Our latest November issue features an interview with Malaysia’s prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Veteran Malaysian journalist, writer and founder of the cultural organisation Pusaka Eddin Khoo faced the daunting task of interviewing arguably the most experienced politician in Asia, if not the world.
Eddin, you wear many hats, but you worked for some years as a journalist for the Sunday Star, in Kuala Lumpur, during Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister. What are your strongest memories of your time as a journalist in what was then a restrictive media environment? Do you remember having to self-censor?
I remain a journalist, principally offering comment these days. I divide my journalistic experience into two periods: pre- and post-reformasi (the movement that began with the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998). The 1990s was a tentative “let a hundred flowers bloom” period for journalism here. Malaysia was emerging as an Asian Tiger — there was confidence and optimism everywhere. The media environment was restrictive in that overt criticisms of government policy would be apprehended, but there was still a vibrant discussion of national, social and cultural issues in the press. I learnt from my colleagues how to be imaginative in getting a story across. I have always had great faith in what the Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou once said: “As a matter of principle, censorship has to be fought forcefully: but then again, censorship forces the artist to look at one thing in countless ways.”
After reformasi things changed dramatically. Journalists were largely expected to leave their dignity (and intelligence) at the doormat.
Today, with the world chasing sound bites and with social media determining journalistic practice, there appears to be little room for expansive contemplation. Worse is the opaque area of truth and fiction in which journalism now operates.
The new government has recently repealed the “fake news” law introduced by the previous prime minister, Najib Razak, and there’s now talk of preventing political parties from owning more than 10% of any one media company. For decades the media landscape has been dominated by the government and lacked strong, independent voices. Are we really seeing a new dawn for press freedom in Malaysia, as some have suggested?
The Anti Fake-News Act, introduced by the Najib administration, tipped the balance for me. Any sense of impartiality I had was lost when that legislation was forced through parliament. It was a show of crude power — especially since the Anti Fake-News Act was pushed through by the fakers themselves.
Press freedom is rooted in ethical journalism and considered opinion. I don’t see anything principally wrong in political parties owning media organisations; I don’t even see anything principally wrong in the media advocating a particular political position. What is most important is that journalistic standards are met.
It is not accurate to suggest that there was a lack of strong, independent voices in Malaysia — we were never Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, after all — and therein lies the contradiction of the Malaysian context. Many opposition voices emerged with the advent of the internet. But the official media were certainly curtailed.
The challenge now is whether journalists, among both the official media and the opposition media, possess the foresight and imagination required to meet this climate of openness.
Malaysian artists were for a long time some of Mahathir’s fiercest critics, and in this year’s election some saw him as the lesser of two evils. Now that some months have passed since Mahathir returned to power, what is the mood like in the arts community? Is it as buoyant as Mahathir’s 70% approval rating would suggest?
I have worked for three decades with traditional artists, artists engaged with ritual and the arts of healing — custodians of this country’s cultural history. I am not very engaged with mainstream artists and am not in a position to say what their mood is. The 70% approval rating comes from all walks of life, and that is what matters most.
But the time of profound, engaged Malaysian artists (those interested in broader aspects of society, culture and history) has passed. The country is mired in a culture of mediocrity, in the arts and in many other aspects of cultural life. Malaysian artists have their views, which I think do not matter very much to most other people. People in the arts, not unlike everyone else, must rise to the challenge of introspection and position themselves in this self-declared “New Malaysia”.
In the meantime, the struggle to resist puritan forces, racial constructionists and those who wish to cleanse the rich cultural history of this country, encapsulated in the ritual arts, will continue.
You recently said that if Malaysia’s arts scene is to thrive, the country needs to celebrate rather than suppress its extraordinary diversity. Do you see the government taking steps in this direction, by, for example, changing the longstanding National Culture Policy, which exclusively promotes indigenous Malay and Islamic culture?
Yes, the country needs to celebrate its diversity, but before that it must discover what that diversity actually means and how deeply it reaches into our bloodstream as a community. We were a community even before we became a nation.
Policies and other strictures are not unimportant, but they become irrelevant and pathetic when confronted with an imagination inspired by, and rooted in, notions of community, culture and history.
In June, Mahathir, who is 93, said, “When you die, they rewrite your story. So when I am not around, they can say what they like.” When the time comes, what do you think Malaysians — and others — will say about Mahathir’s life and legacy?
That he has left an indelible impression on the nation, and that his legacy will be grappled with for decades to come. Mahathir is a master of reinvention and, as such, has remained continually relevant. Love him or loathe him we will be preoccupied with him for a long time yet.
Ben Wilson is a contributing editor of Mekong Review