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Malaysia Today closes in on The Star online


I did a check on Alexa to find out the estimated global reach of the main English media in Malaysia.

Here are the rankings at 5.30 pm on 4 August 2007:

1. Star (0.052% of daily Internet surfers worldwide)
2. Malaysia Today (0.020%)
3. NST (0.014%)
4. Malaysiakini (0.009%)
5. Harakahdaily (0.0075%)

Alexa graph

Colour code:

Beige – The Star; Blue – Malaysia Today; Black – NST; Red – Malaysiakini; Green – Harakah

Interesting to see that Malaysia Today has overtaken NST, Malaysiakini and Harakahdaily and is now closing in on The Star online!

Of course, this is just a very rough estimate – with all kinds of other variables that could present a different picture – but it is a revealing snapshot nonetheless.

There is a monster in the swamp

It was not so long ago when voters, hoping for reforms and change, gave Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi an unprecedented mandate. Among other things, Abdullah had vowed to tackle corruption.

Since then, the reality has not quite matched the rhetoric. The hopes of many have been dashed.

We seem to be stuck in a swamp of corruption and we just cannot haul ourselves out of it. The more we try and cling to an overhanging branch, the more we seem to be sinking deeper and deeper in the muck, right up to our neck in the bog.

We know the problem – endemic corruption – and yet we seem to be powerless to eradicate it. Worse, we do not seem to care much about it.

My friend Rustam Sani, one of Malaysia’s leading public intellectuals, has asked a pertinent question: “Having realised it in our guts that corruption is rampant in our society – and according to our luminaries in parliament and corporations it is causing harm to our social fabric – how is it that we still do not have a sense of indignation or outrage against it?

“The existence of a widespread public indignation or outrage, I have always thought, would have been the first step towards the eradication of corruption in our society.”

Rustam also observed that some local and state authorities seem more concerned about “moral policing” and snoop squads; on the other hand, they appear tolerant and lax when it comes to corruption. Perhaps the problem is that many people in our society are actually prospering in a system that is sustained by corruption so much so it doesn’t really bother them.

This can only mean one thing, concludes Rustam: “What we have in Malaysia is institutionalised corruption. And that is truly a chilling thought.”

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for The Herald.

Yes, there is a monster in the swamp of corruption: institutionalised corruption.

How is it institutionalised? For one thing, there is a close nexus between business and politics in Malaysia that has severely compromised the system. Too many vested interests are benefiting from corruption. No wonder the authorities are unable to drain this swamp and, moreover, they lack the political will to do so.

Everyone knows that the Anti-Corruption Agency is not really independent in the first place – for, after all, it reports to the Prime Minister and not to Parliament. Meanwhile, the media are fettered and controlled. Oppressive laws such as the Official Secrets Act and the fear of repercussions, which could put careers into cold storage, also serve to deter potential whistle blowers.

But then again, even if the ACA was independent, it would still be severely ill-equipped to deal with the issue of rampant and systemic corruption in Malaysia. For one thing, the ACA has traditionally focused on straightforward bribery cases, which is only part of the problem or even just a symptom of the larger disease. The ACA is not really up to the task of disentangling the tentacles of business and political interests. For beneath the surface lurk cronyism and greed, which has fed the monster over the years.

This monster first sprung to life during the tenure of former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who presented us with Malaysia Inc. From then on, there was a blurring in the demarcating line between political and business concerns giving rise to situations of conflict of interests. One such example was the case of the then economic adviser to the government Tun Daim Zainuddin, who had his own vast business interests, including in the banking sector.

Seen in a broader context, the free rein given to corporate-led globalisation has also contributed towards a society that is engrossed in seeking material gain, not always legitimately. Corporate media propaganda bombards us with the image of the “good (materialistic) life”.

The result: there is a stampede in the pursuit of wealth. Many are tempted to take shortcuts to acquire such wealth whether it is through wheeling and dealing on the stock exchange, cronyism or schemes to get-rich-quick without hard, honest work.

Listen to the words of St Paul in his First Letter to Timothy:

“We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it; but as long as we have food and clothing, let us be content with that.

“People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction.

“‘The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds.” (1 Timothy 6:7-10)

As we survey our national landscape, those fatal, gaping wounds of corruption and greed are there for everyone to see.



Merdeka! Abolish colonial legacy of judicial whipping

It is time to abolish judicial corporal punishment (JCP) in Malaysia i.e. the barbaric whipping of prisoners with a thick rattan cane, which draws welts and blood and leaves permanent scars. As we celebrate 50 years of Independence, it is timely to remind ourselves that this form of corporal punishment is a legacy of British colonial rule.

