DESPITE the results of the 8 March 2008 general election, the mainstream Malaysian media still generally loathes crediting non-Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians, i.e. those from the Pakatan Rakyat.
Hence the inaugural televised live debate on 15 July 2008 between opposition icon Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Information Minister Datuk Shabery Cheek, which was won by Anwar and conveniently dubbed by the mainstream media as a “victory for the rakyat”.
The consensus was that more televised debates of this nature would be good for democracy. The standard official line is that such debates allow the rakyat to let off steam without resorting to street protests. I’m sure some marketing executive also felt they would be good for television ratings.
So, another debate was hastily organised by news portal Agendadaily.com, and televised live on ntv7 and TV9 on the night of 20 Aug 2008.
This time, the topic centred on the numerous land scams in Penang unearthed by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s new Pakatan Rakyat state government.
It was a face-off between Lim and his predecessor, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, and the build-up in the mainstream media promised that it would be a lively “battle”, perhaps as heated as the Anwar-Shabery exchange.
Loosely modelled after the US presidential debate system, it lasted one hour (mandatory commercial breaks notwithstanding) and was moderated by newspaper columnist and former editor Johan Jaafar.
Both Lim and Koh were dressed casually — jackets draped over open-neck shirts — and wore smiles that toothpaste manufacturers would have killed for.
Lim began with three simple questions for Koh. First, how many such shady land deals were there and how much were they? Second, who were the culprits and what action was taken against them? Third, what were the weaknesses that led to these deals?
And Lim mentioned five cases, the most controversial and expensive for Penangites being the Penang Global City Centre (PGCC)/Batu Kawan land deals.
Koh’s opening retort was rather cheap, albeit predictable, chastising Lim for acting like an opposition leader instead of the head of government.
This tired line has been used so many times since 8 March, though frankly, it still doesn’t make sense to me. Does it mean that former opposition politicians who now head state governments are supposed to move on, turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of their predecessors, and not attempt to correct wrongs and reclaim funds meant for the rakyat?
If so, where does the lofty Islam Hadhari, conceptualised and promoted by the Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi administration, and the calls for a “first-world mentality”, come into all this?
Following this, Koh went into a spiel about the BN being conscious about integrity and constantly modernising land management. And, really, not addressing Lim’s three opening questions.
No, to be fair, Koh did address one case, a RM40 million deal that’s currently with the courts. And this case was virtually the only case that the duo duelled over throughout the debate — without anything really satisfactory coming out of the exchanges.
Bersih, Cekap, Amanah
I’ve been told often enough that Johan is a pretty good and balanced moderator. But the one question that he asked — “Isn’t this a witch hunt, and shouldn’t Lim’s government concentrate on bringing Penang forward?” — sounded painfully inadequate given the overall scheme of things.
Anybody who has not been living on Mars since 8 March and who has been following the Malaysian media would know that the Penang government is strapped for cash. Federal allocations for development, quite predictably, have been drastically reduced. And, apart from ideas, “moving forward” requires money.
When so much of that money (taxpayers’ money, mind you) has somehow disappeared, I would think it’s the responsibility — nay, obligation — of any responsible government to investigate where it’s gone to and whether it can be recovered.
In any case, in response to Johan, Koh continued to waffle and repeat his favourite RM40 million case, and how it was being fought in court. Lim rightly retorted that it was fine to try to recover the losses in court, but there is still a need to know how it came about, and who was responsible, in order to prevent it from happening again.
There were two other portions of the live debate that bear mentioning. The first was when panelist Aziz Deraman asked Koh if he’d given the land files to Lim.
Koh (right) accused Lim of “tembak sebelum semak” (shooting before looking) in response to Lim’s questioning on land scams in PenangKoh’s response was that there was no need for him to do so as the files were available in the state government’s file room, together with other files. This brought back memories of a scene in the 1998 movie A Civil Action, where such files were buried under an avalanche of other files and needed ages to locate.
The second portion was Lim using slogans such as Bersih, Cekap dan Amanah (Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy) and Kepimpinan Melalui Tauladan (Leadership by Example) — slogans that were “invented” by the Dr Mahathir Mohamad regime.
I suspect that Lim was being naughty and baiting Koh. And Koh swallowed the bait, indignantly exclaiming that these slogans were the BN’s. Lim’s retort was that under the BN they were just that: slogans. His task now was to put them to practice.
What was worrying in the end was Koh’s assertion that the land scam cases were few and far between, with, according to him, another 99%-plus success stories. Lim rightly responded that when these “minority” cases involve millions of ringgit, they do really matter and bear investigation. More than that, surely it’s a matter of principle and ethics as well.
In the end, the live telecast turned out to be a tame affair, hardly a debate. There was too much repetition of the RM40 million scam without much being revealed. Everyone, from the moderator to the debaters, was just interested in putting in their five sen worth, without the whys and wherefores of the shady land deals being elaborated upon.
Indeed, it was truly disappointing that what has been termed in the blogosphere as the “mother and father of all questionable land deals”, the PGCC/Batu Kawan deal involving the Penang Turf Club, Batu Kawan and Abad Naluri Sdn Bhd, was not even discussed.
If the Anwar-Shabery debate was a “victory for the rakyat”, the pathetic Lim-Koh exchange was essentially a victory for waffling, sidestepping and sloganeering.
Rom Nain yearns for a quiet life. But once in a while, his better half convinces him that he needs to do more than just teach the nation’s youth to be politically, socially and culturally incorrect and actually get down and dirty.