Corrected on 10 July 2009 at 1.05pm
(Corrected) If you ask a journalist at a Western media organisation what she or he thinks about Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, that’s probably the answer you’ll get.
“The world doesn’t care about Malaysia except when there is a ‘man bites dog’ story to tell. That’s hard to accept, but it must be recognised,” Kessler, emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, says in an email interview.
That may be counterintuitive because Najib carried a lot of political baggage into the prime minister’s office. He was dogged by corruption scandals and murder allegations from his days as defence minister. Some observers rightfully worried this would tarnish his image abroad.
But for better or for worse, the major global media outlets have responded with a headline vacuum.
The BBC has a profile of Najib on its website that typifies the coverage that does exist. It leads by describing him as a political “blueblood” and details his promises to eliminate racism and corruption.
Further down in the profile, it mentions that there have been “crackdowns” on political opposition and free speech. The corruption and murder allegations are saved for the last paragraph, with the caveat that “Najib has strongly denied all the claims against him.”
A CNN article about Najib’s swearing in as Malaysia’s sixth prime minister follows the same formula.
Descriptions of Najib follow a formulaic approach
The BBC’s country profile of Malaysia leads with its “vibrant economy” and saves criticism of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act for the bottom of the article. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but not a condemnation, either.
Nevertheless, Najib’s officials have railed against the Western media’s treatment of the prime minister. Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim went so far as to say reports about the corruption and murder allegations were evidence of a conspiracy to remove Najib from power.
In a letter to the editor published in Malaysiakini on 27 April 2009, the BBC’s Malaysia correspondent Jonathan Kent responded to Rais’s claim. He said the allegations made the news because they were highly unusual, not because of a global scheme against the Malaysian government.
“Having reported for more than five years on the country, I know from bitter experience that it was a constant battle to interest any editor in the place,” he said.
“The idea that they have either the time or the interest to plot anything other than a beach holiday in Malaysia is, I am afraid, misguided.”
Kessler, who is an expert on Southeast Asia, says Najib can use his anonymity to his advantage. “Being left alone… leaves you to get on with your own agenda, to develop it and pursue it and promote it as you see fit without being subject to undue external pressures,” he says.
“Malaysia would do better to feel less acutely the real indifference and imagined disapproval of others towards them, and instead to think hard and well and honestly about their own internal problems.”
Categories of interest
Still, when Malaysia and Najib do make the news, especially in the Western media, reporting tends to fall under one of three categories.
One of these categories is the economy. The economic liberalisation reforms Najib announced on 30 June 2009 were featured in the business and world news sections of many major newspapers and broadcasters. Whatever effect these announcements will have on the economy, they boosted Malaysia’s international profile for a news cycle.
The other category of news stories is about events that raise questions about human rights and democracy in Malaysia. These, of course, have a negative effect on the country’s image.
“In an extraordinary day that was part wrestling match, part democratic process, Malaysia‘s governing party appeared to retake control of a major state legislature on Thursday when a group of unidentified men dragged the assembly speaker out of the hall and escorted the governing party’s choice to the empty seat.”
Sivakumar being dragged out (pic courtesy of Sinar Harian)
Two days later, Najib was quoted in The Star expressing regret about the damage to Malaysia’s international image. However, he blamed that damage on the opposition, saying they “must be able to control [their] emotions.” He also defended the right of elected representatives to cross the floor.
The use of language such as “unidentified men,” “dragged” and “wrestling match” make it clear that Fuller sees Pakatan Rakyat’s interpretation of the event in Perak as more legitimate. Because The New York Times has a lot more international influence than The Star, reporting about Malaysian politics such as Fuller’s will undoubtedly cast a pall over Malaysia’s overseas image.
But with Western media reporting about Malaysia and Najib being rather sporadic, rather than sustained, will that really make much of a difference?
“Man bites dog”
The third category of story that tends to make Western media headlines is the “man bites dog” type Kessler refers to. These include stories about the tomboy and yoga fatwas issued last November, and the sodomy charges against Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Little did the dog know, what his usually-loving owner
would do in response (© Christopher Bruno / sxc.hu)
These articles don’t paint Malaysia in a flattering light, either. The New York Times covered the tomboy and yoga fatwas from a conference on feminism and Islam held in Kuala Lumpur in February 2009. The article only quotes conference participants and does not question their argument that the fatwas are based on a repressive interpretation of Islam.
An article published on 7 July 2008 in Time magazine highlights the impact of highly-publicised sex scandals on Malaysia’s international image. The article, written by Hannah Beech, analyses the fact that sex scandals plague both Najib and Anwar. At the time the article was written, Najib was deputy prime minister, and his former aide Abdul Razak Baginda was standing trial for the murder of Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu.
Beech concluded the article with this line: “Whatever happens, with two sex scandals unfolding at the same time, it’s sure to be a salacious summer in Malaysia.”
“Salacious” is probably not the first word Najib would like associated with his country and legacy. Unfortunately, if people around the world follow Malaysian politics in the Western media at all, such stories are likely to be among the first that come to mind.
But whether they have a lasting impact will depend on just how Malaysian politics develops in tandem with the interest of some international media.