According to the World Corporal Punishment research website:

The penal legislation in what used to be “British Malaya” — the peninsular part of present-day Malaysia, plus Singapore — has its historical roots in the criminal laws of England and India.

When the Straits Settlements, comprising the three predominantly Chinese-populated port cities of Singapore, Melaka (Malacca) and Penang (George Town), was formed as a British colony in 1826, the criminal law of England applied. Corporal punishment was imposed for such offences as begging, pornography, treason, garrotting, and robbery with violence.

Straits Settlements Penal Code Ordinance IV replaced the common law in 1871. It was based on the Indian Penal Code, which had been enacted in 1860 to unify the criminal laws of the various provinces in India.

Offences punishable by whipping in the Penal Code were robbery, aggravated forms of theft, house trespass or house breaking, assault with intent to outrage modesty…

This list of “whipping offences” is broadly similar to that of England and Wales at the time…

…at least from the First World War onwards, the whole peninsula was in political terms regarded as “British Malaya” and for many practical purposes was run as an entity, overseen by a Governor based in Singapore who reported to the Colonial Office in London.

What is clear, anyway, is that the JCP regime as it developed was entirely an outgrowth of British legal and judicial custom and practice. It did not have anything to do with “Islamic justice”. The fact that much of the territory (except for the Straits Settlements) had a majority Moslem population was coincidental.

So if this is a British colonial legacy – and a barbaric one at that – aimed at keeping the “natives” in check and ensuring civil order under the colonial administration, why are we still persisting with it? It is interesting that the “natives” were being brutally whipped for theft and robbery at a time when colonial administrators (and their corporations) were occupying our land and plundering the country’s resources.

Has anything changed?

As we look ahead to the 50th anniversary of Independence from colonial rule, we must abolish this most cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment. In recent times, defenceless migrant workers have increasingly been given whipping sentences but I don’t see many of the human traffickers being similarly punished. Neither have I come across many tycoons and politicians involved in corruption and criminal breach of trust being whipped (not that I am advocating they should be).

Even the Malaysian Bar has unanimously called for the abolition of whipping in Malaysia, as I reported in this article for IPS:

Of those brought to court, those with valid documents but who have overstayed face prison terms and deportation. A caning sentence, usually two to three strokes, in addition to a stint in prison, is meted out to those without any documents, according to Latheefa, who works in Legal Aid. Women are not whipped.

Upon being brought to court, migrants often do not know what charges are brought against them, the two lawyers claim. ‘‘They are not informed of their right to legal representation, and in any event, are not provided with a reasonable opportunity to seek help. The lack of interpretation in appropriate languages renders the whole legal process a complete travesty of justice and human rights.

Faced with indefinite detention, many of them turn in guilty pleas without realising the full implications. Full article: Illegal migrant workers may escape the cane

NCER: Who benefits more – Sime Darby or farmers?

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has launched the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) masterplan. The masterplan was designed by Sime Darby although the project will be implemented by a regional coordinating authority.

But Sime Darby is not a disinterested party. It is eyeing the seed market and planning to produce patented “mother seed” for 10 popular crops, which it wants to sell, along with fertilisers, to the farmers. Not only that, it will buy the farmers’ produce, process it and market it via Tesco (in which Sime Darby has a 30 per cent stake).

When I contacted Jeyakumar Devaraj for comment, he told me, “It boggles the imagination that the government has come to the stage of contracting out the planning for poverty alleviation to a corporation whose primary aim is to maximise profits for shareholders.”

He said that smaller farmers could end up being pushed out or turned into agricultural labourers. Those who cannot afford to buy the expensive feed/fertilisers and don’t have economies of scale will end up losing their land. They might end up as casual labourers or be forced to move to urban areas.

“It is the invasion of corporate capital into the agriculture sector. We can see what they have done to the plantations sector: they have brought in cheap foreign labour to suppress wages below the poverty line. The same companies are moving into the traditional peasant sector.”

He pointed to how the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli had developed plantations on Orang Asli land in the Sungai Siput area, but these are being run by private contractors who prefer to employ Indians and Bangladeshi labourers for agricultural work, leaving the Orang Asli without their land and their work.

Sarojeni Rengam of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) was also concerned. PAN’s experience of contract farming in other Asian countries suggests that the quality of the crops in the first two years would probably be acceptable. “But after that, the produce is often rejected or bought over at reduced prices” – the excuse being failure to comply with quality control standards. QC would also be used to justify “calendar spraying” according to the time of year rather than based on the actual pest problem.

