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Obituarising the Sultan of Johor

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

Writing obituaries has become an art in journalism. The best obituaries are the ones which capture the essence of the deceased while detailing their main contributions and life’s milestones.

official portrait
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.

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34 Responses to “Obituarising the Sultan of Johor”

  1. Pak Pandir Kg. Perupok says:

    Agree! The performance of the “official press” in this matter is simply shameful. This is the country’s main problem today. Whether it concerns the past or the present, so many of its citizens have lost the capacity to accept, recognise, and speak the truth, even the appetite or the inclination to care for it. The “official press” both promotes and benefits from, and even sanctifies, this amoral amnesia.

  2. I applaud The Nut Graph for writing and publishing this article.

  3. Leithaisor says:

    I generally believe in restraining myself from making unflattering comments about a recently deceased person if nothing else out of respect and sympathy for the deceased’s family during their time of mourning. (There are a few in whose cases I may make an exception)

    It is, however, still rather difficult to stomach heavily lopsided obituaries. I certainly am glad I am not one of the reporters and the editors tasked with the witing of such.

    In these days of the vast archives on the Net, with a few keystrokes and clicks, it is usually blatantly obvious what has been left out. And the omissions then brings out the negative aspects of the deceased even more starkly and glaringly than if some mentioned had been made in the obituaries in the first place.

    I think it is time for more balanced obituaries tempered with healthy doses of sympathy.

  4. reza says:

    Geez, I was actually thinking about “Speaker for the Dead” as I was reading this. Glad to see it referenced in the end. No Ender Wiggin would ever survive the wrath of Malaysian (especially Johorian) royalty, though.

  5. Dahi says:

    Thank you, Ding Jo-Ann, for this first of its kind commentary on obit writing by the Malaysian journalists. Writing obits is a serious art indeed and reflects on the publisher or author’s professionalism and credibility. It’s so sad that the country’s mainstream media have never ever been brave enough to call a golf stick a golf stick.

    Some so-called Malaysian independent online news publications appear to have stuck in this safe and well-tried formula as well when writing about VIPs. I was shocked that Singapore-centric Malaysian Insider chose to use the Straits Times obit (A sultan who spoke his mind) instead of doing some research and producing their own write-up. So much for their professionalism and national pride. My complaint to the website never saw the light of day.

    Wake up, all you takut journalists. With the internet, we now have access to other information sources from around the world.

  6. Nigel Skelchy says:

    I never thought I’d see “Speaker for the Dead” quoted in an eulogy. Well written. And oh so true.

  7. Anonymous Coward says:

    There’s your argument, which calls for accuracy no matter what, and then there’s the other side. Look back to when Yasmin Ahmad died and remind yourself of Kosmo’s coverage of her death. Think about the people who were angry and dismissed their accurate report as simply a bid to sell more papers.

    As you wrote this article claiming that accuracy is the best policy then I certainly hope that you weren’t one of the aforementioned many.

  8. Xavier Gomez says:

    “Ammoral amnesia” is a contagion that most institutionalised press suffer from. And it often works in parallel with those who “manufacture” and promote replacement history. It is a pernicious trend when “rice bowl journalism” eclipses factual incidents as if the facts were nonexistent. The characteristics of rice bowl journalism demean a nation and indirectly conceal and sanction crime in high places.

    As it is often said, all [people] are created equal, but some are more equal than others. Though the [new] media of the internet has introduced a sense of equilibrium to the equation, the fact remains, some rice bowls have long seared the journalists’ conscience when communicating matters as they are.

    Ding Jo Ann, it takes journalistic conviction and chutzpah to go against the flow and to write a factual and balanced analysis of what this sultan was as a person, his inherent character and of his actions against his subjects.

  9. KohJL says:

    @Anonymous Coward:

    A person’s sexuality is a private matter.

    Beating up someone (and signal the beginning of the end to the royalty’s legal immunity, no less) is certainly not. We a legitimate right-to-know in the latter case but not the former.

  10. anansie says:

    Thanks for this! the way the mainstream media was going on about him, I was getting confused if I remembered the same sultan! (Mutters to self: my memory is intact, my memory is intact, my memory is intact…)

  11. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    There are many like me resigned to your collective cowardice and lack of independence as an alternative media.

    But that alone will not stop me and others like me putting forth our views for you to censor.

    You Ding Jo-Ann in particular are like what Xavier Gomez (below) describes of your ilk. Fancy someone who on the one side of her mouth espouses the virtues of women’s rights (seeking justice and fairness) whilst on the other side belching the bile of her yellow-livered spleen in silence and in conformity with the rules of fear, cowardice and opportunity.

