malaysian pre-occupation
As I have explained to readers in earlier columns, I wrote my first essays about Malaya, as it then was, as a high school history student in the Merdeka year, 1957. I first set foot, briefly, on Malayan soil in 1960.
I have been studying Malaysia seriously now for over half a century. From the time when the Malaysia idea was first floated and brought to fruition, and into the era of Indonesian “confrontation”. And from the time when, following its victory in Kelantan in 1959, the Islamic Party, or PMIP as it was then generally known, and its leaders were targeted for allegedly sympathising with, and even criminal complicity in, Indonesiankonfrontasi. That was the charge that was then made in the government white paper entitled “A Plot Exposed”.
That interest eventually led me to Kelantan, where I lived and conducted local rural research for a doctoral degree, for almost two years, from August 1967 to July 1969. It has become an interest and connection that has continued, and even grown deeper as my “Malaysian pre-occupation”, ever since then.
So, do I have a different relationship to Malaysian society, and a different view of what goes on in the so-called “Malay heartlands” and of the national government’s approach to those who live there, than most working journalists these days?
Of course I do. How could I not?
How can I not understand those things differently, and write about them with a different view and understanding, than today’s foreign correspondents and media practitioners? And will I see what is going, below or outside of the range of vision of those overseas journalists, in the Malay heartlands as central to Malaysian national politics? Of course I will.
When an election is called, that is what I think about and focus on, rather than succumbing, as so many of the visiting journalists do, to a fascination with “celebrity” political leaders on all sides who are eager to “cut a good figure” internationally.
If that somehow fails to satisfy the editors and authors at “The Choice”, I am sorry to disappoint them.
But they can hardly expect otherwise. Not from someone with my scholarly background, interests and focus.
A partisan hack? A ‘shill’?
But, to be fair to my latest critic, there is more to the charge made against me by “The Choice” than the disappointed claim that I am simply different.
I am said to be different, unacceptably different, in a specific way.
The suggestion made there is that my writing is partisan, outrageously partisan. Specifically, that I have “offered one of the most intellectually sophisticated, clever, subtle examples of pro-Pakatan Rakyat propaganda we have seen in some time.”
This accusation conveniently ignores the fact that, over recent times, I have consistently characterised the Pakatan Rakyat coalition as an improbable partnership and one lacking any coherent political outlook or, as distinct from an inclination towards popularly pleasing gestures, clear policies.
So much, then, for the author’s claim that “Kessler completely ignores the complete lack of any genuine economic or social policy from Anwar and Pakatan.”
The critique made by “The Choice” suggests that what I write is simply palatable pap to comfort an opposition readership with antagonistic attitudes and closed minds.
Yet, perhaps strangely, there were some on the same side of the political fence as those at “The Choice” who were quite happy to quote me, as and when and how it suited them.
For example: after I had observed in these columns that, viewed in long-term historical perspective, so far only the old Alliance and its successor the Barisan Nasional had ever shown the ability to fashion a competent “governing bloc” in Malaysia, and that the Pakatan opposition had so far given no sign at all of being able to replicate the achievement, the editors at TV3 were quite happy to lead the 8 o’clock news one evening with their neatly excerpted citation of my verdict on Pakatan’s plausibility as a prospective national government.
And as for the charge of being a partisan “shill” for Pakatan, or anybody, in what I write, I simply point out that that, once the election was called and candidates were nominated, I fastidiously chose not to write about the election campaign — or anything else — in these pages. And I did not resume writing about Malaysian society and politics until last week’s two-part retrospective to which “The Choice” now takes such elegant and finely outraged exception. It was written some five weeks after election day.
Hardly a rush to judgment, a hasty bid for opposition approval, or an eager gesture of ingratiation to a readership harbouring anti-government sentiments.
I did not write during that voluntary moratorium because, in my view, once the serious business of the elections was under way, that was a matter for the Malaysian people, for the voters, to decide and not one into which I should seek to intrude my own views.
Was that the action of a partisan meddler? Hardly.
My principled fastidiousness here seems to have been wasted, or to have gone unrecognized at “The Choice”.
