Civility in the US, vitriol in Penang

Making Sens
By Tan Siok Choo
26th July 2010

A CIVIL servant makes a speech. Heavily edited and later publicised, the speech makes the speaker appear racially biased. Journalists and politicians suggest the civil servant should be sacked. After the civil servant resigns, the full speech is published showing its theme of racial reconciliation had been turned into a racist rant.

This incident happened not in Penang but in the US. Nevertheless, last week’s fiasco involving Shirley Sherrod, state director of rural development in Georgia, provides a useful counterpoint to the spat between Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and State Development Officer (SDO) Nik Ali Mat Yunus.

In the US, Sherrod’s speech was edited by a conservative group to suggest she had discriminated against a white farmer. Last Monday, Fox News Channel aired the edited excerpt and host Bill O’Reilly called for Sherrod’s resignation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack obliged and asked Sherrod to leave.

However, the unedited version of Sherrod’s speech showed the black civil servant had helped the white farmer and was recounting the experience to illustrate that race should never be considered in dealings with others.

Thereafter, President Barack Obama telephoned the US Agriculture Department employee to express his regret over her forced resignation while Vilsack offered Sherrod his apologies and a unique new position in the department.

In contrast to the furore in Penang, one aspect of the Sherrod imbroglio stands out. Although the exchanges in the US were heated, they were civilised. Apart from labelling Sherrod a racist, name calling was notably absent. This contrasts with the volleys of verbal vitriol in Penang between Nik Ali and Guan Eng.

This prompts several questions: Is civility now an endangered trait in Malaysia? Why isn’t it possible for two persons to disagree without being disgustingly disagreeable?

Instead of being an intellectual exchange of views, why has public discourse in this country become increasingly foul mouthed? In Parliament, for example, name-calling seldom prompts any serious censure.

One printable epithet used is “monkey”. But if news reports are to be believed, one member of Parliament has used the f-word in proceedings and demonstrated his familiarity with lewd gestures.

Admittedly, Nik Ali was provoked by Guan Eng who described him as “incompetent, useless, unprofessional and a coward and should be sacked”. Why wasn’t it possible for Nik Ali to respond calmly, forcefully and politely?

Instead, Nik Ali ratcheted up the bile by lambasting the chief minister as biadab (disrespectful) and dayus (coward).

Again, Sherrod’s forced ouster is instructive. By agreeing to resign instead of challenging her political masters over an unjust decision or indulging in invective, Sherrod has proven herself the quintessential civil servant.

What the vituperation in Penang obscures is a major issue of interest to investors, whether local or foreign – the delineation of authority between a state government and the federal government as represented by the SDO.

Guan Eng has criticised Nik Ali’s role in three projects – the arches in the Botanical Gardens that had to be demolished, the Penang Hill funicular train service and the alleged sand mining in Balik Pulau.

While Nik Ali and his defenders claim these issues are not within the SDO’s jurisdiction, no information has been given on which entity is the proper authority.

Furthermore, the timing of the Penang spat is inopportune. Released last Thursday, the World Investment Report 2010 (WIR 2010) showed foreign direct investment (FDI) in Malaysia tumbled by 81.1% to just US$1.38 billion last year, the biggest fall among the Asean nine countries. Brunei’s FDI was not included in WIR 2010.

So precipitate was the slide in US dollar terms, Malaysia’s FDI last year was the third lowest among the Asean nine – surpassing only Laos and Cambodia.

That Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam managed to secure US$4.5 billion to US$6 billion in FDI in a financially challenging global environment underscores their increasing attractiveness to foreign investors. Even the Philippines, despite its multiple problems, managed to secure marginally more FDI than Malaysia.

Furthermore, any attempt by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) to undermine Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in Selangor and Penang – the two most industrialised states in this country – could be counter-productive, economically and politically.

A fractious relationship between BN and PR in Selangor and Penang could prompt foreign investors to opt for other countries rather than run the risk of being the beefburger in any tussle between Putrajaya and the state government.

