The late Sultan of Johor (© Masami Takakuwa | Wiki Commons)
SULTAN Iskandar ibni Almarhum Sultan Ismail, one of Malaysia’s most controversial rulers, passed away on 22 Jan 2010 at the age of 77. The late Johor Sultan will be remembered for many things, one of which would be when he got off his podium during a Merdeka Day parade in the 1980s to take a spin on a participant’s superbike.
In reporting on the late sultan, the traditional press wrote of his “closeness” to his subjects, his “care and generosity”, and his love for sports and sports cars. Unlike the international media however, Malaysian newspapers glaringly omitted any mention of the “Gomez incident” where the sultan allegedly assaulted a Johor hockey coach at his palace. Indeed, this incident was widely reported in the media when it occurred in 1992 and is recorded in Constitutional Landmarks in Malaysia: The First 50 Years, published by LexisNexis. Among others, the Asia Sentinel also reported about the charge against the sultan for culpable homicide not amounting to murder in 1971 and his subsequent pardon after his father intervened.
A painting of Pulau Batu Puteh by John
Turnbull Thompson, 1851 (public
domain | Wiki Commons)
So who was the late Sultan of Johor? The man portrayed in the Malaysian traditional media or in the international media? The defender of Pulau Batu Puteh and Malaysian rights or an unpredictable man who had reports of violence lodged against him? And more importantly, why did our Malaysian media fail to ask these questions when reporting on the death of a Malaysian personality, one whose royal house and functions are funded by Malaysian tax payers?
The lion and the coward
Edward Kennedy (public domain
| Wiki Commons)
Take US Senator Edward Kennedy who died in 2009, also at the age of 77. Many Americans will recall how he brought them to tears during a rousing 2008 speech in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
And yet, this once presidential hopeful was also involved in the Chappaquiddick affair in 1969 where a 28-year-old aide drowned in his car following an accident. Despite his formidable reputation in the US Senate, Kennedy never managed to live down the appalling manner in which he behaved following the accident, not even in death.
A writer described him thus: “The drunk who crashed his car into a river, saved himself, left a girl behind, waited until morning to call the police. A coward. The statesman who eulogized his brother, reigned in the Senate for forty years, fought for progress. Lion of the Senate.”
Whether lion or coward, no honest obituary celebrating Ted Kennedy’s senatorial achievements would have left out the Chappaquiddick incident, no matter how shameful to his reputation.
Deng Xiaoping (public domain
| Wiki Commons)
Otherwise, what kind of obituary would it be?
Here’s another example: would an obituary on Diana, Princess of Wales be worth reading if it didn’t mention her unhappy marriage, her affairs, and the subsequent divorce to the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles? Additionally, can we imagine any respectable British media writing Prince Charles’s obituary one day without mentioning his long-term affair with Camilla Parker Bowles?
Or any obituary on China’s Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping without a paragraph on his role in ordering tanks on the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989?
Would an obituary on Saddam Hussein which doesn’t acknowledge his role in the Iran-Iraq war or his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 be worth a second glance?
Saddam Hussein (public domain
| Wiki Commons)
Even when Pope John Paul II died, obituaries acknowledged some views of him as an arch-conservative and an autocrat whose views on abortion and contraception adversely affected women.
For what kind of obituary would it be if it only gave a one-sided view of the deceased? Whether they are royalty, politicians or saints, are they not human?
Do they not have flaws and contradictions, as do we all? Is it not demeaning to them if we reduce their lives to mere platitudes and perpetuate dishonesty by portraying a skewered account of their lives?
Trusting the media
In reporting on a public personality’s life, it is not the media’s function to only report the positive aspects of their life or to make them look good. The media’s function is to provide accurate information on matters of public interest and to act as a watchdog on the activities of government or any other institution of power. This is the media’s role as the “fourth estate” in a democracy — to scrutinise and act as a check and balance on institutions of power.
The traditional media, however, have completely failed in this task in their obituary of Sultan Iskandar by their glaring omissions of his eventful life. If the traditional media cannot perform the simple task of recounting the salient facts of a public personality’s life, how can we then expect them to be able to perform their democratic task of holding the government or any other public institution accountable?
Respecting the dead
Orson Scott Card (© Nihonjoe
| Wiki Commons)
Author Orson Scott Card writes of how we tend to revise the life of the dead and give them a story so different from their actual life. “We erase them, we edit them, we make them into a person much easier to live with than the person who actually lived,” Card says.
In his science fiction novel Speaker for the Dead, Card explores what it would be like to speak honestly of who the deceased was; what that person did; and to examine their “self-story” — “what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we can never know — and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth telling.”
Perhaps in their one-sided telling of Sultan Iskandar’s life, the traditional media were trying to respect the dead and the monarchy, while trying to also ensure the media’s own survivability.
But in doing so, perhaps they were being more disrespectful by telling the story of a different man than the one who lived, and thereby not telling his story at all.