A POLITICIAN politicises. That’s what they do – all the time. It is what they are called. It is their job.
A politician would be irrelevant if he or she cannot engage in or talk about about politics. A successful politician is one who can successfully politicise all sorts of public issues and gain electoral support.
So when a politician says “don’t politicise a subject matter”, never take it wholeheartedly, because they are already politicising a matter just by talking about it.
Last Sunday, I attended a hastily-arranged press conference at a posh hotel in Kuching. The press conference was chaired by the federal Rural and Regional Development Minister, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal.
The minister was surrounded by about half a dozen other state ministers and assistant ministers, including bigwigs like Industrial Development Minister Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hasan.
Clearly, it was an occasion ripe for politics. Not a single non-politician (except members of the media) was in the room.
Shafie had convened the press conference to rebut claims of religious discrimination at Mara Junior Science Colleges, which are elite secondary schools for bumiputras.
He denied the allegations right off the bat. He tip-toed around the most direct questions.
When asked if the allegedly discriminatory rules against non-Muslims would be amended, Shafie responded by saying he personally felt it was “not right” (he would not even use the word “wrong”) if such rules existed.
Shafie could not be drawn into discussions over whether the rules existed, even though the printed guidelines had already been widely circulated online.
“If there is such a rule that prevents anyone from practicing their religion, that is not right ... For Sarawak and Sabah, there is a different approach. If there was such a rule, we can retract it,” I quoted him as saying in my report.
Because the minister was evading direct questions, no two reports that were published shared the same headline.
For The Star, my editors went with the headline, “Guidelines don’t forbid Bibles in school, says Shafie”.
A Sarawak-based daily’s headline was “Untrue MRSM restricts religious freedom”.
And an online portal went with “Mara to end rules curbing religious freedom in Sabah, Sarawak institutions”.
This difference in reporting despite coming from the same press conference is because the media struggled to figure out what the minister really wanted to say.
For instance, towards the end of the press conference, Shafie was asked how his ministry, which is in charge of the schools, intended to prevent future allegations of religious discrimination.
He answered by saying: “What is important to us is that, don’t politicise education matters too much. Ya? This is a place to educate our young people. If there are problems... just tell us, rather than just politicising it. We can overcome it...”
His answer went on and on. It was a long reply that did not exactly answer the question.
In fact, listening again on the press conference now, I am amused to hear the minister also spoke that about how 90% of Chinese voters in his constituency voted for him. True as that may be, but what does that have to with education?
Furthermore, this whole issue of religious discrimination originated from a parent, who after seeing the guidelines, posted a copy on Facebook. The parent was a retired airforce serviceman from Simunjan.
The complainant was not a politician. All he did was raise the issue, just like how Shafie had called on people to “just tell us”. He was not politicising the matter.
It is politicians who politicise education. Always.
In the Sarawak-based newspaper on Tuesday, I counted eight stories related to education. On the front page, there was a story quoting a Mara official repeating what Shafie had said.
In the following pages, there were a number of articles on the lack of local teachers serving in Sarawak’s schools. The story given the most prominence on this matter quoted a politician.
Further in the newspaper, there were stories on Chinese education. There were two stories that were given more prominence, and both quoted politicians. Finally, there was also a story on Chinese education quoting a member of the opposition.
Of the eight education stories, only three began with interviews from non-politicians; two quoting teacher union leaders.
When it comes to politicising matters, education is one of the most politicised. How often do we read about what non-politicians have to say about the state of education? Are our politicians limiting or encouraging university academics to speak freely on the important issues of the day? Is the public discussing issues more or less rationally these days, and how often do issues boil down to divisive politics?
Who always gets to have the last word?