Politically, in the next general election, obstruction by the federal government – whether perceived or real – will provide an excellent excuse for PR’s shortcomings in governing Penang and

  1. #1 by HJ Angus on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 1:13 am

    Aaaahh…. but in Malaysia the main operating word for both the Bankrupsi Negara regime and those recalcitrant civil servants is “Ketuanan”

  2. #2 by monsterball on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 2:58 am

    Sensitive….yet thick skinned corrupted racist.
    Proud….yet nothing to be proud about.
    Many UMNO B Parliamentarians do not do what the are elected for.
    Most are wasting time and finding opportunities to insult and judge PR guys at work.
    How to compare these low class politicians to US ones.
    US politicians makes mistakes and apologize.
    Our government thinks their grandfathers owns the country and wealth to do as they like.
    This is a Dictatorship country with no real freedom.
    The double standards…openly practiced…yet publicly promoting “1Malaysia” as if all are equal.
    UMNO B Parliamentarians are robbers and thieves with no fear for decades and will never change…for the change… spells the end of their party.
    Now they go all out to steal hundreds of billions to buy votes and loyalties.
    It is sickening o keep repeating what they ar..but it musty be done…again and again to make sure Malaysians do not easily forget murders …deals made to suck off billions.
    Can you imagine RM500 million commission given by Najib…no actions taken by MACC and yet MACC keep telling us…they are fair and just.
    MACC is just a name…spoiling the reputation of our country go all stamp out corruptions which they are supposed to do.
    Making scapegoats and rounding out small fishes are what we see everyday.
    Concerning…Port Klang Free Zone RM12.4 billion ripped off….all know it was Mahathir and MCA
    Ling Liong Sik are to bear the responsibilities.
    Can you imagine such magnitude ripped off…are done without the Minister of Transport and PM knowledge?
    How to compare US and Malaysia?
    US is democratic. Malaysia is divide to rule with jungle laws.

  3. #3 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 4:33 am

    Why can’t we be civil? Because we are still basically uncivilised in many ways. Many still have ‘third world mentality’ as some senior politicians have said.

    Some still go round with chips on their shoulders, continually demanding their ‘rights’ and shares like insecure bullies.

    Some politicians come from backwater environments which account for their animal-like crudeness and mannerisms.

    We still got a lot of growing up and evolving to do.

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 4:35 am

    In the big picture, just how senior or junior is a SDO?

  5. #5 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 5:20 am

    It takes brains and humility to be civil.

    Does Nik the SDO have either, both or none?

    Isn’t it obvious?

  6. #6 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 8:04 am

    this is how our ketuanan datuk goons win arguments.
    1) kalau tak suka, keluarlah dari malaysia
    2) ini HAK saya. HAK!!!
    3) you punya nenek pelacur dan beggar.

    so what can we expect from ali when we have such excellent BN MPs? Non of them even fit to be civil servants of zimbabwe.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 8:43 am

    Of course our public debates & use of language are not as “civilized” as in the US but that’s hardly the “lesson” to be drawn from Shirley Sherrod’ “imbroglio”!

    The Americans might be “polite” in public spat when compared to (say) Malaysians but they -well at least some of them- could be just as unscrupulous and unethical, couched under hypocrisy of civil/intellectual debate.

    For example, Sherrod was forced to resign because conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart brought to public attention in CNN selective video excerpts of what Sherrod said in relation to a white farmer (Roger Spooner)’s request for her help against foreclosure of his farm land, skewing what she said (out of context) as racist – which in fact what she did and said was helpful to the white farmer and transcending race. After the famer and his wife had come out open in CNN to refute Andrew Breitbart’s allegations and defend Sherrod, Obama personaly apologised and Dept of Agriculture offered her a new appointment!

    There’s some point of similarities/differences between theirs and ours.

    The similarity is that race is still a crucial factor always lurking beneath the surface. The Obama administration is sensitive to insecurities of white Americans fearful that a black president (notwithstanding black only in skin and “white” everything else) and the racial diversity in his appointments in the administration will tilt the racial balance of power against traditional White dominance/privilege in favour of Black.

    So in not investigating Sherrod’s full side of the story in the first instance and peremptorily demanding her resignation, Obama administration’s response was a form of reverse discrimination against Sherrod being black to avert and preempt white backlash (real or imagined).

    Obama was quick to apologise when his administration’s mistake came to light. That’s one thing good about them. Here we don’t see our PM apologising for any wrong doing.

