Categorised | Columns

Asking the right question

IN mid-March 2010, I participated in Inti College’s Mass Communication Day. During the event, I was asked for the best advice I could give if someone wanted to be a successful journalist. My response was, always ask the question “How do you know?” Indeed, as an editor of a news site that aims to be accurate, fair and responsible, it’s a question I often ask my colleagues when I’m clearing their copy for publication.

how do you know?I didn’t invent “How do you know?” It was, in fact, a Los Angeles Times journalist who taught me that lesson in good journalism. I can’t remember his name now but he was covering the news in the US post-9/11. He found that in order to verify information he was receiving from law enforcement officers, he needed to ask “How do you know?” It was by doing so that he discovered that a lot of the information that was passed on to him, even by the authorities, was suspect.

Sometimes the information from different people he was speaking to was all from the same source, hence he could not triangulate the information he was receiving. Or sometimes it was just information picked up from locker room chatter that was clearly unverified.

But “How do you know?” isn’t just useful for journalists and editors who want to do a good job. I reckon that as citizens, we can use the same question to navigate the daily onslaught of news, information and propaganda.

As news consumers

For example, I wonder if The Star asked that question of Datuk S Nallakaruppan when it quoted him in several news reports casting aspersions on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s character. Apart from the fact that there is no indication that the journalist tried to get the opposition leader’s side of the story, we really don’t know how Nallakaruppan knows what he says he knows about Anwar.

In the same way, how do we know whether Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is factually accurate when he says, “According to current records, a large portion of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of non-Malay [Malaysians]?”

After all, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has demonstrated that it will not be challenged, not even by academic research that has been independently and soundly conducted. Additionally, instead of being transparent about how it comes to the conclusions that it does regarding ownership of the economy, the government instead resorts to name-calling and labelling. This it did rather spectacularly in the case of Dr Lim Teck Ghee’s 2006 Asli report on corporate equity distribution.

Personally, I find that asking “How does the reporter/writer know?” helps me determine the quality of the news I’m consuming. Asking that question enables me to determine whether a reporter has done enough to verify something as factual before presenting it as such.

For example, with the Los Angeles Times reporter I was privileged to meet, he discovered that oftentimes, by asking “How do you know?” he realised that the authority figures he was speaking to often didn’t know. In one instance where a cop was labelling someone a Muslim terrorist, the reporter discovered that the police officer couldn’t tell one Muhammad from another and assumed it was one and the same person.

As citizens

how do we know?I think the question also empowers us to be intelligent citizens. For example, how do we know if 1Malaysia isn’t just a well-conceptualised brand with the power of hype? How would we know if the current administration under Datuk Seri Najib Razak was actually sincere about treating all Malaysians equally regardless of race, religion or political affiliation?

Well, if the latest film censorship guidelines are anything to go by, we know that we shouldn’t believe all the state-funded hype about 1Malaysia. The Home Ministry guidelines stipulate that movies cannot show characters who believe that all religions are equal. The guidelines also state that movies cannot challenge any existing official fatwa.

How do I know 1Malaysia is just rhetoric? Well, the government that is trying to make us believe that all citizens are equal and diversity will be respected and cherished is also the same government that is telling us the following. Only one religion is superior, and we know which religion it is. And only one viewpoint about Islamic teachings will be accepted even if historically, and currently in other Muslim countries, fatwa are mere opinions. Indeed, it is acceptable in Islam to have a diversity of opinions or fatwa on an issue except in Malaysia, it would seem.

1malaysiaAnd so, Najib et al can wax lyrical all they want about 1Malaysia. But if the administration’s actions negate the belief that diversity should be respected and all citizens treated equally, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Malaysians are deeply cynical about the government’s project.

In the same way, how do we know whether we can trust Pakatan Rakyat to govern more fairly and honestly than the BN? After all, wasn’t this the same coalition which promotes party hopping when that suits its agenda, only to cry foul when it doesn’t?

