Rosmah Mansor (Source: upsi.edu.my)MANY Malaysian political blogs have already started to sneer at Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor‘s official website. This is, perhaps, not surprising. After all, her husband, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, had to deal with highly acidic public opinion even before he assumed office in April 2009.
There are valid questions about possible abuses of power and corruption on the part of the incumbent premier and his wife. But a quick Google search through the various political blogs will also turn up criticisms against Najib and Rosmah that are personal in nature.
Rosmah, especially, is ridiculed for various aspects of her physical appearance. Even in blogger and journalist Niki Cheong‘s cool-headed critique of Rosmah’s website, commenters could not resist conflating their criticisms with personal — though relatively harmless — attacks on how she looks.
Underlying these criticisms of Rosmah’s bearing is discomfort and a legitimate query: why does the spouse of Malaysia’s prime minister have a microsite on the prime minister’s official website?
Cheong pointed out that the spouses of the US president and Australian prime minister only have brief write-ups about who they are on a page of the official government websites. Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has her own personal website; probably because she already was a public figure before she became France’s first lady. Jordan’s Queen Rania also has her own personal website.
Carla Bruni (Pic by Remi Jouan /
Wiki commons)But apart from not piggy-backing on publicly funded government websites, Bruni and Queen Rania are technically spouses of heads of state, not government. In countries that have separate heads of state and government, the head of state usually embodies the spirit of the country. The head of government, well, governs, and ideally without the influence or interference, real or assumed, of a spouse.
There are several layers to the issue, then. How and why do these first spouses have their own websites, official or personal? Just because everyone else is doing it, does it mean we should, too? More importantly, what does Rosmah’s official site say about the nature of government in Malaysia?
What’s the function?
Here is what the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office says about its function: “To secure an efficient environment for the prime minister to perform his [or her] duties and responsibilities effectively.” And its objective: “To provide, organise and deliver speedy services in performing the tasks and responsibilities of the prime minister.”
In that case, is Rosmah’s microsite meant to “secure an efficient environment” for the PM “to perform his duties and responsibilities effectively”? Is Rosmah providing, organising and delivering “speedy services in performing the tasks and responsibilities of the prime minister” via her site?
The answers might be deceptively obvious to some Malaysians. But in a recent interview with The Nut Graph, even former Dewan Negara President Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh opined that Malaysians have difficulty distinguishing between party and government. In his words: “Malaysia is Barisan Nasional, Barisan Nasional is Malaysia.” In Rosmah’s case, this confusion is being muddied even further — the lines are not merely being blurred regarding party and government, but also regarding leaders and their spouses.
Hillary Clinton (Public domain) That Rosmah’s official site, which aims to illuminate her “role” as the prime minister’s wife, is part of the website of the Prime Minister’s Office could mean that Rosmah is part of government. Sure, this could be the butt of many a political joke. Back when Bill Clinton was US president, citizens joked about his wife Hillary really being the one in charge of the country. Similarly, the fact that Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat has not stopped many Malaysians from regarding Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as the party’s real leader. The Wan Azizah-Anwar example, however, is less problematic at the moment since the party is not in federal government.
And speaking of the Clintons, this is what Rosmah had to say on 8 July 2009: “No, I am not going to be a Hillary Clinton. As the First Lady, I can comment on other things, but I do not want to get involved in policies and governing the country.” Does her site send a conflicting message to what she is publicly saying?
In a parliamentary democracy such as Malaysia, the prime minister is the head of the government who answers to Parliament. In other words, a parliamentary prime minister has a “day-to-day” role of defending and explaining his or her government in Parliament to other elected representatives of the people. And Najib’s official website is but another platform for him to defend and explain his administration’s performance.
Michelle Obama (Public domain) By allowing Rosmah to have her microsite on the prime minister’s official website, does this portend that she, too, has an official government role to play?
The simple answer is that neither Michelle Obama nor Thérèse Rein, wife of Australian PM Kevin Rudd, has to appear in the US Congress or Australian Parliament. And maybe that’s why their pages on their governments’ official websites offer but brief profiles. Perhaps the Australian and US electorate want to know a little bit about these first spouses — were they ever war criminals; do they perform public services on their own merit; what do they look like? — that sort of thing.
Thérèse Rein (Public domain)Rosmah’s microsite, on the other hand, does not just provide a brief bio or profile. It constantly updates her speeches, her news appearances, and her daily activities. Rosmah has, of course, every right to engage with citizens in this way, but to do so on an official government website would lead some to ask if she is not in fact trying to play some government role.
Additionally, there is the point of whether taxpayers’ money should be used to promote the profile of the prime minister’s spouse, when she is neither an elected representative nor a public servant accountable to the public.
It does not help, then, when some of Rosmah’s supporters and detractors either defend or attack her from a purely personal perspective. Even if Rosmah were the most beloved, popular Malaysian prime minister’s spouse in living history, the question remains: does the prime minister’s spouse deserve a microsite on the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office?
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