Of elbow room and breathing space

THIS column is my pride and my pain. Pride because it has given me a platform to share my thoughts and views on a wide range of topics and issues. Pain because whenever my deadline looms, I agonise over what to write and how to write it.

When I started So Aunty, So What? on March 1, 2012, I had no idea how long this column would last.

Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich once said no one could write a good column for more than five years and she vowed she herself would move on after five years. She’s still writing her column after 27 years and still going strong.

My column is seven years old but I don’t think I can beat Schmich’s record. She started at 38, I started at 53.

About three years into writing this column, I started having doubts about the point of it all. That was when the previous government began behaving really badly and becoming increasingly repressive as the 1MDB scandal broke.

Like many citizens, I was deeply alarmed at how important values in a multiracial Malaysia, like pluralism and liberalism, were demonised and attacked by leaders who were out to shore up their flagging popularity.

So I wrote in defence of such va­­lues, pleaded for mutual respect and understanding and a stop to divisive racial politics.

But things just kept getting worse and worse and the Sedition Act was used like a blunderbuss to silence critics.

I didn’t get hauled up on any charges because I was always very careful in how I presented my case so there was nothing “they” could nail me with. It was my form of guerrilla journalism. I would take a potshot (with what felt like a mere air gun that annoyed more than hurt), duck and wait it out before I stuck my head out again.

But that did not protect me completely from the wrath of Umno leaders and I came under attack by pro-Barisan Nasional bloggers. My bosses then shielded me as best as they could and more importantly, I was allow­ed to keep my column.

Still, it was undoubtedly the lowest and most painful point in my very long career in The Star that goes back 42 years because after that I was no longer in the newsroom.

Despite this episode, I never once considered myself as extraordinary or courageous. I am simply too chicken to be so. Readers thought I was and praised me thus, which embarrassed me.

To me, the really brave journa­lists are those working in really evil and repressive states and put their lives on the line to defend the right of their fellow citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

While we may have teetered close to the edge of insanity, fortunately no Malaysian journalist disappeared, was tortured or killed in the line of duty.

But during those difficult Najib years, we had brave writers, journalists and satirists who tried hard to highlight the abuses, corruption and excesses.

Political cartoonist Zunar is a shi­ning example. He endured harassment and raids and in 2015 faced up to 43 years in prison for critici­sing the Barisan government. These charges were dropped after Pakatan Harapan came to power.

I really love his motto: “How can I be neutral? Even my pen has a stand.”

Now that is what I call courageous.

And despite the interference and instructions that came from the powers that be then, I can ho­nest­ly say The Star editors still tried their best to give fair and ba­­lanced stories. And my so-called brave columns were published because I had brave editors who approved them.

In the year since the 14th General Election on May 9, the media landscape has changed somewhat and there is more elbow room and breathing space.

My previous column, “In need of courageous leadership”, in which I strongly criticised the current Education Minister, struck a chord in many readers who again thought I was pretty brave to speak up and articulate what they felt and thought.

I thank all of them who took the trouble to tell me so. But I repeat: I am not brave at all. In post-GE14, we do have more freedom to criticise the government without being derogatory, insulting and malicious.

Still, cynical me does wonder how long this “honeymoon period” will last.

After all, all over the world, lea­ders and governments typically get antsy and sensitive when they start losing public support. And we still have swords hanging over our heads in the form of many draconian laws yet to be repealed, if ever.

As we know, according to a poll by independent survey company Merdeka Center, the approval rating for the Pakatan government has plunged from 79% on May 31, 2018, to 39% on March 11, 2019.

Even Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s approval rating dropped from 71% in August 2018 to 46%.

Merdeka Center blamed the low ratings on the public perception that the “country was headed in the wrong direction”.

But despite my own disappointment and anger over some of Pakatan’s decisions and U-turns, I am still convinced we did the right thing to change governments.

That conviction has just been reinforced by Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

Remember how our jaws drop­ped when trolley-loads of luxurious items estimated to be worth RM1bil were confiscated in a series of police raids on the Najib family resi­dences last year?

I was reminded of just how rotten and deep the corruption was when it was reported on May 25 that Rosmah’s long-time and now very frustrated Lebanese jewellery firm, Global Royalty Trading (SAL), which is suing her for the return of 44 pieces sent for her viewing, had inspected 12,000 pieces of jewellery collected from those raids to find those missing pieces worth US$14.79mil (RM62mil).

This time my jaw hit the floor and it still hurts! Mein Gott, twelve thousand – I just have to spell it out – pieces of jewellery!

So yes, I am all for giving space to Dr M and Pakatan to make it right and steer Malaysia towards greater de­mo­­cracy, peace, justice and prosperity, but I also hope on their part they will continue to give space to peaceful dissent and criticism.

That way, this columnist can join her pen and continue to make a stand against issues that are important to her beloved country be it bad politics, bad policies or bad food!

  • ‘So Aunty So What? and some more’, a compilation of many of Wong’s articles is out in bookstores. The official launch is on Friday at the Popular BookFest.


Across The Star Online

Air Pollutant Index

Highest API Readings

    Select State and Location to view the latest API reading

    Source: Department of Environment, Malaysia