As people

“How do I know?” is also useful in human relationships. For example, “How do I know my parents love me despite the disagreements we may have?” I know because my mum constantly asks me if I have eaten and my dad worked selflessly to ensure I could go to university. That’s how I know.

Asking this question, I found out recently, is also one of the best practices in Neuro-Linguistic Programming that is used to achieve goals and excellence. Asking the question allows us to seek evidence about something that is happening or not happening. And by having evidence instead of assumptions based on generalisations or distortions, we communicate better and are more able to achieve the outcomes we want for ourselves, our businesses and our relationships.

And it is also by having evidence that journalists become good, even great, journalists. And citizens can become less gullible and pliable, and more engaged and empowered in a democracy. favicon

Jacqueline Ann Surin finds that asking “How do you know?” is an effective way of stopping gossipers in their tracks.

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8 Responses to “Asking the right question”

  1. dominik says:

    “This it did rather spectacularly in the case of Dr Lim Teck Ghee’s 2006 Asli report on corporate equity distribution.”

    I agree with Dr Lim’s assessment in his report. For the last 25 years or so, at least 30% of newly-listed shares were “reserved” for bumiputera who took up those shares. If you can remember Dr Mahathir’s comment when he became PM, he also said bumiputera equity shares were also less than 20%. 25 years later, the new PM also said shares held under “bumiputera equity” are still less than 20%. How can that be? The only logical answer [could be that] the bumiputera have sold those shares for “cash”. So if Perkasa insist that the 30% quota must be reached – can it ever be reached at all? I would say, it will never never ever be reached even for the next 100 years if they were to continue exchanging “cheap shares” for cash every 5 years.

    I agree with Lim Guan Eng who asked, “What happen to the 52 billion (out of 54 billion) that was alloted to bumiputera?” Well I have given the answer as above.
    Since Khazanah is planning to sell its 30% stake of Pos Malaysia and other GLC equities, please sell it to the bumiputera only, then the 30% bumiputera equity target can be reached quickly and Perkasa will then keep quiet. Don’t lah sell it to EPF!

  2. Chiang says:

    Very good article. Just what Malaysians need, rather than agreeing to what they have heard or read, especially coming from government-controlled media.

    On a different note, do you believe in God? And if yes, “how do you know” He exists?

  3. Muslim says:

    ‘Fatwa’ is not a ‘mere’ opinion if by ‘mere’ you mean something simplistic and arbitrary. It is an opinion, but please know that it is an educated and well-informed opinion, and must be able to withstand all sorts of ‘how do you know’ questions before it can be made public. Even then, it must face more ‘how do you know’ interrogation by other scholars as well as by the general Muslim public. A clergy, in proposing a fatwa publicly, is fully aware that he is taking on a huge risk on his personal reputation.

    You, as a non-Muslim, would not realise this, much less understand this process. So, please have some respect, and refrain from writing about Islam since you obviously don’t know…

    And another thing…in the spirit of 1Malaysia, where everyone should be treated equally, it would only be more appropriate if anyone caught consuming alcohol in public be canned equally, regardless of race and religion.

    But then again, please respect diversity, as you would say…

  4. Firdaus says:


    Eh Muslim, cam mane kau tau ah? Kau pernah terlibat dalam proses pengumuman fatwa ker?

    Ade ker member-member semua yang “general Muslim public” dapat interrogate mana-mana “educated and well-informed opinion” tu? Takde pun.

    But then again, takper lah. Aku pikir ko tak tau lah.

  5. @Muslim

    Thanks for your comment. In writing that a fatwa is a “mere opinion”, my column was trying to point out that fatwa, historically and currently in some Muslim countries, is treated as legal opinions, unlike in Malaysia where they are treated like laws that cannot be contested.

    I’m sure you’re aware that in Malaysia, it is a punishable crime to go against a fatwa. If a fatwa is a legal opinion, and hence there can be many legal opinions, why should opposing one fatwa be a crime punishable by the state?