    A litigation lawyer? I guess if you accept NH Chan and Lau Bee Lian as being pillars of the judiciary you would believe anything.

    Remember to shut down the comments section after you fire your last salvo at us in response.

    Gopal Raj Kumar

  12. Anonymous Coward:

    I believe, ethically, a person’s sex change must be kept a private matter unless the family or person himself/herself reveals it. It doesn’t affect anyone except the person and his or her family. On the other hand, the Gomez incident, as far I know, changed the way the law dealt with the monarchy. So it is a public issue, and not mentioning it is very Malaysian in nature, but perhaps we might move away from being “too polite” and recognise sugarcoating for what it is.

  13. mykantree says:

    The one who died and was eulogized by the mainstream has yet to be born! It is silly of us to expect the Malaysian [traditional media] to tell the truth […]. The advertisements in the media probably have more truth to their claims […].

  14. Anonymous Coward says:

    Some in the royal family could argue that the Gomez incident was a private matter for them, especially for the monarchy.

    Look, I agree that accuracy is important and I would really like it if the obituary for the Sultan of Johor to have mentioned the Gomez incident but you can’t selectively apply these rules. After all, Yasmin Ahmad was already a public figure long before she had a sex change. Perhaps it wasn’t my *right* to know about it as it didn’t deal with the law or what-have-you but it was certainly something interesting and told her life story accurately, being grounded in facts.

    An example far removed from Malaysian soil would be the LA Times obituary for Michael Jackson, who was once accused of molesting a 13-year old boy. The obituary certainly mentioned that and told his life story accurately. It would be a glaring omission if it was not.

    The gist of this article, the way I understand it, is for the life story of the person to be told accurately. That cannot be applied selectively, especially for a public figure.

  15. mamat kelate says:

    Molek benarla…bukokla banyok keaiban ore lain. Tuhe tu maha adil, semoga Tuhe bukok pitu hati demo untuk berubah jadi ore hok lebih baik.

  16. Alig says:

    Our leaders, one after another, brought so much shame to this country.

  17. eve says:

    Just out of curiosity- how is a sex change different from Princess Diana’s affairs (which were mentioned in the article above)? Both were private affairs, after all.

    Shouldn’t both be blotted out from obituaries, then?

  18. skeleton says:

    Yeah, everybody should keep a list of their “skeletons in the closet”. When they die, the list can be published so that everyone else can condemn him even after, he or she has died. The author should start her own “skeleton in the closet” list … […].

  19. wak says:

    Zombie Shooter,

    See that’s your ethics, some Malaysians’ ethics go further than that. We just don’t talk anything bad about the deceased. You go ahead apply your yardstick, so does DJO. But also respect others who have their own. Are we obliged to follow others ?

  20. jules says:

    Kate Green, KohJL – disagreed.

    Anonymous Coward has a point. Since when has anything from a public personality been private? Is Prince Charles’s affair with Bowles not a private one? There’s also something very sinister in the way you imply how honesty should be rationalised for different people, a kind of double standard. To be fair, I haven’t read Kosmo’s slant on Yasmin Ahmad but if we are bashful about the issue of sex change (or for that matter any issue) we only perpetuate its stigma and prejudice. In fact, Yasmin Ahmad is an exemplary model of an individual’s right to choose. And that would be an honest and fitting tribute to one of Malaysia’s most towering art figures.

  21. navin says:

    …flashback to courtroom…men in uniform…military officers…tense dialogue between two hard men…maverick lawyer almost gives up…defendent smugly defiant…and then:

    Colonel Jessep: You want answers?
    Liutenant Kaffee: I want answers….
    Colonel Jessep: YOU want ANSWERS?
    Liutenant Kaffee: I want the TRUTH!
    Colonel Jessep: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!!!

    – super scene between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”

    (Footnote: Nothing can be hidden forever. In the case of the recently deceased Sultan of Johor, I’m sure many of his admirers were of the stance taken by Colonel Jessep. People in power always assume the truth will be detrimental to the ordinary man/woman. However, shielding truth only serves to empower the lesser person to uncover the ugliness of the sham. At the end of the movie, Colonel Jessep is detained and prosecuted for his wrongdoings. I can only hope for that kind of fairness in Malaysia.)

  22. Lion says:

    What happened in Malaysia has nothing to do with “Respect the dead”. If it was, then the death of that little Indian caddy would be mentioned in the obituary of Johor’s sultan.

    But no.

    It looks like the Malaysian media can find no backbone.

    With ISA hanging over them, they rather play the cowardice role of reporting false news rather than telling the truth as it is.

    But then, what else is new in Malaysia?

