NOVEMBER 29 — A firefighter fights for his life. A temple compound turns into a battlefield. Police keep watch; they arrest troublemakers and separate foes. And then, lawyers find themselves in handcuffs rather than the cufflinks for the cocktail parties they are used to. Ministers are upset. A population is captivated by the WhatsApp forward feature. And my grill fish guru, Ronnie Pak, sends me voice messages in various languages.
Living in Malaysia is surreal, but Ronnie’s pari with special sauce renews my faith in mankind whenever I hit a nadir.
Bomba personnel Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim’s full recuperation at the National Heart Institute (Institut Jantung Negara or IJN) would restore much of my countrymen’s faith in our common fate, as a nation struggles with the brittle nature of multiculturalism when at the mercy of poor stewards.
The whole episode of the Seafield Hindu temple, still unfolding, is a sobering reminder of how electronic connectivity challenges us as much as it liberates us. The Internet is a cruel mistress, even when not mistreated.
So much information passes by and on, in loops where they mutate. I wrote eight months ago, about the unrelenting nature of the net. (And yes, Jena is still a pain.) A change of government is not a cure. The cure is not in regime change, but in a paradigm shift among Malaysians.
Politicians claim they can have a grip over misinformation if only more power is transferred to them. The antidote to lies apparently is overwhelming force, they claim. A lie about the control of lies is about as infuriating as it gets when speaking about free speech.
Free speech is not the problem, our proclivity for mistruths is.
Willing listener and willing liar
In a nation where leaders speak incessantly of what divides us in order to maintain their relevance, all information is consumed largely through prevailing prejudices.
The ilk of Umno’s Zahid Hamidi, PAS’ Nasrudin Tantawi, DAP’s Ganabatirau Veraman and MCA’s Wee Ka Siong see issues through the lens of race primarily, and then as Malaysians.
They, and other leaders like themselves, ask the same of their supporters. A friend posted this on Facebook.
“The issue with most Malaysians is not about the temple anymore. It is more what right does an unruly mob have to attack innocent uniformed servicemen and passersby nearly to their deaths. That is the real question. Are we willing to compromise to anarchy?"
I’m fairly sure he’s not referencing ethnic Indian Malaysians with “most Malaysians.” Or circumspect about being liberal with the number of victims, alleged or reliably sourced from authorities.
Firstly, the primary cause of the fracas which was the assault of groups of people in the dead of night inside a contested space, resulting in a number of them cut up, can’t just be set aside as a minor insignificant detail. Second, all mobs are dangerous, more so — I’m belabouring — when they are “unruly.” There is no defence for mobs, they do bad things, often viciously. But let the police investigations unravel the true mayhem perpetrated and collateral damage.
When assessing competing forces in violent dispute, the only enemy is violence.
All violence must be unequivocally opposed in a democracy. All lives matter. Oppose those who act, and those who encourage acts of violence.
The prevalent Malaysian prejudice of weighing actors by race distorts. All “unruly mobs”, Chinese, Indian, Malay, Iban, Wakanda or angry shoppers behave poorly. Which is why societies spell out terms of civil engagement.
The personal filter of appointing more weight to race is as backward as posing the first question when informed of a traffic accident, “What race was the victim?” Only in Malaysia it appears the harms of a motor-vehicle tragically slamming into a motorcyclist differs by ethnicity.
That’s the willing listener.
The willing liar is the group wilfully distributing lies. Not versions or opinions, but outright lies. Doctoring images, mislabelling pictures and conflating facts maliciously.
They lack decency, even for political operators. Knowing that the prejudices are jutting out of the masses’ veins, they inject more venom into our system.
They care not about any balance, they are committed to get their side to win. It seems to them, if the end goal is a morally superior one in their minds, then it is fine to lie, falsify, misinform and muddy the information. Therefore, to these miscreants, convinced this is the wrong government for Malaysia — as they see it — no lie is too damning to their soul. In many senses they believe they are protecting their souls by lying.
How to decide what is correct news?
With great difficulty, especially when there are fires.
Accept, the days of absolute truths have long gone. Facts, developments and news require scrutiny.
If the first reaction to abject news is anger, it is fine. To react is natural. But to not examine the matter, revisit it with a calmer temperament post-anger clouds future judgement.
If the news is too convenient for your prejudice, can’t it be the case of excessive convenience? In an age of click-baits, content producers are keen on your attention — cue, pop up ad — and less keen on what the news does to your constitution.
When there are contests of wills, it would be impossible for one side to lack a basis. Even the mad, arrive with arguments. Sides do not have to be picked, there must be a higher obligation to fairness rather than to outcomes.
If opposing sides are equally upset with the umpire, usually the government, a good chance the umpire is doing a standout job.
If the same opposing sides are begrudgingly appreciative of the government’s role, then this umpire is stellar.
News — multiple media organisations, blogs, social commentators and avid observers (pseudo-news) — hovers over these developments, and despite the best or worst efforts, readers are responsible for their own comprehension.
A lazy reader does a great disservice to himself. Worse, he becomes the news carrier for deceit masters. I told Ronnie to take it easy with the WhatsApp forwarding. He’s been quiet today, probably he has not come across “convincing” lies. Be like Ronnie.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.