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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Arul Kanda’s war of words


“Before 1MDB, there was more freedom for us to do our job.”
– Mustapha Kamil, former group editor of the New Straits Times
1MDB chief executive officer Arul Kanda’s verbal tirades against Malaysiakini columnist P Gunasegeram is unacceptable, but more importantly, it reinforces the negative stereotype (sometimes racist but always predictable) of him on social media and the comments section of the alternative press.
One of Arul’s roles – I would argue his main role, considering the controversies surrounding 1MDB – is to communicate his position through the press, even more so when dealing with media he considers (for whatever reasons) hostile.
As someone who has had conversations with Arul, he always comes across as thoughtful even though he is operating under certain pressures. He is rational even when we have often found ourselves in disagreement, all of which makes his attacks against Gunasegaram even more illogical.
If the CEO of 1MDB considered Gunasegaram’s article personal attacks against him, then he should have replied in a professional manner with a rebuttal, which Malaysiakini would have surely published. This, of course, is par for the course when it comes to the media and public personalities, and that includes, in my definition, anyone who writes comments pieces. Malaysiakini has published letters of people disagreeing with my positions and I have responded accordingly in the letter section.
Or Arul could have taken up Gunasegaram’s offer to be in a panel discussion or to debate the issue one-on-one with the veteran journalist who has spent considerable time and effort covering the 1MDB issue. Either option would have demonstrated that the CEO of 1MDB was eager to correct any misconceptions and was interested in keeping the dialogue open between the organisation he represents and the media.
Instead, the rhetoric used by the 1MDB CEO – “fake news”, “coward”, “keyboard warrior”, etc – is exactly the kind used by partisans engaged in a political war that Arul claims not to be a part of.  Indeed, Arul makes the claim that the opposition media and opposition politicians are not interested in debating the “facts” but when the opportunity arises for Arul to do just that, he declines.
While Arul has every right to decline to appear on a panel or debate Gunasegaram, he weakens his position when he refuses to address the contents of Gunasegaram’s column but instead engages in ad hominems. Facts are always in dispute and to claim that whoever does not agree with the facts you present are wrong - instead of engaging that person - is the very act of creating fake news.
If the job was to change the narrative that the 1MDB was not a noose around the current Umno grand poobah’s neck, then this attack against a journalist, who is one of the main critics of the 1MDB scandal, by using the language of “Umno” is merely reinforcing the narrative that the opposition, its supporters and anyone concerned with this issue is right and that the prime minister has something to hide.
Furthermore, the “coward” insult is really inappropriate because anyone who has read Gunasegaram’s pieces would realise that he has taken many unpopular positions with regards to the opposition which has earned the ire of opposition supporters who vent against his pieces on social media. For instance, he argued that DAP leader Lim Guan Eng should step down, that the opposition is wrong about the GST, and of course, his public comments are well known on what he thinks of Dr Mahathir Mohamad role in leading the opposition.
These are not the writings of a coward. Indeed, in one memorable incident, Gunasegaram had to actually respond in the comment section of the “fake news” that he was “fired” from his former place of work.
Open to scrutiny
Arul decries opposition leaders who he claims have called him a liar and worse, but chooses to attack a columnist merely on the basis that he wasn’t there at the interview.
Can we conclude that nobody has a right to comment on the 1MDB issue merely because they weren’t there when the CEO of 1MDB sat down with Malaysiakini? Are we seriously to believe that nobody has the right to dissect the comments made by public personalities in their interviews? Are we seriously to consider that when someone makes a public statement, which is what an interview is, that is the end of the matter and nobody should scrutinise or dissects those comments?
How many times political operatives from the establishment gave interviews in Malaysiakini and columnists, concerned citizens and political operatives from the opposition commented on them? The answer is all the time. When you give an interview, you open yourself to scrutiny. It is the same when you write a comment piece.
The irony, of course, is that by attacking Gunasegaram, what Arul has done is squander any positive impressions he made when he sat down with Malaysiakini for his extensive interview. When the interviews first came out, people were talking about it. Everyone I spoke to, even though they disagreed with Arul, thought it was impressive that he sat down – in Malaysiakini of all places – and answered questions, which most political operatives, establishment or opposition, would not do.
They may have disagreed with the answers he gave but the general impression was that this was more of what was needed in the alternative press. Indeed, not everyone who reads Malaysiakini does so because they are “pro-opposition”. People read Malaysiakini for all sorts of reasons. They know that they won’t get what they want from the mainstream media and so, they hope that Malaysiakini will ask the questions they want answers to.
Anecdotally speaking, most people were impressed that Arul actually withstood three hours of “interrogation” and they wished that opposition politicians were subjected to the same scrutiny for what they say and do.
That said, Malaysiakini is not the final arbiter of the “truth”. It never will be. Interviews done should be an attempt at fact-finding and not an exercise in partisan posturing. This last part, maybe I am guilty of, which is a good a way as any to end this piece.
Full disclosure: I encouraged Arul Kanda – who I know – to do an interview with Malaysiakini. By no means am I claiming that the interview happened because of me. Neither the editorial board of Malaysiakini nor Gunasegaram encouraged me to write this article.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy. -Mkini

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