  23. MG says:

    I agree a person’s sexuality is a private matter but where does it say that it must be kept private? Yasmin’s talent, I have always believed, stems from her uniqueness as someone who lived between two worlds. It made her see things a little more sensitively and differently. She lived a very colourful life. But her obituary I must say was dictated by political correctness. There is this dictatorship of political correctness by the intellectual elite. I think Ding herself suffers a little from it. But she made her point and I respect that.

  24. AMBAJ says:

    Ding Jo-Ann how much the Grand Design paid you?

  25. Anonymous Coward:

    I’m not one of those who made a lot of noise concerning Yasmin Ahmad, since I’m not a fan of her films. Regardless, there is a huge difference between highlighting one particular part of a person’s life and making it a front page story for scandal and simply briefly mentioning something potentially negative about a person’s life.

    I’d also add that the Kosmo article was not an obituary in any way, if I remember correctly. It was a work of investigative reporting, focusing only on her sex change. (DJO’s article was about the art of writing the obituary.)

    Perhaps the tributes and obituaries to Yasmin Ahmad should have mentioned her sex change, who knows? After all, quite a number have speculated that her living between genders made her see through the identity-based divisions in the world. Even so, there’s still a big difference between what Kosmo set out to do with their story, and merely mentioning one aspect of a person’s life. Angles matter.

    No, you’re not obliged to follow my ethics, when did I say you were?

  26. ChodeMcBlob says:

    The Chasers War On Everything already did something very similar, but in song instead:

    So hilarious! Do put the video up on The Nut Graph =D

  27. Angel TanWC says:

    Mampos. Mampus? Mampos or mampus? Cannot say ‘mampus’? Or ‘mampos’. Who defines ‘mampus’? Is ‘mampos’ an insult? Just ‘mampus’? But did someone really ‘mampus’?

  28. Jo Kukathas says:

    Anonymous Coward – if you can’t get your argument right at least get your facts right. “Yasmin Ahmad was already a public figure long before she had a sex change.” I don’t think so.

    Re: the Kosmo story – Yasmin never denied her sexual history but she denied that it defined her. One can’t question Kosmo for publishing details of Yasmin’s life story but they went beyond reportage to invective and damning moral judgements regarding her life, her death and most inaccurately her burial. I think this is why people objected to the Kosmo story. And why Kosmo had to apologise. They were out of line.

  29. Anonymous Coward says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but was Yasmin not known as a footballer before? I’m simply going by the article that Kosmo has written, which I read and couldn’t find any moral agenda behind. Ill-timed as it was, the article did give me a fuller understanding of Yasmin Ahmad, not having previously known of her sex change.

    All I’m saying is that if you argue for facts and accuracy, you can’t discount the possibility that you might disagree with their presentation, timing or otherwise.

  30. This is Malaysia, where most people have very short memories. Nowhere in the obituary was there a reference to his assault on Gomez, or his [other abusive and arbitrary behaviour]. Such a person is called a ‘beloved ruler’, ‘one who has the welfare of the people at heart.’ Perhaps the Malaysian newspapers were writing a satire about him, very much like Jonathan Swift.

  31. mc says:

    jules, anonymous coward,

    When Yasmin was alive, her sexuality was not a public issue, with the likes of where police reports were filed, reported in newspapers, etc. If anything, there should only be cursory mention in that respectful manner that would not define her more than her other contributions – as that was how she lived her life. How that would be written, may be challenging, but certainly not like how Kosmo did it, which was obviously sensationally done to sell more papers, including its sensationlised front page apology.

    Whose or what cause it would benefit if it were to be a public issue is one thing, but that should not be done at the expense of an individual’s right to choose which does not harm others. While she never openly talked abt her [sexual identity], her works and actions had values consistent with that which is against prejudice.

    Yasmin Ahmad is an exemplary model of an individual’s right to choose – in that she chose not to make her sexuality a public issue, and as I recall, it was never one while she was alive.

  32. Keruah says:

    Gopal Raj Kumar, the liver and spleen are different organs. One cannot “belch the bile” of one’s “yellow-livered spleen in silence”. For one thing, belching is usually pretty noisy. For another, “yellow-livered spleen” is not an anatomically correct insult, and the spleen contains no bile. If you “and others like” you insist on insulting Ding Jo Ann (for reasons best known to yourselves and others like yourselves), please ask someone literate to ghost-write for you.

  33. pisang mas says:

    […] Iskandar is an example of what royalty should not be. I remembered reading in the foreign media that when he visited UK, the British govt refused to accord him any protocol as they considered him a murderer. As for the Malaysian mainstream media, they are only fit for wrapping vegetables.

  34. chin says:

    The last para on Orson Scott’s card reminds me of Robin William’s movie ‘Final Cut’ – one’s own mind is the most honest testimony to his[/her] life!

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