How to report a wedding

Mindy McAdams examines the directives journalists in Malaysia were given and the ways in which the Malaysian press is muzzled

By Mindy McAdams
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Malaysia's prime minister denied the rumors months ago, but Malaysian blogs persisted in claiming that he would remarry. When he confirmed his wedding plans at a June 6 press conference, he explained his earlier denials by saying, "All the dates mentioned were wrong...that's why I said it was just a rumor. It took some time...I needed to consult my children, needed to find the time. I was too busy going here and there."

The marriage carries no scandal. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is a widower, married only once before, and his wife died in 2005. His new bride has been divorced for 15 years. He is 67; she is 53. Both are Muslim and she was born and raised in Malaysia.

In spite of the apparent simplicity of the marriage, the national government thought the occasion required a special directive to the news media.

Journalists were called to the Office of the Prime Minister and given their orders by Kamal Khalid, head of communications for the prime minister's office: Keep the wedding story low key. It will be a private affair. Rely only on the official announcements issued by the state-run news agency, Bernama. Don't go digging into the background of Jeanne Abdullah, the future wife of the prime minister. Do not refer to the bride as a divorcee (which she is) or to the prime minister as her brother-in-law (which he is, or was; Jeanne's first husband was the brother of Abdullah's first wife). Above all, do not use any information from the Internet.

In other words, the government told the press to use only government sources in reporting about this prominent national event.

The wedding took place three days after the announcement, on June 9. Members of the press were not permitted to attend.

Lapdogs instead of watchdogs

The case of the prime minister's new wife hardly strikes fear into the heart of Western journalists. No reporters were detained, arrested or mistreated in any way. That's how it is in Malaysia, most of the time. Most journalists live a safe life because they never, ever bite the hand that feeds them.

The pre-wedding stories followed the text of the press conference Abdullah gave on June 6. The online stories posted on June 10 by the English-language dailies The Star and The New Straits Times read almost identically -- right down to the concluding quote from Jeanne's daughter Nadene about her mother's pre-wedding jitters. Both print and TV journalists in Malaysia are very well trained. They do as they are told.

"I can tell you, self-censorship is an obsession for the editors," Steven Gan told me in an interview in June 2005. The editor of Malaysiakini, an online-only news site, Gan had worked as a reporter and columnist for The Sun, a print daily, in the 1990s.

He explained how the system works.

Fresh new reporters come to the newsroom with real enthusiasm. Then they start to be retrained by the editors, who know, for instance, that you are not supposed to ask certain questions and not embarrass the VIPs.

The phone call comes to your editor before you even get back to the office after a press conference. Your editor is waiting for you. He says: You shouldn't have asked that question. He says: You can't put that in your story.

"Things like that happen all the time," Gan said. Other journalists told me the same thing, but no one else would go on record with me. My one other on-record interview was with a news editor who later phoned me and asked me not to use any of it, except the parts where he discussed the public's distrust of the Internet.

"It's very much learning from the editors," Gan said. "For a while there, you'll resist. You'll ask them: How come you took off this sentence? Why did you rewrite my story? And then, you start getting tired of it. You start writing the way they want you to write.

"Basically, if you want to play it safe, you censor everything," he said.

Forbidden topics

Most outsiders see Malaysia as a peaceful country, not a place where jackbooted thugs break down doors in the night and drag people off to prison. But on Jan. 20, 2003, police raided Malaysiakini's offices, confiscating 19 computers. The youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the ultra-powerful political party, had filed a complaint claiming that Malaysiakini had published a seditious letter concerning the special rights of the ethnic Malays.

Malaysia has a democratic government. The nation has a bicameral parliament and there is no president. Malaysia's king is the head of state but fulfills only ceremonial duties. The prime minister is the head of government and his wife is the de facto First Lady of Malaysia.

The government abides by the rule of law. The law (specifically, the Sedition Act of 1948, as amended in 1969) says certain things must not be questioned: the national religion (Islam), the national language (Bahasa Melayu), the conditions of Malaysian citizenship, the privileged position of ethnic Malays and the natives of Sarawak and Sabah, and the status of the Malay rulers, who are the hereditary leaders of nine of Malaysia's 13 states.