    Another difference is that whilst race is always a conscious divide, even in the US, as in here, however there (in the US) equality of race and opportunity is institutionalised and discrimination on racial grounds is illegalised and publicly condemned (as Sherrod’s case illustrates). If racial consideration were a motivation in any act, it has to be camouflaged in the US under some excuse to avoid the full brunt of law and public opinion whereas here, racial discrimination in the name of affirmative policies is sanctified by constitution, law and policies sanctified as natural repercussions of national history! In the US however they reversed their history – of black slavery when in Abraham Lincoln’s time whites fought whites in civil war for dignity of the blacks! That’s the big point of difference!

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 8:44 am

    Continuing from preceding post:

    In context of our FDIs plunging 81%, Tan Siok Choo said that a major issue of interest (or repugnance) to investors is the unclear “delineation of authority between a state government and the federal government as represented by the SDO” highlighted by LGE/Nik Ali’s spat.

    This is not really true in full sense. World Investment Report 2010 (WIR 2010) measured 2009 against 2010 and LGE/Nik Ali’s spat was too recent to have significant impact of the developing situation.

    I am inclined to think (rightly or wrongly) that investors, who take a long view to their investments, seek stability and are repugnant to perceived flip flop government’s policies. They wonder whats happening and who is running the show. When the supposedly inclusive 1 Malaysia was first being espoused by the administration there was an immediate proliferation and backlash of pro 2 Malaysia’s groups & NGOs patronised by a former PM that current administration dares not alienate and indeed has to appease! They also wonder : will there be stability if, in next election, PR wins – will present BN relinguish power gracefully? And if PR does not win but does better than 308, will this neck-to neck balance of power augur well for political stability and will there be more episodes like the Perak constitutional tussel spreading? Meanwhile what happens if Anwar were convicted of sodomy II and incarcerated – will there be reformasi street protests etc? Hundred and One uncertainties. Not only FDIs avoiding, even the rich locals are hedging their risks by having their capital take flight (see UBS last year report). We’re at the end talking of the “X” factor of Confidence or lack thereof based on perception and forcast, real or imagined.

    Tan Siok Choo, a good journalist, of impeccable political (MCA) pedigree has woven an oblique story line using LGE/Nik Ali’s spat and comparing it with the Americans’ more civil public debate about Shirly Sherrod.

    And even if the lessons of Sherrod’s affair drawn (“Civility in US, Vitriol min Penang”) are not that salutary or significant to us, it however serves her purpose of highlighting by way of oblique connection this symptom of what she calls “a fractious relationship between BN and PR in Selangor and Penang” and from there further allude the connection of World Investment Report 2010 (WIR 2010) with what she calls the “attempt by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) to undermine Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in Selangor and Penang”.

    What a roundabout way to express our predicament. The lesson here is that a journalist, no matter how good and astute or spooked by the political developments in the country, has to be equally “polite” and extraordinarily circumspect and guarded in what she criticises of powers-that-be. The writer has to use oblique references under the veil of not so apt illustrations to address her real concerns and make her underlying point – an unfortunate indictment of the state of our journalism here (manacled by the Printing Press Publication Act) when writers criticising the establishment have to tread gingerly at the edge avoid getting summoned to show cause why the writer and the publication should not be suspended!

  9. #9 by dagen on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 9:09 am

    Having a depleting source of money gives one a tricky situation. We have progressed thus far with money – petrol money and for a long time money brought in by foreigners. We did not develop our technologies. We just acquire them from elsewhere. Petrol is running out soon. The one rich new oil field we has been given away to brunei. And foreigners are not coming with their funds. Over the years our own businesses too have grown. And they too are not re-investing. Not in the country. Not at the rate and in the amount necessary to push the economy. Worse, they are leaving the country. There is also another source of problem. Corruption monies. They are always paid in foreign countries or taken out of the country. Look at taib’s multi-billion worth of properties in us, canada and uk. At least car thieves, illegal sports bookies, drug peddlers and other criminals spend their money locally and that helps.

    Tell you wot. Come GE13 even johorean chinese will abandon BN, esp mca. That is when mca can finally be consigned to the museum. Sabah and sarawak no longer (at this point in time) like a certain winner for umno anymore. Oh yes. Some malays may return to umno. Some hindraf people may go back to barisan. In my view they are not enough to salvage umno’s position. Dont forget the new voters. Whilst umno enjoys little certainty that new voters would vote barisan, pakatan in contrast enjoys a support of recognisable size amongst the new people.

