THE Malay-language press continues to react to the death of Selangor government aide Teoh Beng Hock. Or rather, they continue to react to the outrage expressed by certain quarters over the tragedy.
The 20 July 2009 edition of Utusan Malaysia ran a simple warning on its front page: Jangan melampau. The news report to which that headline referred, Henti tohmahan terhadap SPRM, quoted politicians who urged the public to “stop all unreasonable suspicions and accusations again the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)”.
The article also slammed the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition for “going overboard” and for calling for a royal commission.
“Why can’t opposition supporters be patient? They should give room so that an investigation can be carried out. Only if they are still dissatisfied when the investigation is finished should they hold rallies or make demands,” Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia (Perkasa) president Datuk Ibrahim Ali was quoted as saying.
Ibrahim, who is also an independent Member of Parliament who ran under the PAS banner, expressed worry at the precedent such a royal commission would set. “Soon, there will be a royal commission for everyone who dies.
“There are many police who die, and many Malays who die in unusual ways, but no one [has held] rallies or [made] demands [for these deaths] so far,” Ibrahim added.
Utusan Malaysia front pageIbrahim alleged that there were “puppeteers” waiting to use the issue of Teoh’s death for their own ends, and alleged that PR leaders were exploiting it, “as if they want to turn it into a racial issue”.
Whiff of racism
The lack of empathy towards the passing of a Malaysian citizen notwithstanding, Ibrahim’s statements are also ironic. This is because the first whiff of racism around Teoh’s mysterious death arguably originated with the Barisan Nasional (BN)-aligned daily Berita Harian.
Berita Minggu‘s 19 July 2009 editorial, Kematian Teoh timbulkan pelbagai spekulasi politik, by Zainul Ariffin Isa, argued that the PR was using the tragedy to incite ethnic sentiment.
“Why does Selangor Menteri Besar (Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim), a Malay, doubt the ability of those of his own race to act fairly and sincerely?” the New Straits Times group managing editor asked.
“Aren’t there a lot of government agency or institution officers that are Malays? Are Malay police officers, judges, teachers, investigators, doctors and lecturers all not to be trusted?” Zainul asked.
He added that one need only surf the internet to come across criticism about government institutions, “the majority of which are headed and staffed by Malays”.
Berita Harian, in its 20 July 2009 edition, continued to propagate the idea that Teoh’s death was being played out along ethnic divides.
Manja Ismail’s article in Berita HarianIn Manja Ismail’s editorial Antara malang berbau dan malang tidak berbau, the writer expressed sympathy for the “unexpected misfortune that befell Teoh and his family”.
“But we are also worried of the effects of the opposition’s actions, which are turning it into a political and racial issue,” Manja said.
The writer argued that the PR was using Teoh’s death as a smokescreen to divert attention away from the weaknesses within the opposition coalition, pointing to PAS’s slim victory in the 14 July Manik Urai by-election.
Additionally, Manja argued that it was an attempted diversion from the PKR vice-president’s public criticism of the Selangor government.
The PR leadership, reacting to Teoh’s death, has been quite party-partisan. This sentiment was obvious in a rally on 19 July at the Kelana Jaya stadium, where figures such as PAS central working committee member Datuk Husam Musa and Selangor Speaker Teng Chang Khim lashed out at the MACC’s lopsided actions.
The PR leadership charged that the MACC targets PR politicians and ignores BN leaders, such as former Selangor Menteri Besar (MB) Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo. Several speakers called on their audience to reject the BN government and vote for PR in the next general election.
But these opposition leaders have also been careful to avoid racialising Teoh’s death. “This is not about politics, activists or race. This is about justice,” Selangor MB Khalid was quoted as saying.
In fact, PR supporters logged outrage at the insinuation that they were framing Teoh’s death in Malay-versus-non-Malay terms. Some at the rally on Sunday burnt copies of Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian to show their disgust.
Supporters at the 19 July rally
Those within the BN have also spoken out against Berita Harian‘s racial frame. Referencing Zainul’s 19 July editorial, Gerakan vice-president Datuk Mah Siew Keong insisted that Teoh’s death should not be seen as an issue of ethnic prejudice.
“Truth is the truth, and it does not carry the label of Malay, Chinese or Indian,” Mah said in a press statement on 20 July.
“The outcry that we see now is the outpouring of the people’s feelings towards the nation’s sacrosanct institutions, which is one of doubt and loss of confidence.”
Also interesting is that while Perkasa’s Ibrahim exhorted people not jump to conclusions, Berita Harian writers appear to have their minds made up over the circumstances surrounding Teoh’s death.
In his article, Manja consistently used words like “misfortune” and “accident” to describe the death of the 30-year-old political secretary. It isn’t a stretch to conclude that the daily, evident in its use of language, was already ruling out foul play, even before independent investigations are carried out and completed.