Caution that can apply both ways

From the Singapore Straits Times

JULY 5 — When Malaysia’s High Commissioner to Singapore lamented about the coverage given by some media here to certain Malaysian political personalities, it signalled just how important yet fragile the bilateral relationship can be — and how dependent on personalities.

Writing to the Today newspaper earlier this week, Datuk N. Parameswaran said he was perturbed about parts of a June 27 article which quoted two Malaysians commenting negatively on Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, the 57-year-old wife of Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Describing it as “a naughty line to take”, he said the media should “treat with much more circumspection, allegations or innuendoes that clearly seek to damage the character and reputation of a particular Malaysian VIP”.

Implicit in his comment was a quiet but clear word of caution: Rosmah is not any mere political personality.

If anyone needs reminding, her husband is the choice of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to succeed him, although no firm time frame has been set for a handover.

Should Najib, who is also Defence Minister, find himself unable to be in a position to attend the annual gathering in Singapore next year of defence and security officials, he, the high commissioner himself, would be sad, he said.

“I say this because I believe that it is personalities who determine the state of relations between two countries,” declared the high commissioner, who is due to be posted back to Kuala Lumpur in a few months’ time.

Singaporeans who have had experience of the ebb and flow of the bilateral relationship over the years will understand and agree fully with him.

Indeed, few will dispute the role that personalities can have in shaping bilateral ties.

The way he couched his letter to Today — as a “personal plea from a soon-outgoing high commissioner”, all courtesy and gentleness, rather than, say, as a peremptory missive — attests too to his emphasis on personal ties.

Overall, therefore, I think most in the media here understand Parameswaran’s point of view, and can sympathise with him.

Having said that, however, I would add that there are other parties that would also benefit from Parameswaran’s words of caution.

I have in mind the media in Malaysia itself, both the print and online versions, some of which have, in recent times, shown no qualms about the way in which they portray the goings-on here in Singapore, and the political personalities involved.

There has been no shortage of strident barbs, cartooning and a continued view among some columnists — historical baggage in tow — that Singapore and its political leaders still need to be put in their proper place.

I see no parallel occurring in the media here. And it’s not from a lack of opportunity to do so — especially, given the recent developments up north.

That absence, I think, reflects, as Parameswaran himself pointed out, the need to be circumspect in such matters.

It reflects, too, an understanding of not only the personalities, but also of the backdrop and context in which developments are taking place: the audience before which a particular drama is unfolding.

For this has been, to put it mildly, a fascinating week for anyone reading media reports about what has been going on at some of the highest levels of the political leadership in Malaysia.

There have been assertions, claims and counter-claims, all made loudly and boldly by politicians, officials and others — and carried in the mainstream and new media with little restraint.

Through these very open and public displays, it is not just Malaysians, but others in the region and beyond, who are getting a fuller measure of the players in a political drama that, even today, continues to unfold with new twists and turns.

It does not require the services of the foreign media to add spice to the mix.

The actions by players in Malaysia themselves, more than what gets reported abroad, will more likely influence how others make their calculations and determine what their responses, if any, should be to the developments taking place there.

At the end of the day, it remains imperative for the media to sift through the masses of information — and disinformation — and discern between what is rumour and gossip, and what is fact.

What must remain important for the media on both sides is that each, using the vast resources at its disposal, must be diligent and exercise accuracy, fairness and neutrality in their coverage of developments on the other side of the Causeway.

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