Had I wanted to be partisan, I certainly might have acted differently during those weeks from mid-April to mid-June and written differently all along throughout all the preceding months and years.
A ‘split-level’ campaign
The proof of my supposed animus, and the refutation of my prejudiced view, that is offered by “The Choice” focuses largely upon the action of the Prime Minister.
Just look at how he sought Chinese and Indian support! At his visits to temples! His attendance at their various religious festivals and cultural ceremonies! And, just look, too, at his principled efforts to generate economic change and administrative transformation! Legal reform too! And so on.
But what my review of GE13 had emphasised was the “split-level” nature of the campaign waged by the Umno/BN side.
The more genteel part, and the part that captured the attention of much of the foreign media, is the part that my critic at “The Choice” now reiterates.
But that was not the campaign that was pitched at the great mass of voters in the Malay heartlands, and which in the end ensured their support.
That campaign was waged, above all, by and in Utusan Malaysia. By Umno, that is to say, in and through the pages of Utusan and their far-reaching reach and impact throughout peninsular Malay society.
After all Utusan is “tidak asing” to Umno, is no stranger to the governing party. It is owned by Umno. It is not just of the same “darah-daging”, the same flesh and blood, as Umno but is its voice, the authoritative and authentic voice of Umno’s deepest soul. Or so it boasts, and so also does Umno of it.
So it must be taken seriously.
Some of us do. Do the writers at “The Choice” do likewise, I wonder.
We read it daily, some of us. Not to learn “gospel truth”, so to speak, to have objective reality laid bare and revealed to us, but to learn what issues are being developed and how they are being presented in the leading Malay media to the core Malay component of the national political community.
My point in my GE13 retrospective was simply that what Utusan and its media consociates offered was in many ways the key to the “real campaign”, and central to it, so far as the great majority of the nation’s Malay voters were concerned.
And that campaign, one that in its tenor and content was totally at odds with the more genteel “official” campaign that Umno/BN was offering in full public and international view, was not a campaign to which the foreign journalists and international media (because of their own limitations, I said, and not because of their own folly or any Umno trickery!) had any access.
It was campaign that was literally beyond their view, their cultural and communicative reach, one that was conducted and passed largely unnoticed “under their radar”.
But it was — who can possibly deny it? — a critically important, even decisive, part of the successful Umno/BN national campaign.
It was a campaign that some people saw and took seriously, and to which they gave the attention that it incontrovertibly deserved.
And that is why anyone who took that “Malay ground level” campaign seriously saw the whole election drama quite differently from the international media: those whose good sense and sound judgment “The Choice” wishes to commend, in criticism of the rather different view that I recently suggested.
Well, of course they must be right, and I wrong, “The Choice” wishes to suggest. After all, just look how many of them took that view and were satisfied with it.
Invoking the numbers may prove something. But doing so does not vindicate the view that the majority were content to offer, based upon the very partial and inadequate view that they had of the nature of the campaign and how it was waged.
A plea to be political “wimps”?
Here the writer at “The Choice” makes a truly strange defence of this Malay populist aspect of the Umno/BN campaign. “Kessler,” he says, “also attacks Najib for making a hard play for Malay hearts and. One must ask: why not? It may have escaped his notice that Najib heads a party called the United Malays National Organisation. One would naturally expect him to seek their votes and sympathy, especially in the Malay heartland.”
My criticism was not that Najib should have played the “wimp” rather than been a bold leader of his people. It was that he chose precisely not to do so.
My complaint was not that Najib and Umno had sought mass Malay support. My criticism was of how they went about doing it. My criticism of Prime Minister Najib and his party is the same that is to be made against the party’s public political vehicle, Utusan. Against the role that, at Umno’s direction, Utusan is assigned to play in national life.
In the end a government that does not seek to educate and uplift its people, to enlarge their understanding and open up a vision wider than that afforded long afforded them between their familiar cultural blinkers, is not really a government. It is merely a system of rule and administration.
Regrettably, Utusan exists at Umno’s behest not to widen the cultural horizon of the great majority of the nation’s Malays but to keep their vision narrowly framed by the same archaic perspective of their political grandparents.
