by Jee Wan
Aug 6, 10
Kee Thuan Chye , a stubbornly patriotic writer, journalist, editor,playwright, and occasional actor, allows a peep into what makes him tick and what does not, particularly where big brother is concerned.
Jee Wan:Firstly, congratulations on the upcoming new edition of ‘March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up’. What started your involvement in politics?
Kee:Thanks. It may actually turn out to be a new book called ‘March 8: Time for Real Change’.
My political awakening occurred right after I graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia when I personally suffered the effects of the New Economic Policy (NEP). I wanted to pursue my Masters but I wasn’t able to afford it unless I could get a tutor’s position. I applied, but didn’t get it – even though I was top in my class. It was given to someone else. So I had to go out and work.
Eventually, I was hired by The National Echo as literary editor. Part of my duties included writing editorials. During that time, I was able to write quite scathingly about political matters.
I remember one of my editorials criticised Mahathir Mohamad for warning that Malaysia would “shoot” the Vietnamese boat people if they tried to land on our shores. He later insisted that he said “shoo”, but I could already see then what kind of a guy we were dealing with.
I became more politically sensitised when I moved from Penang to Kuala Lumpur in the late 1970s, from The National Echo to the New Straits Times. In the capital, I began to see more sharply the contradictions in our society.
At the time, the social re-engineering that had come into place after 1969 was beginning to show its effects. They became more pronounced in the early 1980s when Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister.
Working at the NST made me see more clearly that things were going towards an authoritarian direction. I got numerous memos from my editor-in-chief for trying to push the parameters and opening up public discourse on ‘sensitive’ issues.
The most pressing issue then was race and how it had been politicised to divide the people. Mahathir was also showing signs of being increasingly dictatorial; he would tolerate no criticism of him in the media.
What I couldn’t express through the newspaper I eventually expressed in a play. Entitled ’1984 Here and Now’; it spoke out frankly against Big Brother and institutionalised racial discrimination. It played to full houses in 1985 because it brought up issues of the day that people were afraid to discuss publicly. Those who came were surprised that it had obtained a permit to be staged.
I have since gone on to write more political plays. One of them, ‘The Big Purge’, brazenly satirises Mahathir (left) and Operation Lalang.
What was your most difficult assignment?
Kee: My most difficult assignment has been my entire journalistic career in the mainstream media!
Except in The National Echo, I’ve had to battle my bosses and, as a result, been punished, marginalised, shut out. It’s not something I would recommend to anybody – because if you work for a company, you should ideally not be fighting it. But I’ve always felt that journalism is not like a lot of other professions.
As a journalist, you also have a responsibility to the public – to inform them of the truth. And certainly not to spin – in order to save someone’s skin or to spew propaganda or to create the illusion that all is well with the country when it’s not. The last-mentioned is the most sinful type of spin!
A newspaper is not a public relations rag; it should uphold journalistic ideals and principles. If you work in a newspaper that goes against these ideals, what do you do? Accept it, shut up and just do what you’re told? Then you wouldn’t be fulfilling your responsibility to your readers and the society at large. What’s worse is doing what you’re told to do even though you know it’s wrong.
What are the challenges of being a political writer?
Kee: One of the challenges is making yourself clear in your writing so that you’re not misunderstood. Another is being consistent in your stand on certain things. Unlike the current Malaysian government, you can’t afford to perform flip-flops!
You are accountable for whatever you write, and a piece of writing that you wrote 20 years can come back and haunt you if the stand you took on a particular issue then turns out to be the direct opposite of your current stand.
Of course, opinions and beliefs can change over time, but you’ll still be flayed for the turnaround. This is an occupational hazard of political writers. In this regard, they are considered to be less than human!
You also have to be careful that you don’t libel anyone, which means you have to be sure of your facts and have evidence to support what you say.
In Malaysia, the additional challenges for a political writer are the numerous laws that discourage free speech. Every time you write a political piece, you have to be mindful that it is not seditious. Then your friends, out of concern, remind you that there is such a thing as the ISA so you’d better be circumspect. That’s because Malaysians have been so conditioned by fear for so long.
If you’re writing for a mainstream publication, you’ll be reminded you can’t knock the prime minister or his senior ministers. You might be cited incidents when the editor-in-chief was summoned to the Home Ministry to explain why a seemingly innocuous article managed to get published in the paper. Or of the telephone calls he has been receiving from Putrajaya.
You might even be reminded of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and the need for the paper to survive that, because it has to take care of so many people who would be out of a job if the paper lost its licence.
It’s no wonder then that most who write for the mainstream media become experts in self-censorship.
