The decision by the editorial board of the Malaysian Star newspaper to publish a full letter containing inter alia a comprehensive motherhood statement by the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Malaysia on January 1, 2020, was a startling development.
January 1, 2020, was not just any other day especially in Malaysia where much expectation and enthusiasm has been generated about that date almost thirty years earlier about the possible realisation of Vision 2020. On that date, Malaysia was expected to have moved to approximate First World status.
For most Malaysians who remember clearly the commanding narrative created about this date, the stark reality of today’s polarised Malaysia is disappointing. It was similar to the Y2K nonevent at the beginning of the new millennium.
The Star newspaper’s institutional memory about this date must be voluminous and valuable for research purposes.
For this and other reasons, I scrutinised the content of that day’s Star with great anticipation.
It was somewhat of an anticlimax to read the letter of the PRC ambassador. By any stretch of the imagination would any newspaper or portal accord similar treatment to the Malaysian ambassador in Beijing?
The Star is the most widely read mainstream English newspaper in the country with a daily circulation of more than 350 thousand and a readership that is at least five times that number. It is not a non-mainstream news portal. Newspapers are read for a number of reasons and some read them to improve their English and general knowledge. It follows that the printed word enjoys some authority in the minds of the young and impressionable and even some of the older generation.
The instant message of the PRC ambassador conveys cordial new year greetings and good wishes from the embassy of the PRC in Kuala Lumpur and goes on to update on recent political and economic developments in his country, his country’s policies, the state of Malaysia- China relations, the implicit, integral and imminent ‘centenary’ (1921-2020) goal when the Chinese Communist Party was founded and successfully accomplished a ‘moderately prosperous society and eradicated poverty.’
The ambassador’s concluding line expresses the hope that the world community ‘will hold high the torch of multilateralism, banish the dark clouds of unilateralism and, ultimately, usher in clear skies of common development, peace and stability for the world and all of mankind.’
This 700-word letter is not an advertorial but one that is carried in the Star’s letters page. This is a privilege that the Star can accord to anyone writing to their news portal subject to their own guidelines. It is published entirely at the discretion of the newspaper.
By according the PRC ambassador this rare privilege and platform the Star is certainly according to the PRC pride of place. Can this privilege be extended on equal, comparable and similar terms to other heads of missions in Malaysia? Most of these countries established their embassies in Kuala Lumpur well before the Chinese embassy was set up. Some of these countries stood with Malaysia through its darkest times in the 1950s and 1960s.
If the Star newspaper can accord this access to the PRC , it would mean that the heads of other diplomatic missions must work hard and cultivate the newspaper’s senior editorial management so that they can also qualify for such access and coverage.
Beyond that, this devotion of 700-word space gratis to the PRC ambassador may have other nuances.
It suggests that the country’s leading English newspaper is either deeply deferential, trusting or even perhaps unquestioning of the PRC and welcomes this obviously unedited letter from that country’s ambassador with its veiled attacks on other countries with which Malaysia has equally important diplomatic relations.
For such reasons alone the Star will not be able to perhaps accord similar treatment to other countries, including its closest ASEAN and ASEAN Plus allies. The logical extension of such policy is that the Star is confident that there will be no backlash or repercussions.
I sincerely believe there will be repercussions because other countries’ heads of Mission are likely to be deeply concerned at this departure from a long-standing and hallowed policy of not allowing our newspapers to be used by any country to attack, criticise or denigrate a third country. Malaysia has had such guidelines in order to protect our nonaligned and neutral status and avoid being drawn into the conflicts between other countries.
This decision by the Star to carry not a short note of clarification but broad and pointed policy statements is troubling as it sets a new unsustainable precedent. It is certainly not the case that in the new and freer Malaysia such leeway is being granted to the press and media. The Star’s action is thus hopefully a slip-up or an aberration. It is more irksome and moot to provide such preferential treatment to any other country because that historic date January 1, 2020, has now passed. The Star cannot realistically accord coequal parity to another country.
In other countries, some newspapers are unabashedly supportive of certain countries’ party line. Israel is one country that enjoys such a status in some countries. This is obtained by bribing, bullying and buttering up editorial establishments. In Malaysia, our newspapers have observed an unwritten code of conduct that no foreign head of a diplomatic mission can conduct propaganda activities using our press and media.
Foreign policy is a difficult and demanding area to manage and the Star’s obvious partiality is borne out in this matter. The prime minister himself in a reference to the PRC had spoken of the impossibility of censuring China because China was a powerful country. This was affirmed by Dr Mahathir in late September 2019.
With reference to the silence on the alleged mistreatment of the Uighur community by China Malaysiakini had quoted the prime minister as saying‘ You don’t just try and do something which would fail anyway, so it is better to find some other less violent ways not to antagonise China too much as China is beneficial to us.’ The New Straits Times had on September 28th 2019 under the heading ‘ Dr M: Malaysia can’t provoke China on the South China Sea, Uighur issue” had carried a Reuter’s report which was more prosaic. It said Dr Mahathir had been quoted as saying ‘ Malaysia used to send “ gold and silver flowers every year as a symbol of our being practically, well subservient to them. “
What he perhaps failed to state was that other powerful countries could accept criticism and he had accordingly criticised and lambasted them. With China, he was being pensive and pragmatic as he did not want Malaysia to get a bloody nose. Are those other countries less worthy than China in Malaysia’s diplomatic lexicon? We might as well say we like flogging dead horses.
Will we henceforth continue to kowtow to the unilateral actions of the powerful PRC?
It would seem that because the PRC is powerful it can act with impunity and we are somewhat understanding of that position.
What is the relevance and applicability of international law, the Charter of the United Nations and the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea of 2002 in this context? Has 2002 transformed into 2020?
The writer is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG
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