  10. #10 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 9:13 am

    Wow! Tan Siew Sin’s daughter showing the same teeth and class his old man had. No wonder I thought this was a great intellectual question (I did not know at first).

    Why the lack of civility? Most notable, while Nik Ali was the one who crossed the verbal civility line first, preceded by actions that cross other proper lines, LGE also did cross the lines in the end.

    The reason that LGE crossed the lines ultimately is easy to understand, he has the entire federal and even within part of the state machinery/system against him that he should have been able to rely on in a proper system. He and his co-horts have very few arsenal to defend themselves in the battle of wills much less win it.

    But what really triggered it is the fact that unlike in Parliament where the system still has some modicum of control, the public space, the space we share and entrust our govt/public institutions with now is not about rules and procedures but about power – raw, uncivilised, banal power. Its true for LGE but its also true for Nik Ali.

    Nik Ali crossed the lines basically because he felt the impotence of the system he see himself as part of and consumed by the desired to exercise power. In other words, he did it because he wanted power and he did not feel powerful enough unless he crossed the line. He did not think of the rules, procedure and proprietary,he thought only about power and result of power.

    In other words the breakdown of civility is in line with the breakdown of rule of law, justice and institutions that upheld them. Nik Ali knows the system he is part of is lawless and weak institutionally and cannot protect his wrong doings which he has been used to for a long time. He lost faith, panic and lashed out. Its systematic breakdown of a unjust and obsolete system.

    That is the difference between the two cases – the US have a proper system and OURs is breaking up.

  11. #11 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 9:22 am

    Tan Siok Choo very smart lah n also jaga diri, does not want 2 b ISAed mah 4 her own safety
    Also, must score points with her bosses

  12. #12 by Dap man on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 9:25 am

    It is a fact that a lowly Malay civil servant DOES NOT respect his non-Malay superior. Ask any non-Malay headmasters or department heads. In any case Chinese/Indian bosses are almost non-existent nowadays.

    The Chief Secretary did not defend a civil servant. He defended a Malay against a Chinese.

    One must be an idiot not to see this as such.

    In any dispute the non-Malay will always lose out to a Malay.
    Ask any non Malay student. Find out what happens in the schools.
    This is Tanah Melayu, remember..

  13. #13 by frankyapp on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 11:31 am

    To say this is Tanah Melayu is being extreme to the highest and will very well create racial convict. The malays must know that they do not solely own this land,it’s the people’s land and the people are malaysians. I think parents whose children are subject to such poisoning in school should take immediate step to report it to the PTA and collectively report it to the MOE.

  14. #14 by AhPek on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 12:51 pm

    “In any dispute the non-Malay will always lose out to a Malay…………………………..
    This is Tanah Melayu,remember..”.Dap man.

    You see that’s the thing we always felt for some reason (maybe due to constant drumming that this is Tanah Melayu,the land of the Malays) psychologically beholden to the Malays who have made themselves Bumiputras.
    But do you know,according to the most recent “Out Of Africa” Theory based on mitochondrial DNA all of us on this planet are Bumiputras of Africa but are pendatangs
    in all the land outside of Africa.
    So why must non Malay kowtow to anyone just because he says he is bumiputra! As citizens we should have equal opportunities
    and rights under the Malaysian sun!

  15. #15 by jason.wong on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 2:16 pm

    Just look at the background and qualification(s) of some the MPs and State Assemblymen, how could they do the job of professionals?! Governing and country is like managing and Multi-National Company, it needs passion, responsibility, accountability, integrity and most of all a functioning brain that is just and impartial. Most of the politicians in Malaysia do not have them, not even the morals of a just and fair human being, and even paper qualifications are a mystery. They running on luck and fear, and it is fast depleting and are now scared shitless what is going to happen! That is why they are relying of dirty tricks.

    These so call politicians, should really go back to Secondary school and study their Sejarah Malaysia before opting to become politicians…

  16. #16 by House Victim on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 3:32 pm

    I believe the difference of the two countries should be viewed from the differences in Cultural, Mentality, Law and Administration.