I could never have survived as a political writer in the New Straits Times or The Star, which I joined in 2001. This thesis was tested (although it was not my intention to test it) in 2007 when I started a weekly political column in The Star called ‘Playing the Fool’. In my inaugural article, I wrote that I would be speaking frankly on social and political issues, instead of bullshit and all that.
The second one hit out at racial discrimination. But when it came to my third piece, the editors shook their heads and it got spiked. After I’d written my fourth and it had gone upstairs for approval, the instruction that came back down was to terminate the column! To be honest, I wasn’t surprised.
Why do you still do it?
Kee: The desire and to speak up. The need to give my views on what I feel is wrong and how things can be made right, even if it won’t count for much. And, highfalutin’ as it may sound, the desire for a better Malaysia. These are what make me do it.
You can’t underestimate how strongly people want – nay, need – to speak up. Which is why any government that tries to stifle free speech hasn’t figured it out right.
Many books have been banned or confiscated in Malaysia. How do yours remain elusive?
Kee: That’s not for me to answer. But I would say that I’m a citizen who cares for his country and would not do anything to hurt it, so whatever I write is in its best interests, as far as I perceive it. That shouldn’t be something punishable, surely?
Have you ever been detained on some ridiculous charges? How do you feel about it?
Kee: No. (Knocking on wood.)
What’s the most challenging part of writing ‘March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up’? What’s the most gratifying?
Kee: Putting it together in a mere three months – from scratch! That was a challenge. But it had to be done fast because of the topicality of the book’s subject. It was most gratifying that I had friends who responded to my call for help by contributing articles and comments. I’m greatly indebted to them for that.
What’s perhaps even more gratifying is that others who contributed were people I had never known or met before. I found out about them and approached them – and they responded positively and generously. It showed to me that they, too, cared for their country, that they wanted to see a better Malaysia, which is the central theme and intent of the book.
The other challenging things were practical or logistical, like trying to fix interviews with busy people like politicians and ministers; chasing people to meet deadlines; editing very raw material; transcribing interviews.
What do you think has and hasn’t changed in Malaysia’s journalism industry over the years?
Kee: It has become more reactionary and conservative. When I started out in the 1970s, the controls were not so tight. Even when I joined the NST in 1979, there was a strong sense of editorial integrity and a greater degree of independence (or you could call it non-interference).
It had a Chinese editor-in-chief in Lee Siew Yee, which is something that became inconceivable not long after. Everything began to be race-centred from the beginning of the 1980s. I think the ruling regime then had a lot to account for that.
It also had a lot to account for muzzling the media. Editors-in-chief at the NST had to be politically halal – approved appointees. This naturally changed the orientation and workings of the media. And if it was felt that the editor-in-chief didn’t live up to political expectations, he’d be replaced. I’m told this was what happened to Munir Majid.
Although I had numerous clashes with him, I respected and still respect him for being the best and broadest-minded editor-in-chief I’ve worked under.
What would be the three changes that you’d like to see in Malaysia?
Kee: First, a change of government at the next general election. So that we can hopefully start on a fresh, if not totally clean, slate and have a better chance of seeing real reform. The current one is only making cosmetic changes, and its not showing true commitment to reform because it’s worried about too many factors, too many interest groups.
The highest-priority change for me is the elimination of race in all our considerations and endeavours. Perhaps that could begin with the disbanding of all race-based parties to herald the decline, if not demise, of the sickening politicisation of race.
I would extend this to religion as well. PAS should, therefore, disband or reconstitute itself. And let us uphold the principle of our founding fathers in envisioning Malaysia as a secular state.
The third change will cover everything that needs to be righted from the many wrongs committed by the ruling regime over the past few decades. You might call it a change-back, e.g. the judiciary changing back to being an independent one; the negotiated contract changing back to open tenders; the appointment of local councillors changing back to elected ones; and so on.
Ever thought of emigrating?
Kee: No. Because I’ve always considered Malaysia my home. It has everything going for it, except the lousy, dirty politics. Which is profoundly sad. I can’t stay away from the country for long. When I was doing my MA in England in 1987-88, I was impatient to come home.
In fact, in the 1980s, I was actively persuading my friends not to emigrate. But eventually, I saw the point of their wanting to leave. I wrote about it in an essay called ‘All We Want Is an Even Chance’, which got published in the NST, thanks to a forward-thinking editor. The decision to publish it was, however, questioned by higher-ups after it came out. The essay is also in my book ‘Just In So Many Words’.
What’s your advice to anyone who aspires to be a political writer?
Kee: Open your eyes, think critically, be brave and write with good intentions.