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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Civility in the US, vitriol in Penang


Tan Siok Choo, The Sun

A CIVIL servant makes a speech. Heavily edited and later publicised, the speech makes the speaker appear racially biased. Journalists and politicians suggest the civil servant should be sacked. After the civil servant resigns, the full speech is published showing its theme of racial reconciliation had been turned into a racist rant.

This incident happened not in Penang but in the US. Nevertheless, last week’s fiasco involving Shirley Sherrod, state director of rural development in Georgia, provides a useful counterpoint to the spat between Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and State Development Officer (SDO) Nik Ali Mat Yunus.

In the US, Sherrod’s speech was edited by a conservative group to suggest she had discriminated against a white farmer. Last Monday, Fox News Channel aired the edited excerpt and host Bill O’Reilly called for Sherrod’s resignation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack obliged and asked Sherrod to leave.

However, the unedited version of Sherrod’s speech showed the black civil servant had helped the white farmer and was recounting the experience to illustrate that race should never be considered in dealings with others.

Thereafter, President Barack Obama telephoned the US Agriculture Department employee to express his regret over her forced resignation while Vilsack offered Sherrod his apologies and a unique new position in the department.

In contrast to the furore in Penang, one aspect of the Sherrod imbroglio stands out. Although the exchanges in the US were heated, they were civilised. Apart from labelling Sherrod a racist, name calling was notably absent. This contrasts with the volleys of verbal vitriol in Penang between Nik Ali and Guan Eng.

This prompts several questions: Is civility now an endangered trait in Malaysia? Why isn’t it possible for two persons to disagree without being disgustingly disagreeable?

Instead of being an intellectual exchange of views, why has public discourse in this country become increasingly foul mouthed? In Parliament, for example, name-calling seldom prompts any serious censure.

One printable epithet used is "monkey". But if news reports are to be believed, one member of Parliament has used the f-word in proceedings and demonstrated his familiarity with lewd gestures.

Admittedly, Nik Ali was provoked by Guan Eng who described him as "incompetent, useless, unprofessional and a coward and should be sacked". Why wasn’t it possible for Nik Ali to respond calmly, forcefully and politely?

Instead, Nik Ali ratcheted up the bile by lambasting the chief minister as biadab (disrespectful) and dayus (coward).

Again, Sherrod’s forced ouster is instructive. By agreeing to resign instead of challenging her political masters over an unjust decision or indulging in invective, Sherrod has proven herself the quintessential civil servant.

What the vituperation in Penang obscures is a major issue of interest to investors, whether local or foreign – the delineation of authority between a state government and the federal government as represented by the SDO.

Guan Eng has criticised Nik Ali’s role in three projects – the arches in the Botanical Gardens that had to be demolished, the Penang Hill funicular train service and the alleged sand mining in Balik Pulau.

While Nik Ali and his defenders claim these issues are not within the SDO’s jurisdiction, no information has been given on which entity is the proper authority.

Furthermore, the timing of the Penang spat is inopportune. Released last Thursday, the World Investment Report 2010 (WIR 2010) showed foreign direct investment (FDI) in Malaysia tumbled by 81.1% to just US$1.38 billion last year, the biggest fall among the Asean nine countries. Brunei’s FDI was not included in WIR 2010.

So precipitate was the slide in US dollar terms, Malaysia’s FDI last year was the third lowest among the Asean nine – surpassing only Laos and Cambodia.

That Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam managed to secure US$4.5 billion to US$6 billion in FDI in a financially challenging global environment underscores their increasing attractiveness to foreign investors. Even the Philippines, despite its multiple problems, managed to secure marginally more FDI than Malaysia.

Furthermore, any attempt by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) to undermine Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in Selangor and Penang – the two most industrialised states in this country – could be counter-productive, economically and politically.

A fractious relationship between BN and PR in Selangor and Penang could prompt foreign investors to opt for other countries rather than run the risk of being the beefburger in any tussle between Putrajaya and the state government.

Politically, in the next general election, obstruction by the federal government – whether perceived or real – will provide an excellent excuse for PR’s shortcomings in governing Penang and
Selangor.

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