What's Worth Reading in the New Straits Times
The New Straits Times is often the favourite whipping boy of media critics in Malaysia - and for good reason. Its sycophantic editorials and slanted reporting stand out more than that of any other mainstream newspaper in Malaysia. Even men like Dr. Bakri Musa, who is not prone to exaggeration, have referred to the NST as "nothing more than an UMNO Newsletter". However, it has struck me that as of late, the NST has been consistent in publishing the pieces by two men critical of the government's policies.
The first one I am speaking of is of course Brian Yap. I do not know if he is actually opposed to the government - he may be a BN supporter for all I know. That does not matter. What's important is that his columns are logical, sensible, and - I admit I must blush - sound as if I could have written them. Our political views seem to almost exactly coincide. Every time I have read a new issue of "Just Sayin'" (an oddly non-descriptive name for his column), I've felt as if someone was channeling my inner thoughts. (This is a prime example.)
I did get a bit of a recent shock, though, when I saw his latest write-up entitled Some things are better off in government hands. The very first sentence declared: "It might not be obvious but I am actually very pro-government." Oh God, I thought. I knew he was too good to be true.
Incredibly, it then turned out that I was 100% in agreement with his article! The essential gist of the piece is that we should not go about gallivanting and privatising every single damn government service, because the government exists to plug holes that the market can't. This is a sentiment I could not agree with more. At the same time, Yap took pains to give examples of cases where privatisation is justified. Such a moderate and sensible approach isn't exactly easy to find in political commentary, especially in Malaysia. Typically, one would either come out completely against privatisation, or defend it to the utmost while ignoring major problems with it.
What pleased me just as greatly was how carefully Yap had used the word "government". Implicitly, he might have even been tweaking the government's nose! Unlike most political commentators in Malaysia, Yap actually draws a distinction between the government and Barisan Nasional. This is the kind of attitude that should be held by everyone. The government is emphatically not equivalent to the Barisan Nasional, no matter what those idiots running the country claim. (For example, they have been abusing government institutions to settle party issues - such as in the case of the Cabinet ruling on the issue of party discipline amongst BN MPs.)
I only wish I still had access to the older editions of "Just Sayin'", because I really find it to be an oasis of tranquil sensibility in the tumultous insanity-driven atmosphere of Malaysian commentary. It's all the more remarkable that Yap's column is carried by the sycophantic New Straits Times.
Even more remarkable, though, is that the New Straits Times carries Amir Muhammad's satire column, dedicating a whole page to it every Thursday. I first ran into Amir Muhammad at the library, when I found a ten-year-old book (Generation: A Collection of Contemporary Malaysian Ideas) compiling some opinion pieces he had written with a couple of other (then) young writers. I thought the book was refreshingly candid in its view of Malaysian society, but thought nothing of it until Amir Muhammad made the headlines for his controversial documentary, The Last Communist.
Still, nothing got my attention as much as his weekly satire. I really and honestly find it incredible that the NST would publish satire that so sharply critiques the government and its ill-conceived policies. Of all the weapons in a political writer's arsenal, satire is the most deadly. Poorly written satire is utterly harmless, but wielded correctly, satire can expose the farcical travesties of any institution. Surely the government is not unaware of this - after all, this is why satire is so hard to find in Malaysia.
Indeed, it's probably a sad reflection on the state of our society that so many Malaysians don't even know how to recognise satire. Perusing the comments on Malaysia Today every time it publishes Amir's latest piece, I've found that probably more commentators take the column at face value than those who appreciate its witty razor-sharp criticism of the government. I've even stumbled on angry, serious references to an ostensibly incompetent government official, "Derus Mat Top", who is a fictional creation of Amir Muhammad's.
Unfortunately, I can't find many archives of the satire column online. There is this priceless gem, however. Read the comments as well - you're sure to find them entertaining. This is more of a social commentary, but it's also worth a read.
In my view, it's very unfortunate that we're so deprived of good satire in Malaysia. Nothing can better expose the utter ludicrosity or ridiculousness of a situation than satire. Most people keep their guards up when reading political commentary. It takes mirthful laughter to break down the barriers to people's minds - and once their minds are open, they will realise the sheer insanity of the whole thing simply by the implicit juxtaposition of reality with the satirical world.
You may think the NST is a worthless newspaper. I don't blame you. Often, all it carries is meaningless platitudes by the government or its mouthpieces, or worse, outright propaganda. But nevertheless, even if you insist on avoiding the NST, do try to follow the columns by Brian Yap and Amir Muhammad. It will truly be worth your while.