‘So you say pigs can fly, do you?!’ — Clive Kessler
JUNE 4 — Over the weekend a succession of strange emails reached me.
I had been extensively cited, I was told, on TV3’s prime-time 8pm news last Friday.
What had I done to earn this attention?
I had expressed the view, it seemed (or so some friends now told me), that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition was a shambles, that only the Umno-led BN coalition could govern Malaysia, and that people should therefore support it, not the opposition.
Like Margaret Thatcher, it would seem, I had here, in talking about the Umno-led BN’s role in national politics, pronounced the verdict of TINA: There Is No Alternative.
Well, hold on just a moment...
As I tried to absorb this news, echoes of an earlier experience started to sound in my head.
On that earlier occasion it had been the Australian media who had honoured me with such surprising prominence.
The nation’s leading privately-owned television station with its very influential news service (and its larger-than-life proprietor’s insistent political agenda) had been involved.
Around that time, about 10 years ago, the Australian government was trying to suggest that its critics were ridiculous, held absurd ideas, and were not to be believed on any matter about which they might express an opinion.
So I found myself somewhat notoriously featured on the prime-time news, apparently declaring that pigs could fly.
Or something equally unlikely.
“So you say that pigs can fly, do you?!” That was the rebuke that a friend offered when he saw that news bulletin.
Well actually, I had not said that.
The topic was not in fact about whether pigs can fly.
But that claim can be taken as the clear example to clarify this current question concerning my surprising if only implied appearance on last Friday’s TV3 news.
Back to the past, to the explanatory example.
The Australian government at the time (on a question of national immigration law and policy towards refugees) wanted to suggest that all of its critics were “loonies.”
To discredit them all, it wanted to capture “on record” somebody whom it might cast as an enemy really saying that pigs can fly — or its equivalent.
(The issue at the time was that many of the government’s critics wanted to argue not that Australia should maintain totally open borders and accept, no questions asked, anybody and everybody who might arrive on our shores. Rather they argued that there had to be a set of procedures, or an administrative “regimen”, for handling those “boat people” who arrived that recognised international human rights and norms. The government wanted to suggest that all its critics really wanted to throw open the borders, something that was clearly as insane as the claim — to use the Australian vernacular expression — that “pigs can fly.” If it could do that, then it could prove all its critics to be nothing but “loonies.”)
There was a public event at which the matter was discussed. I was a speaker.
The pressure from various political actors, and from the press who were eager to “develop” the story and capture the tension of the moment, was immense.
The media were doing all that they could to get somebody to assert publicly that indeed pigs could fly (or its equivalent).
When my moment came, I spoke very carefully and deliberately.
“I am not saying that pigs can fly,” I said firmly. “But I am affirming that pigs, when they are not rolling about in the mud, can walk, and also that despite some prejudice against them, they have often proved themselves very intelligent animals. They are also useful for preparing insulin injections for diabetics and in providing transplant components such as heart valves.”
That, by way of an analogy, will suggest the kind of argument that I was making about the complexities, both administrative and ethical, of immigration and refugee policy. I was speaking not about pigs but about immigration matters, but that analogy will suggest the nature of my remarks.
The TV crews simply did not get, from me or anyone else who was there, the moment or the quotation that they wanted. But their story depended upon it, upon getting those words recorded and made the centre of their story.
So they did what may come quite naturally to a desperate journalist who has to “nail down” his story — and who has impatient news editors and demanding proprietors to please.
They trimmed and edited my remarks to suit the needs of the story that they wanted to run.
They simply cut out one word, the word “not”, from my crucially important prefatory words that “I am not saying...”.
In a determined, clear and forthright manner, I publicly declared on prime-time TV news that “pigs can fly.”
Or that was how things were made to appear.
Something similar seems to have happened in Kuala Lumpur last Friday.
Regular readers may recall my column in The Malaysian Insider some weeks ago (May 11) entitled “Where do I stand politically?”
Those who read my column with ordinary care and attention readily understood my meaning.
I was voicing a profound disquiet and anxiety, perhaps even an impending sense of despair, about Malaysia’s current political climate and condition.
I did so because, having spent a lot of my time and mental energy since the early 1960s thinking about its evolving political destiny, Malaysia is one of those countries about which I greatly care, and for whose people I have a deep affection and concern. My argument in that column had two parts.
First, I was not convinced that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition had yet achieved any real coherence in matters of political organisation and long-term policy.
Their remarkable agreement was an effective device for avoiding damaging contests between rival opposition candidates in bitterly fought three-way electoral contests against the BN under the “first-past-the-post” electoral system (which, by the way, is yet another of the ridiculous aspects of the political legacy left to Malaya, and then Malaysia, by the departing British colonial “lords of humankind”).
A no-enemies-pact among the BN’s adversaries, yes. But a prospective government with a coherent policy, political strategy, and prospective Cabinet structure? Not yet, it seemed to me.
That was one half of the problem.
The other half was BN.
Since Pakatan had not yet proved itself, to me at least, as a persuasive and viable alternative government, one had to look to BN to see what it offered and what its immediate prospects now were.
It remained the fact, I observed, that the only effective ruling coalition that had yet emerged and come to power, and then proved its ability to hold the reins of government, had been the Umno-led coalitions, first the Alliance Party and then its successor, Barisan Nasional.
So in principle, I argued, and in the absence of any plausible alternative, the country was still likely, until something else of real plausibility came along, to be governed by the Umno-led BN coalition.
That was in principle.