    Secondly, I’m sure you can appreciate that one does not have to be a Muslim in order to understand Islam. Indeed, some of the most recognised scholars on Islam are non-Muslims e.g. Karen Armstrong and John Esposito. To suggest that only Muslims understand Islam is to suggest that Islam is beyond non-Muslims. And if that were true, then the assumption that Islam is the only true religion for humanity would be false. Indeed, in my experience reporting on Islam in Malaysia, it is unfortunately Muslim journalists who know the least about their own religion and who fear questioning policies and laws imposed in the name of Islam.

    On your recommendation for all Malaysians to be caned for drinking alcohol, I’m certain PM Najib Razak had exactly that in mind when he proposed 1Malaysia! But I jest. I’m not sure you jest, though. And so I would ask you, in the spirit of 1Malaysia, shouldn’t all faith communities be allowed to use “Allah” then?


    How is it important to the discussion here whether or not I believe in God, whoever and whatever He/She/It may be?

  6. Sharaad Kuttan says:

    To Muslim on caning for drinking. The other option working from the 1Malaysia premise is that no one is caned for drinking. And that means each individual (a concept under-rated in our country) is allowed to make decisions of a private/personal nature. And this means that state should not play either policeman, judge and executioner in matters of religious commitment or personal piety.

  7. muslim says:

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    Yes, I did jest on the caning/drinking matter. It’s meant to highlight one aspect of our social-pluralism that might be stubbornly difficult to iron out before the slogan can actually be made good. Parallel but varied opinions may not be so hard to be discussed out to form one common view in comparison with those of complete opposites. But if everyone wants 1Malaysia, why the hell not? We should give it a good try. We may discover that it is an unworkable concept to implement in this country after all, or we may not.

    Secondly, I have not meant to discourage you from writing about Islam because you are a non-Muslim. But I was moved to react to your attempt to devalue the fatwa. Fatwa, by common definition, is an authoritative legal interpretation by a mufti or religious jurist or a group of them, based on the Quran and the Sunnah, that can provide the basis for court decision or government action.

    Not all fatwas issued out by individual clerics become law, in fact, most didn’t. But some are taken up by a council or Majlis to be debated over and decided upon. A fatwa has no weight unless accepted unanimously by the community of clerics. But once it is accepted as a legal ruling, there is nothing ‘mere’ about it.

    @Sharaad Kuttan
    I value your opinion. But you bargained too much. Technically, a Muslim may make his private/personal decision, and drink his head off if he cares to, in ‘private’. But if he goes public with his drinking, and at the same time still wants people to know that he is a Muslim, then I couldn’t blame the Islamic authorities to take actions to emphasise their stand on this major prohibition in the religion.

    But if you are not a Muslim, please, by all means, go ahead and drink (but don’t drive, ok?). We are not Saudi Arabia if you know what I mean…

  8. muslim says:

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    I’ve missed your question on the “Allah” issue. Now I have to add another comment and further clutter your article. Sorry, but for what it’s worth, here is my opinion.

    I do believe that if we all refer the Name to the Supreme Being, The Originator and Creator of the universe, then we all have the right to use the word. I’ve read somewhere about a suggestion by one politician to implement the usage in the RukunNegara. I find it interesting, so please read on and tell me if you like it:

    BAHAWASANYA NEGARA KITA MALAYSIA mendukung cita-cita hendak :

    * mencapai perpaduan yang lebih erat di kalangan seluruh masyarakatnya ;
    * memelihara satu cara hidup demokratik ;
    * mencipta satu masyarakat adil di mana kemakmuran Negara akan dapat dinikmati bersama secara adil dan saksama ;
    * menjamin satu cara liberal terhadap tradisi-tradisi kebudayaannya yang kaya dan berbagai corak ; dan
    * membina satu masyarakat progresif yang akan menggunakan sains dan teknologi moden.

    MAKA KAMI, rakyat Malaysia, berikrar akan menumpukan seluruh tenaga dan usaha kami untuk mencapai cita-cita tersebut berdasarkan atas prinsip-prinsip yang berikut :


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