Doing the Limbo

Limbo rock: How low can the media go?

"Limbo rock, how l-o-o-w can you go?" Pretty low, the Malaysian media responded, as can be seen by the way they bent backwards to churn out unethical propaganda for the Barisan Nasional in the run up to the general election. A weary Dr Mustafa K. Anuar, who spent sleepless nights after being barraged by the crude propaganda, has the story.

If there was an international limbo dance contest to mark the end of this millennium, Malaysia’s mainstream media would have easily won hands down, particularly if they were judged on their performance during Malaysia’s recent general elections.

For those who are wondering what the connection is between the limbo and the Malaysian mainstream media, the limbo is a dance originating from the West Indies that requires the dancer to bend the knees as much as possible while bending backwards and walking several times below a bar that gets progressively lower as the chant of "how low can you go?" reverberates. The most accomplished dancers appear to have flexible or rubber spines, maybe even no backbone.

In the run-up to the recent general elections, Malaysia’s mainstream media were still able to spring a surprise. Most Malaysians had expected that the media would play a crucial role in campaigning for the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) and would, therefore, be necessarily biased against the Opposition. But many were quite shocked that the media as a whole not only played to the tune of the BN, but also stooped even lower in their relentless efforts to ensure that the BN would be returned to power.

As in previous general elections, the mainstream media depicted BN politicians as political creatures who were ever ready to listen to the grievances and needs of ordinary Malaysians - never mind the fact that in the past few years some of them hardly went to their constituencies or entertained legitimate criticisms. In fact, the BN politicians were painted as leaders who were also eager to grant financial assistance and make development promises during the campaign period even though the BN government by that time was only a caretaker government.

In contrast, the Barisan Alternatif (BA) was usually portrayed as a party riddled with acute problems. Granted certain BA leaders did publicly express conflicting opinions, but the mainstream media exaggerated this to such an extent that the BA leaders were invariably depicted as working at cross-purposes.

Below the Belt

But what really hit the opposition below the belt was a series of crude and unethical advertisements, splashed over the mainstream media, that were calculated to scare voters, particularly the non-Malays, about the Opposition. One ad, for instance, warned, "Vote Opposition and you vote the country into chaos"; another exhorted, "Don’t gamble our future"; and yet another: "They caused riots destroying property, endangering lives and affecting the livelihood of hawkers and small businessmen in this country". Moreover, in the ads as well as in pseudo news-reports, the Malaysian public was warned in no uncertain terms that a vote for the DAP was a vote for Pas, the advocate of an Islamic state.

As if to shock Malaysian voters even more, visual images of political instability that had beset other countries were displayed over television as if to remind Malaysians not to court trouble by flirting with the Opposition. There’s no need to experiment with the Opposition, these visuals seemed to point out; otherwise, your economic progress and prosperity would be gravely affected. Which is why these grim images were complemented by others depicting gratitude. For example, there was this video clip, entitled "Impian Menjadi Nyata" (Dreams Become Reality), which showed two old Malay men expressing gratitude towards the BN government for having helped their respective sons to be trained as medical doctors. In the New Straits Times on 23 November 1999, on the other hand, you got, for instance, a group of Sikh organisations in a one-page ad uttering in a chorus: "We don’t bite the hand that feeds us".

Indeed, visuals are normally considered as having better persuasive power. And so Wan Azizah, president of the opposition keADILan and wife of the former deputy prime minister, was "granted" a rare appearance on prime time TV in the run-up to the elections—but, of course, only to express her doubts about her own husband. This video clip apparently was put together from her previous interview with an Australian journalist so that her reply to one particular question in this interview was then taken out of context and spliced with an unrelated question.

TV talk shows were another favourite mechanism used by the stations concerned to propagate the "virtues" of the BN through determined topics of discussion as well as chosen chairpersons and invited speakers. Demonstrating its warped sense of balanced journalism, one TV station, for instance, showed initially a video clip of a BA personality talking about a particular issue which lasted for a few seconds or minutes. Subsequently, in the next segment of the talk show, his arguments were challenged until the cows came home by a BN-inclined, guest speaker in the studio. The BA chap had no way of rebutting.

As polling day drew nearer, a few mainstream dailies particularly the Malay and English language ones, which masqueraded as genuine newspapers, "reported" an exodus of defections of, say, keADILan and PAS members to UMNO. keADILan, for example, could only refute these allegations via the Internet. In another development: in an attempt to humiliate Anwar Ibrahim and, by implication, to disgrace the Reformasi movement, certain individuals or groups freely distributed videos purportedly revealing Anwar sexual trysts at bus stops and phone booths in Kuala Lumpur and other Malay-majority parts of the country.

In the meantime, many of the mainstream newspapers published a large number of letters to the editor that sang praises of the BN and poured scorn on the Opposition. There were times when a few of those letters became rather too familiar that it made one wonder whether they were written by the same group of letter writers.

And to think that all these sordid acts were committed while some TV stations still showed religious programmes that exhorted humans, particularly those of the Islamic persuasion, to conscientiously work towards building a virtuous character. It is as if the slander, lies, character assassination that were perpetrated via the media did not contradict religious values and teachings. In other words, there’s no better way to mock a faith than this.

Bogus Harakah

Of course, we would be indulging in lies if we were to insist that only the BN got the much-needed publicity in the media. As intimated above, the BA, too, was covered by the media but most of the time it was depicted in a negative light. In terms of ads, the BA, too, was given a limited opportunity to advertise in a few Chinese papers and The Star. In the case of The Star, the BA had to succumb to the dictates of the daily, with the result that a number of editorial restrictions and changes dampened the desired impact of the ads.

True, the BA also managed to advertise in the popular Harakah, the party organ of PAS, but this effort was stifled by the fact that the tabloid is only bi-weekly. Thus, the reach was much less compared with the BN’s ad blitz via the print and electronic media. Be that as it may, the BA ad that was splashed in the Harakah, "Buang yang keruh, ambil yang jernih" (Discard the murky, select the clear) is arguably one of the best crafted.

Unfortunately, the popularity of Harakah apparently "inspired" certain individuals to publish a fake Harakah, whose contents were primarily aimed at inflicting maximum damage to the reputation of PAS and the BA as a whole. But perhaps due to haste or bad planning, many easily saw the bogus Harakah, which was distributed freely in the run-up to the elections, for what it was: a crude fake.

The mainstream media’s low stoop was made more pronounced by the active work of reformasi webmasters. A lie spun by, say, a certain newspaper was immediately corrected by the websites concerned. The recently launched (, for instance, managed to point out that the biggest Chinese language newspaper, Sin Chew Jit Poh, had altered a 1995 group picture of BN leaders by replacing the head of ousted deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim with that of the present deputy premier, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The editor concerned had to apologise for this "editorial oversight".

The BN-controlled media might have achieved their objectives in the recent elections to a certain extent —but at the expense of whatever credibility and reputation they had left. They themselves have to do serious some soul-searching especially if they are to face the challenges of the next millennium. Unless they do so and stem the rot, they will find the limbo bar being lowered even further in future.