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Distortion, Bias and Emotion

Malaysian political discourse is clouded by the emotions and bias of pigheaded people, whether from the government or opposition ranks. Finding people who are willing to reason is always difficult, but it seems to be particularly so in Malaysia.

Written by johnleemk on 11:11:16 am Mar 8, 2007.

While casually browsing through some Wikipedia discussion pages yesterday, I found an interesting discussion between a couple of Malaysian editors. One had put up a statement on his userpage, declaring that his intention was to focus on non-political articles, because of the excessive focus placed on political aspects of Malaysian society to date by Wikipedians.

In response to this, another editor placed a message on the guy's public user discussion page, asking about his political views and stating that he felt that Wikipedia's political articles about Malaysia were biased because of their reliance on Western sources.

The original fellow's response merely focused on the problem of bias in Malaysian political articles, which I think most Malaysian Wikipedians find annoying. Most of these problems stem from anonymous editors, who are usually marching locked in step with the usual ideology spread by the blogosphere — anti-government, pro-opposition, and subject to almost as much spin as that of the mainstream media.

The brief discussion got me thinking, though. Why must we be so reliant on emotions instead of reason to determine our political views, to determine what is neutral and what is not?

Take the original complaint, for example — the insinuation that the West does not understand Malaysian politics, and can't be relied on as a source. This is a presumption that many Malaysians would probably make, but it's totally false.

The most prominent Wikipedia article about Malaysian politics is almost certainly on the topic of ketuanan Melayu. It also has over a hundred endnotes, and many of its references are written by non-Malaysians.

To assume, however, that this means that the article is biased is rather silly. One of the foremost authorities on Malaysian politics, Gordon P. Means, was born and bred in Malaysia. Even though he does not have Malaysian citizenship (I think) and his works are mainly published by insitutions like Oxford University Press, his views are basically that of a Westerner who is extremely familiar with Malaysian society.

It's also quite wrong to simply put aside the large number of Malaysian sources. It is quite difficult, for example, to argue that Dr. Bakri Musa has an anti-Malaysian bias, since he himself is a Malaysian (albeit one living in the US), and maintains an active interest in Malaysian politics and society.

Rejecting out of hand the statements of fact about ketuanan Melayu simply because they were recorded and referenced by Western, as opposed to Malaysian sources is simply ludicrous. People get emotional about the issue, and resort to irrational defences of it, simply because of how they feel rather than how they think.

Nevertheless, as irritated as I am by the denial of those who would view ketuanan Melayu as a mundane, trivial detail, I am also irritated by the extremist stands taken by those at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Let's return to the blogosphere again. One might find this surprising, but almost all of the unhelpful edits made to articles like the one about ketuanan Melayu are those attempting to insinuate and insert an anti-Malay or pro-Chinese point of view. Malay vandalism is almost impossible to find, although those supporting a Malay point of view have spoken out in discussion pages.

The lack of moderation and apparent enthusiasm for mindlessly taking the opposite stance of whatever the government or establishment stand is makes the blogosphere no less biased or partial than the mainstream media.

That's not to say that there aren't responsible bloggers who take time to think about the issues of the day before committing their thoughts and opinions to paper/hard drive. But these people are vastly outnumbered by those who have nothing better to do than harp on some racist comment Najib Tun Razak made two decades ago, whether or not it's actually relevant to the topic at hand.

This bias is very unhelpful to the political atmosphere and contributes to the chilling effect on public discourse. Because if you share similar views with these nutheads, you end up lumped in the same category as them, many prefer to keep quiet instead of stating their opinion, even if they can rationally justify it.

I still recall what happened when my interview in the Off the Edge magazine was published last year. I was asked a question on the controversial racial policies of the government.

(Now, this by no means would be controversial in the blogosphere — heatedly disputed, of course, but not really provoking and controversial as it is par for the course to criticise how the government has approached the ethnic question.)

My response was one of moderation, accepting the political realities we have to deal with, but maintaining that the Malays and Malaysia would be much better served by a more equitable policy that lent particular emphasis to a bottom-up approach, instead of simply providing blanket subsidies.

I still remember one friend expressing her astonishment at the interview when it came out. She was amazed that someone could be so critical of the status quo, while yet sounding reasonable (and harmless) enough to be published in the mainstream media.

Reasoned discourse is the key to establishing a beachhead for true and formidable commentary and debate that can pave the way for greater things for Malaysia. Extremism has its virtues, especially when it is grounded in reason, but in most cases, there is an inverse correlation between rationality and extremism.

It should not be extremist to be critical of the government's policies. One should not be labeled as an anti-government nuthead simply for pointing out flaws in how this country is run. And yet, that is exactly where we are today — no thanks to those fools who can't contribute anything more than image captions like "UMNO Youth Chief Saddam Hussein drooling over a cock fantasy while holding a phallic object."

Distortion and bias are unfortunately aspects of any form of political discourse. But we can reduce their impact by emphasising the need to value reason over emotion. Only then can we prove ourselves worthy of the title "civilised", and only then can we prove ourselves worthy of the freedom of speech we aspire to.