Good enough for them then, perhaps, but these days, for today’s Malays and the challenges that they face, no longer.
But that was the part that Umno had Utusan play in GE13. In its “split-level campaign”, the party’s marching orders to the flagship Malay newspaper were — if one may parody the old song — “you take the low road and we’ll take the high, and we’ll all get back to Putrajaya together”.
But it was not an edifying spectacle.
Mine was not an argument to Umno, as historically the nation’s main Malay-backed party, that its leaders should be political wimps.
It was an argument, or an expression of the hope, that Malaysia might soon become as good as it can be. And also a reminder that Umno has a major responsibility, and is uniquely positioned, to enable it to do so.
A ‘different view’
The critique levelled against me in “The Choice” appears to come from somebody close to the Prime Minister’s Office or from his media and communications management experts.
If that is the case, then “fair enough!” I have no complaint with them or the case that they make on that account.
That is their job.
And, though I may disagree with what they say and in some ways also with how they choose to say it, I can readily acknowledge that they do their job not just dutifully but with some unusual verve and welcome elegance.
Yet I also hope that, on their part, they can see and accept that my role, as a long-time student and observer of Malay and Malaysian society, is not the same as theirs, nor is the viewpoint that my professional work affords me the same as that which they derive from theirs.
That, I believe, ought to be something that my critics might be able to see and accept, if not in uncomplaining silence, then in good grace and spirits.
In writing what and as I do, I am not politically partisan. I certainly try not to be. But I am not neutral so far as my own principled scholarly commitments are concerned.
My responsibility as a scholar is not to make Umno/BN look good and smell fragrant. Nor is it my job or desire to “do them in”. Equally, my role is not to make the opposition look good or to give them comfort. Nor to wage a polemic against it for not yet having become what it aspires to be. Or might.
I seek to cast my own eye — neither partisan nor objective but my own independent eye and critical sense — on what I write about.
And when I write about Malaysian matters, I seek to do so in my own way, informed by my own historical sense of “where things are now at” and how, over the half-century that I have been following Malaysian developments, they have got to where they now are.
That, for me, is “a matter of choice”, of informed and responsible choice.
It would be good if others, even when they disagree, could bring themselves simply to accept that fact.
That too, on their side, is, or should be, a matter of sound choice.
I had barely finished drafting the foregoing reply to the “The Choice” when I learned that a second part to its critique had appeared.
Where the first had seen my work, though disputable, as brilliant, the second now called it “drivel”.
For my part, I had welcomed its first rejoinder as an elegant and stylish exercise in political commentary and debate.
Its second now descends from criticism to caricature, from critique to abuse.
And against abuse one can offer little other than a dignified silence.
But before shutting up, several points are relevant.
(i) The complaint is made that I have not provided the detailed factual evidence to back up my claim that, through the Malay-language press and media, Umno pitched what was to prove a very successful campaign of ethno-communal fear and outrage to the majority of the Malay voters.
In a brief commentary one cannot provide detailed evidence.
Others may now lay out that evidence, “chapter and verse”, in a specialist research monograph. Perhaps somebody will.
But I indicated what that evidence is and where it is to be found. In distressing profusion.
The evidence is to be found, above all, in the pages of the Umno’s own Utusan throughout the months leading up to the election and in the weeks since then. That evidence merits some detailed expert analysis, both for its content and its rhetorical stylistics. Here I say no more.
(ii) From criticism to caricature and abuse: a second matter.
“The Choice” brands me as a “Pro-Pakatan professor”. But to stigmatize and then dismiss somebody is not to counter their argument.
What, I ask, can make anyone think that after a lifetime of “being my own man”, often in difficult times and places, I would now sell out and become a “shill” for a political party or grouping that, on my own expressed view, lacked plausibility?
It makes no sense. The claim is simply absurd.
(iii) I am guilty, my recent critic blandly asserts, of “intellectual dishonesty”.
I make no such counterclaim.
I am ready to concede that, even though I disagree with them and it, the writers at “The Choice” are presumably sincere in putting their case, that they genuinely believe what they say.