    1. Voice of the People in US carries weight while the Voice of Malaysians can be battered by ISA and ignored by the Administration even their Voice are Loud and Clear. Even a small staff in the Government can ignore because they know they can gang-up and protected from top to bottom!!

    2. US people know and can exercise their Rights. Malaysians can easily be abused by Police, KUP, AG, Court and Judges even all of them have duties to see Law and Justice to be practiced.

    3. Those being criticized in US are self-conscious even they may not be named. But, Malaysian defaulters only care if they can cover-up or have the power or means to go over it. The administration or the system so involved are so ganged-up that they are “vocie” proof or even if court cased!!

    4. Duties of the Malaysian Administration can always be ignored and no action taken. Therefore, the Voice has to be louder and louder in the hope to seek understanding from others.

    5. US administration cares about their Reputation and performance as it is what they can used to get power for the sake of their People being their Boss!
    Malaysian Administration care not as the Law cannot punish them with the Block of the AG and their manipulation of Courts and Judges. Malaysians are “slaved” under the Constition and many care not as their voice are oftenly supressed and ignored.
    US administration will be shamed if they do not act properly.
    Malaysian Administration care not even if they are shamed!!
    For years, the problems of Wangsa Baiduri have been voiced regarding
    a) the mis-appropriation of PKNS on the Reserved Land of Subang Water Retention Pond to build Condo.
    b) The loss of Club facilities for the residents to become a Hotel under the Developer’s sister company
    c) the manipulation by Director of land & mine in playing concert with the Developer in delaying the issue of Strata Titles, and allowing the convert of Condo into Apartment in silent without listing out the rightful facilities. But, she was named a Datuk even she continuously refused to reply to complaints or act on the MC when the later had violations on elections and management of the MC.
    d) the Loss of Subang Jaya Town Park into the hand of Sime UEP.
    e) The bully of the “Condo” MC in not provding audited account from day 1 and conducted the necessary taken over of fund and facilities.
    f) the bully of MPPJ/MPSJ to continue approval of Wangsa Baiduri with the ignoring of providing the Common Facilities to the Project and over-approving of housing units and…..

    When Laws and Ethincs are not running in Malaysia for the last 20-30years or more, can we expect Civility?

    If the three cases that LGE had wrongly accusing Nik Ali, then Nik should have rebut who should be responsible and game over.

    LGE should take the necessary administration proceeding if Nik Ali has defaults in the three cases.

    However, if even big scandal such as Corruption of PM, PKFZ and many others cannot be seen properly conducted at Parliament level, what else can we expect on this LGE-Nik Ali case?

    Rules and Regulations are simply not practiced in Malaysia!!

    When the Rights of a house owner, the Rights of a Legal Clients, Rights of the Civilian cannot not be properly respected in this Boleh Land, the Civil Servants should be held responsible!!

    They had made the whole Malaysia Vitriol!!

  17. #17 by jus legitimum on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 - 6:39 pm

    This is really a lawless country where double standards is applied everywhere.Obviously this is the result of 50 overs years of mismanagement intermingled with using racial,discriminatory,biased and many other inappropriate means by those in power.Just ponder whether there is any future in this country if there is no drastic change to the more than 5 decade old political system that has caused so much dissatisfaction to the people.

  18. #18 by tunglang on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 - 10:05 pm

    To kill the 2 geese that lay the golden eggs, yet expecting to collect more golden eggs is the mentality of sick, extreme fear-led-psychotic and suicidal-inspired-self destruct of a regime that doesn’t care about its people welfare and country’s future.

    This nation can thrive and survive only by collective productivity, cooperation, mutual respect and fairness of national distribution of wealth and rewards.

    To punish a state for the sake of political divide and discrimination is utter foolishness which our enemies would gladly see to its end.

    What will you collect at the end of the day when these 2 geese no longer provide the much needed FDIs and tax revenues? Think wisely, dude!

  19. #19 by tunglang on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 - 10:15 pm

    This applies to discrimination against wise, capable and competent leaders in the PR who have shown remarkable results in state management and state policies.

    Multinationals are so impressed with LGE’s performance and credentials, they trust their investments in the safe hands of Penang’s CM. Where can you get that much of international confidence going to other states?

    Shouldn’t the leadership give sincere support to these PR leaders of the geese that lay the golden eggs?

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