To an American, one of the strangest things about Malaysian law is the prohibition of public discussion about race. The Sedition Act prohibits any action that promotes "ill will and hostility" among the different races in Malaysia. This prohibition goes far beyond any "hate speech" laws in the United States and blankets the entire culture with a smothering effect. I found that almost everyone I met would discuss race with me, a foreigner, but I found no open discussion of race in the newspapers or on television.

Imagine a press and broadcast system in which the central hinge of politics and economics can barely be mentioned.

In Malaysia, political parties divide along racial lines, as do political favors and entitlements. Everything and everyone is identified as Malay or Chinese or Indian. (Yes, these are "races" in Malaysia.) There are even further layers of racial complexity defining the status of non-Muslim natives of the two Malaysian states in East Malaysia. The roots of the law go deep into religion, language, centuries of seafaring trade (and immigration) around the Malay Peninsula, the British colonial practice of "divide and rule," and even the carving-up of Borneo in the 1960s.

The prohibitions in the Sedition Act apply to individual members of the working press as well as to their employers, the news organizations. As a result, there is no true public discussion of many issues. Malaysians share their opinions only face-to-face, via SMS and, increasingly, in (mostly anonymous) blog comments.

According to Gan, and other journalists who declined to speak on the record, members of the public feel quite cautious about being identified with any negative remarks they might post online.

"It's not a matter of being arrested. It's not getting a promotion, being victimized, being fired," Gan said. "A lot of our readers are civil servants." Naturally, that means your career is at stake if you step out of line; the same is true for the journalists.

Yet arrests are not unheard of. In the most infamous example, which took place on Oct. 27, 1987, and is known as "Operasi Lalang," 119 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act, which permits detention without charge at the discretion of the home affairs minister. The government licenses of three newspapers were revoked, forcing them to shut down for months. What spurred the government to close newspapers and imprison intellectuals and "educationists"? A public protest concerning the appointment of non-Mandarin educated officials to posts in vernacular Chinese schools.

The tension of silence

I went to live in Malaysia in 2004 to learn about the future of online journalism. Instead, I learned about controls on the press and how they work, both within and apart from the letter of the law. I learned about aspects of race and identity that differ from those in my own culture. I experienced a shadow of colonialism that coexists with an ancient history and an earnest hope for future development.

The nation practices a kind of super affirmative action, with no consideration for merit or need. So there are wealthy Malaysians enjoying very generous financial benefits they do not require, while some poor Malaysians, not racially favored, go without. There are students with high test scores who are not given a place at a good public university, while students with lower scores get in. All the privileges, or lack thereof, are based on your race, your parents and your religion.

Race, as I said, is the hinge of Malaysian society.

In Malaysia, the races don't tell one another what they think about the race issues. The media don't bring the resentments and the grumbling out into the air and the sunlight. These things are discussed only in safe places, outside the public eye, with your own kind -- or with foreigners, like me. And members of each race imagine (or rather, feel certain) that they know exactly what the other races are thinking. And how can they?

In Malaysia, the rationale for all this silence, the laws that make public discussion and debate impossible, the requirements for holding your tongue, for "Operasi Lalang," the raid on Malaysiakini, all come down to one thing, one day: May 13, 1969.

On that day, riots erupted in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. Blood spilled in the streets. Some describe massacres, men swinging parangs (machetes), scenes from a civil war. People who were children then can still remember their parents' fear; they remember being kept home, indoors, with the shutters closed tight. The story of that day, repeated again and again -- even to me, a foreigner -- has always been distorted, changing with each telling, except for the crucial point: The riots were race riots.

Chinese killed Malays, and Malays killed Chinese.

It's never entirely clear who started it, or why (and a new book by former Member of Parliament Kua Kia Soong, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969, says the riots were actually a coup attempt orchestrated by a faction inside UMNO), but that doesn't matter. It's a complicated story that goes far back beyond that one day. That doesn't matter either. What matters, as with any legend, any ghost story, is the warning: It could happen again!

Never mind that 38 years have passed, the wealth and education level of Malaysia have increased tremendously since then, and the world has changed. No, a day of bloodshed more than a full generation ago -- when the nation was just 12 years old, when the amputation of Singapore was still a raw wound -- serves to justify one of the most repressive (but not oppressive) media law systems in the world.

Madam Prime Minister, Jeanne Abdullah, was born and raised a Catholic. She converted to Islam for her first marriage. She's not "pure Malay," either. She's Eurasian.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.