I do charge them, though, with drawing a clever caricature, with fashioning a convenient straw man or “Kessler soft doll”, to knock down. So much easier to demolish that “pro-Pakatan professor” than to rebut the man’s considered argument.
(iv) In their second rejoinder, the writers at “The Choice”, charge that I lapse from offering brilliant if controversial analysis to providing simply drivel.
It is easy, when awkward matters are raised, to “shoot the messenger”. It hardly seems worth doing so here. How awful was the message?
It hardly seems so awful a message, meriting vehement denunciation: that Umno/BN could have done a better job during GE13 of living up to its proclaimed ideals, and that Malaysia might be a better and gentler place if did.
How despicable, how disputable, is that claim really?
(v) In one way, however, my new critics have been honest and lived up to the claims that they make for themselves.
When it comes, not to strategizing and managing the Umno/BN campaign but to giving some account of its conduct and why it succeeded, people thanks to “The Choice” now truly do have a choice.
Between my account and that of my recent critic.
One of us, one of those two opposed accounts, must be from some counterfactual parallel universe, and the other somewhat closer to reality.
Readers may make their pick.
It is their choice.
Before they do, one important point.
My critic’s account asserts that what it says, and that alone, is what happened. It vehemently denies, rhetorically rather than factually, the entire account that I have offered.
My account, by contrast, does not deny but accepts the case that my critic makes.
It simply says that his account is only a part, perhaps one-half, of the story. But there is another part too, it argued, and that other part of the total campaign — which was fought out of sight of those not “plugged into” the Malay media nor attuned to the Malay world — was decisive in “winning the day” for Umno/Bn where it really mattered.
In the battle for bulk Malay votes, for Malay hearts and souls and allegiance, a “no holds barred” campaign was waged. And it was successful. But this triumph of Realpolitiksat very uneasily with, and many of its claims and themes ran counter to, the genteel public campaign embodied in the Prime Minister’s “1Malaysia” exercise.
You do not have to reject my recent critic’s account to accept mine. But to accept his is to reject my argument “out of hand”. Without any grounds or evidence, I might even say.
(v) Finally, as I have noted, I prefer to think and write about society and culture broadly, not the all too often dispiriting spectacle of politics.
But during a long and protracted “political season” of the kind that Malaysia has recently been through, when virtually everything becomes political, it is very hard to avoid politics in one’s writing. What is central, what is pervasive, cannot be ignored.
But now some relief is perhaps in sight. The high political season is now over. And with its passing I look forward, when I write about Malaysia from time to time, to writing about those broader social, cultural and historical themes and concerns that most immediately interest me, not about the unedifying sausage-making of national political life.
Political writing I happily leave to the writers at “The Choice”.
They can be very good at it. They have both the taste and the aptitude.
The acquisition alongside those qualities of some greater discernment, a capacity for measured argument rather than reckless polemical overkill and wrong-headed abuse, would also be a good thing.
Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
We should like to congratulate The Malaysian Insider. In publishing a piece by Clive Kessler, a professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales and long one of Barisan Nasional’s most committed foreign critics, they have offered one of the most intellectually sophisticated, clever, subtle examples of pro-Pakatan Rakyat propaganda we have seen in some time.
It is also intellectual rubbish. But – again to the Insider‘s credit and Kessler’s – it is exceedingly difficult to make such beautiful rubbish.
The piece, titled “GE13: What happened? And what now?” and which purports to demonstrate that Umno was wildly successful in the recently-concluded elections, relying on racist strategies and lies by omission and commission to gain a dominant hold on Malaysian politics. It is brilliant because it undercuts much of the spin Opposition media and Pakatan have offered since the election, cites a few indisputable facts and then offers a reassuring storyline of cheating, lying, racist Umno for the Insider‘s core readership.
The tiny handful of facts actually present in the piece are these: that Umno mauled PAS in the Malay heartland (except in those heavily-urban centres of Kelantan and Terengganu); that Chinese voters voted overwhelmingly for Pakatan; and that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and BN told anyone who would listen that they wanted to be the Government to all Malaysians.