In practice, however, in the light of developments over the last decade and more, such a coalition (so I again argued, as I have often done in recent times) could only be led by a genuinely reform-minded Umno: an Umno that was committed not just to reforming, or some fanciful tinkering with, the state’s administrative machinery but, far more important, reforming itself, its own political character, style and identity).
That was an Umno that did not simply talk about administrative reform with its entire “alphabet soup” of KPIs and the like.
To go on ruling the country, to ensure and provide itself with the authority to do so, Umno had to show that it was capable of effectively addressing its most urgent task: the challenge of reforming itself, of a genuine and substantive inner transformation.
Just as the opposition Pakatan coalition had yet to prove to me that it had achieved a sufficient degree of political coherence to be able to rule, so too had Umno failed, and quite abjectly, to prove itself capable of reforming itself and so heading (as it now must) a genuinely centrist, reform-minded national government.
Both sides, I said, were failing, had failed.
They were yet to prove themselves capable of delivering the future that the nation now needs.
My column found both sides wanting.
And if either side or both thought I was wrong, or felt I had been unfair, then it was clear what they needed to do.
They had simply to prove me wrong.
That is, to do, and show that they had done, what I said still remained their unfinished business, their neglected challenges.
Pakatan had to lift its game. It would have to prove itself capable of fusing its secularists and Islamists, its multiculturalists and its Malay-minded career professionals and “aspirationalists”, its religious liberals and moderates with its new Islamic middle-class “pietists.”
Not easy, but it needs to be done.
Similarly, and no less difficult: if Umno did not like my conclusion, it had simply to move beyond its abstract and turgid talk about reform and its ungrounded claims of moderation and ethnic conciliation.
It must soon provide a national leadership and government that is prepared to “walk that talk” — and to live courageously with the consequences of that choice.
To do that it will have to forsake some of its venerable past and embrace a plausible and energising future, one that is both more adventurous and principled than all the habitual verities which has long invoked and served — and it must be prepared to do so explicitly, not by evasive dissimulation.
So my column was an endorsement of the politics of neither Pakatan Rakyat nor of the Umno-led BN.
It was a sombre statement about the limitations on both sides. It was a gloomy assessment of the prospects of both — and, either way, of the Malaysian nation under their stewardship.
It was a plea to both to recognise how dire the national political scene and immediate prospects have become — and to face up intelligently and responsibly to that challenge.
It was a call to both sides, or to only one of them (and it might be either of them, I had no favourite!) if the other was incapable of doing so, to prove me wrong.
My argument was not an endorsement, it was a warning.
It took the “logical form” of a “dilemma.”
I remember my university logic lecturer analysing such situations.
“If a certain condition or policy leads to a given outcome and if the pursuit of the opposite measure or policy leads to the same outcome, then that is the outcome that will result. No matter what you do, you get that outcome. So, in choosing what to do, you have only a choice of means, not of ends.
“That,” he continued, “is what you call a dilemma.”
“And if the outcome to which you are being delivered, like it or not, is an unwelcome, unpleasant and unbearable one, then what you are facing is a disaster.
“That is a really unpleasant kind of dilemma to be facing.”
That is what I was saying.
That if neither of the two main contending coalitions is capable of addressing the challenges that they face, then the nation’s prospects are a matter of concern, its fate a matter of real anxiety.
One may choose one side or the other, one coalition or the other. But in either case, it seems to me, the outlook is worrying.
Unless the rival coalitions find the will to do what they must, the ensuing result will be, in one form or another, a national political impasse.
Failure may take different forms, but any failure will be a national failure.
Malaysians are now heading, so it seems to me, towards an election where they must choose between an opposition that may not be ready to govern, and has yet to fashion its own basis for doing so, and a government that may no longer be able to govern, to lead from the centre, even to have the broadly-based authority to hold things together.
Why do I say such dire things?
Simply because that is how I now, most unhappily, see things.
I do not find it at all pleasant to see a country and people for whom I care greatly confronted by so dire and immediate a political predicament.
But that is how I see things, that is how I believe things now stand.
So, I say that pigs can fly, do I?
In the Malaysian case before us now, not really, not exactly — no matter what the media have reported and how they may have drawn upon and presented my views.
In many countries, including Australia and Malaysia, working journalists will often “cut corners”, trim a story to fit their needs, selectively “cut and paste” somebody’s words to fit and support their preferred “narrative.”
It’s a sad truth.
But scholars must go on analysing and writing about matters of public concern in their areas of established expertise.
And you cannot decide to remain silent on the grounds, or from a fear, that what you have to say may be misquoted.
To give in to that fear, to accept that limitation, is to be complicit in the silencing of intelligent commentary, analysis and public discussion.
No flourishing country can afford that.
My role in this area is that of a scholar and writer.
I am not a Malaysian citizen, not a “player” in the game of this country’s national politics.
But as a scholar I treat Malaysia as a “normal country”, in the same way that I deal with and treat any other country.
That is, I try honestly to understand, to analyse, to sympathise and at times also to probe areas from which others, unwisely in my view, may turn away their gaze.
And, when I reach what I consider a proper conclusion, I try to say what I think, as directly as I can.
I do so not to offend or provoke, not to scandalise, not to “play favourites” or offer personal endorsements to one side or another.
Some things simply need to be said.
And sometimes it takes a scholar, bystander, a somewhat detached but still committed friend to say what he thinks, to describe what he sees, to “call things” as he thinks they are, or may soon be.
So you still say that pigs can fly?
I think not.
No flying pigs here.
* Clive S. 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.