Farmers may be given credit to buy proprietary seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, but this would be deducted from harvest revenue. ‘’If the produce is rejected, the farmers would be caught in a debt trap and find it impossible to survive.’’

Charles Santiago, for his part, said Sime Darby has identified the problems but the solutions have not been well thought out. “Controlling the seeds and and reorganising rice production based on agrobusiness models will not solve the systemic problems.”

“What is clear is that Sime Darby, a government-linked company, has been given the opportunity to further its investments in the country. …(and) the parties who control the seed will also control the livelihoods of the farmers.”

This is the article I wrote for IPS:

PENANG, Jul 30 (IPS) – The Malaysian government is unveiling an economic master-plan that it hopes will “revolutionise” farming and transform the economies of four northern states.

Planners say the blueprint will raise farmers’ incomes but activists are concerned that it will instead make them more dependent on a small group of large corporations, which could take control of the entire food production chain from seed to retailing. Full article: Big top-down farm revival powered by business

Watch out for the BN ad agencies’ election media blitz

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine, a pensioner, received an unusual phone call from a woman he didn’t know.

From the way he described it, it sounded like someone from a market research agency was trying to gauge public opinion and sentiment. The woman asked him if it was okay if she took 20 minutes to ask a few questions.

Among the questions:

  • What do you think of the Northern Corridor Economic Region plan?
  • Are you happy with your recent pension increment? (He replied no, he still finds it hard to cope with the rising cost of living.)
  • What do you think of Penang Chief Minister Dr Koh’s performance?
  • Who do you think would make a suitable successor?
  • What do you think of Keadilan?
  • What do you think of Anwar?
  • Would you be comfortable with Pas ruling the country?
  • Do you think Visit Malaysia Year will help the economy?
  • Who do you normally vote for?

Now, my guess is that this phone call has something to do with the coming general election.

We know that during the 2004 general election campaign, two of Abdullah Badawi’s aides – an ex-banker and a political scientist – coordinated a media blitz that used the creative input of three or four advertising companies. The media campaign covered television, radio, print media, billboards and even direct mail.

They used the ad agency Leo Burnett to come up with television commercials.

The landslide BN victory was actually a triumph for these advertising agencies as well. The media campaign was designed to promote the “feel-good” factor, to market the BN “brand” image and to portray Abdullah Badawi in the best possible light.

The message and approach use varied depending on the target audience. They also used the “soft-sell” approach because they didn’t want to put off the target audience through a “hard-sell” approach, which would have been “overkill”.

Before coming up with this media campaign, I am pretty sure these ad agencies would have done their homework to find out what issues are important to which target audience. You know, focus groups, random surveys, cold call interviews with voters, opinion polls – that sort of thing. The idea is to find out what appeals to voters and what puts them off. In the minds of these agencies, it’s all about perception and how it can be moulded.

One ad agency director said after the last election that his television commercials focused “just on Malaysians talking about what they like to do, what they believe in about this country and their life, rather than politics.”

“Because Pak Lah talks about everyday things, not mega-projects,” he said. (Try telling Malaysians that today!)

“Things like education, better service from the government, improving the police, anti-corruption, dealing directly with the public.” (We know all about that now, don’t we?)

“We were successful in selling the BN’s brand and the principal product, Datuk Seri Abdullah, well. If people ‘felt good’ towards the BN I feel it was validated.”

Those quotes were from a Bernama report after the 2004 general election.

As the Malaysian Media Monitors’ Diary observed back then:

In this advertising and marketing game, voters are reduced to unsuspecting consumers whose minds should be moulded and manipulated into buying the “product.” In this game, the BN is the brand, the dacing is the brand logo, the tag line is “Excellence, Glory, Distinction”, and the emotion they are trying to create is “feel good”. The principal “product” is of course, Abdullah Badawi, and the product attributes highlighted are the images of him as an anti-corruption crusader fighting against formidable odds, a man who listens to the people, etc.

It worked, didn’t it?

Now I am wondering who first thought of those tag-lines “Work with me, not for me” and “Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang“. And was it any wonder that Abdullah focussed on combating corruption and reforming the police as the main planks of his programme.

I wonder if the Barisan Nasional has already appointed its ad agencies for the coming election and if they have already begun their “market research” to find out the issues that matter to you and me so that they can better mould public opinion through their next election media blitz.