From there, the entire analysis is a brilliant exercise in pseudo-intellectual fantasy.
There are many ridiculous assertions in the piece, but it is perhaps best to begin with the overarching theme: that by carefully using the local and international press, Najib and his advisers were able to portray him and BN in the most sympathetic terms to different audiences, allowing him to focus on the Malay vote and essentially ignore the Chinese and Indian communities.
Ah, yes. Who can forget how the mat salleh press has gone hammer and tongs after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for over a decade? It has been rumoured that of late they have even asked him to restaurants rated with fewer than three stars – a sure sign of their being blinded by BN.
(One might note that Kessler is essentially calling every foreign observer of Malaysia, except Kessler, something of an idiot, although the word he uses is “effete.”)
Insofar as international press has said good things about Najib – and this includes media formerly bitterly opposed to BN – could it perhaps be because Najib has genuinely undertaken transformations and reforms of the economy and of government? Do the repeal of the Internal Security Act, the Printing Press and Publications Act and the Banishment Act count for nothing to Kessler? Because clearly they count for a great deal to long-time observers of human rights.
That shallow analysis hardly stands alone. Kessler also attacks Najib for making a hard play for Malay hearts and. One must ask: why not? It may have escaped his notice that Najib heads a party called the United Malays National Organisation. One would naturally expect him to seek their votes and sympathy, especially in the Malay heartland.
Yet Kessler also claims that Najib and his advisers wrote off Chinese and Indian votes. This is categorically absurd. Whatever Najib’s failings, a lack of desire to bring Chinese and Indian voters back to BN is not one.
We refer to Najib’s non-stop attendance at Indian and Chinese religious and cultural festivals – a first for a Malaysian Prime Minister, and something for which he suffered criticism from within his own party. We refer to the thrust of the 1Malaysia programmes and Najib’s transformation programmes, which were designed to be offered without consideration for race – and which were overwhelmingly directed into the multi-racial cities to help alleviate the cost of living and to show an accountable, responsive Government.
We refer to Najib’s determination to hold off the elections until almost the last moment – something he attributed to his desire to show voters the benefits of a Barisan Government. No one believed Najib was referring to kampung voters in the Peninsular and longhouse voters in Borneo. Najib clearly believed he had a duty as Prime Minister to be the Prime Minister to all Malaysians, and to work to secure their votes.
We also refer to Najib’s demeanour in the wake of GE13, in which he was clearly not only surprised by the extent of the Chinese shift, but determined to re-double his efforts to demonstrate that his is a Government for all Malaysians. In everything from an increased focus on crime and corruption to a renewed pledge to expand his transformation programmes, it is very difficult to argue that Najib believes he need only seize the kampung from PAS.
All of these criticisms should not undercut the brilliance of this work. Since the elections, Pakatan and its captive media have worked at length to dispel the notion that a ‘Chinese tsunami’ was the cause of BN’s losses at GE13, and have suggested that BN’s hold on the Government is the result of extensive and (in the case of the 40,000 teleporting and imaginary Bangladeshis who allegedly came to vote and then vanished) physically impossible cheating.
Yet Kessler implicitly rejects this – a brilliant move, because it then allows him to reinforce a different Opposition belief: Najib is a dirty liar who plays to racists and cares only about Malay votes. As an added bonus, Kessler implicitly calls PAS a group of stumbling incompetents, a belief long held by much of the Insider‘s readership.
The Insider‘s readers do not need to consider the possibility that Najib legitimately criss-crossed Malaysia, reaching out to communities that had rejected BN in 2008 because of the sincere desire, inherited from his father, that Malaysia should be one nation of all races.
They can instead be satisfied that what they have always believed is true, and a foreign academic agrees!
This is a sophisticated exercise in artificially constructed, crypto-intellectual propaganda. Yet perhaps the most telling aspect is that Kessler completely ignores the complete lack of any genuine economic or social policy from Anwar and Pakatan, thus rendering his own analysis a made for measure Malaysian Insider exercise in spin.
We applaud the Insider. Rarely has so little been said quite so artfully.
Perhaps next time, they can match the substance to the form. – The Choice