Sad reflection of Malay politics


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 20 Feb 2005

Every Umno general assembly finds a plethora of new political books on Umno politicians and issues. The writers of these books are prolific and fast but do not seem to bother with facts, writes JOCELINE TAN. 

THEY are called penulis upahan, or mercenary writers. They write fast and furious, focusing on topical subjects and timing the release of their books in order for them to sell. 

Their reportedly lucrative occupation is not very difficult, especially if one has some inclination for words and writing. Many of them tailor their deadlines around the annual Umno general assembly and, to a lesser extent, the party muktamar of PAS. 

Among them is Yahaya Ismail, a seasoned name in Malay political circles. He has written so many books – mostly on Malay politics and politicians – that he cannot quite remember the exact number. 

“I think maybe 30 books so far,” he said. 

Nevertheless, even this old hand was surprised by the response to his latest book, published just last month. 

The book, titled Khairy Jamaluddin – Bakal Perdana Menteri (Future Prime Minister), has apparently sold quite well, surpassing Yahaya's previous efforts. 

Much of it has to do with the fact that the subject matter concerns one of Umno's fastest rising stars but it may also have something to do with the provocative title.  

After all, who would not be interested to read about someone who is touted as a prospective prime minister? 

But before people rush out to pay RM29.90 for the book, it might be useful to know that the author has never met his subject matter nor has he ever spoken to him. 

“But I have studied him through his statements and from my own interviews with people. I did some research and decided to explode a bomb,” Yahaya insisted. 

Another oddity: Yahaya's “bomb,” so to speak, took a mere two weeks to write! 

Yahaya, who has a Masters degree from Monash University, is a leading figure among the crop of people writing such political books. 

Another well-known writer, Sayuti Omar, is already at work on a volume on political tensions between the elite class and the rakyat class in Umno. He intends to publish it in time for the Umno general assembly in July. 

Sayuti, a Kelantanese who is well-connected with PAS politicians, has even decided on the title: “Politik Marhaen lawan Politik Bangsawan” (Proletarian politics versus politics of the nobility).  

For these writers, the subject matter is very topical and timing is critical if they want their books to sell. 

Hence, the need for speed.  

Sayuti produced a book on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim barely two months after the latter's release last September. 

But the doyen of this book game must surely be the flamboyant Syed Hussein Alattas, 65, a sort of ageing rocker figure who owns a secluded retreat out in Janda Baik. 

Syed Hussein or Pak Habib, as he is better known, is proud to have three banned books to his name and is working on his 47, which he claimed would be “my masterpiece” now that “hidup saya sudah sampai maghrib” (I am in the twilight of my life). 

Even his calling card is flashy – it is printed on hot-pink paper and has a picture of him in a canary yellow shirt and polka dot tie, shoulder-length locks and all. The reverse side has pictures of his most controversial books. 

But as readers of this genre of political writing would testify, not all of these books are informative or journalistic efforts. 

The mainstay of many of these books, said think-tank analyst Ibrahim Suffian, seems to be based on hearsay and gossip rather than investigative reporting. 

Some of them, he added, border on political fiction. 

“The language used, the coverage of topics, their lack of depth and analysis, the unrefined language – it's a sad reflection of Malay political culture. There is no real debate and it's quite insulting to your intelligence,” said Ibrahim. 

A large number of such books also tend to indulge in conspiracy theories. For instance, Yahaya’s hot cake book paints a scenario where Anwar Ibrahim will become prime minister, appoints Khairy as his deputy, thus paving the way for the younger man to be premier by the age of 40! 

The cliché is that anything is possible in Umno politics but those who understand the politics and procedure of political positioning in Umno would know just how improbable the above scenario is.  

Unfortunately, said one Malay columnist, conspiracy theories find a ready reception among many Malay audiences. 

“The more outlandish, the more people like to read it because it’s more intriguing than factual stuff. Some even like to believe it. I’m not surprised, otherwise how do you explain the fact that the best-selling Malay magazine in this country is about ghosts?” said the columnist. 

One former journalist makes a point of never bringing such books home. 

“I leave them in my office because I don't want to be the one to introduce such things to my children. Malay politics tends to be gossipy, based on personalities rather than issues. These writers are simply tapping into market forces,” he said. 

Admittedly, not all of them fall into this category but it is a well-known fact that some politicians sponsor such books to promote themselves or to run down a rival. 

There have also been occasions of politicians paying in order not to be written about. 

An astute political writer can apparently earn up to a few hundred thousand ringgit in the above manner during election years in Umno. 

But sometimes, such political books are not solely the work of political writers. 

An aide to a Cabinet member admitted he had written six “political books” over the past years, using a number of pseudonyms. Some were to explain his boss' version of issues, others were to highlight the weaknesses and contradictions of Umno's opponent, PAS. 

“We have a very exciting political environment here, unlike, say, Singapore and there is more than one way to say what we want to say,” said the aide. 

The worst of such books, it is said, are often little better than the surat layang or poison-pen letters that flourish during Umno elections. 

But there were also genuine writing efforts during the last Umno election, namely, journalist Datuk Chamil Wariya’s volumes on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohd Khir Toyo. 

“It was good reading and I felt I learnt something from it,” said Kedah politician Guntor Tobeng. 

Incidentally, Yahaya’s book on Khairy is not the first about the deputy Umno Youth leader. 

Syed Hussein Alattas was the first to cash in on the Khairy phenomenon with a small volume titled Anak Omak vs Anak Bapa.  

It was supposedly about the rivalry between Khairy and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir but like most of Syed Hussein’s books, only a handful of chapters were about the two politicians while the remaining chapters skirted topics as diverse as Kelantan politics, religion and even Iraq. 

Around the same time, another book, Kabinet Khairy by Norzah Haji Kepol, also appeared on the market. 

How does one explain three books on someone who has been in politics hardly five years?  

Why is Khairy, who turned 29 last month, such a hot political topic? 

A great deal of it has to do with the fact that the Prime Minister happens to be his father-in-law.  

But there is also his own personality – he is intelligent, articulate and so confident about what he thinks ought to be done that he sometimes comes across as cocky.  

And there is his overall image – looks do matter in politics and he is tall, good-looking and, according to the Puteri Umno girls, sexy. 

He is, whether one likes him or not, one of the most exciting figures to have emerged in Umno in recent years. 

But all this has also added up to a mix of resentment and controversy about his role in Umno.  

He seems to be going through what Datuk Azalina Othman Said, now Youth and Sports Minister, experienced a couple of years ago when vying for the top Puteri post in the wing’s maiden elections. 

Some call it the “shooting star syndrome,” that is, when you rise too fast, people will try to shoot you down. 

And despite resigning as a top aide to the Prime Minister, he has not been able to shake off the impression that he is an influential factor in his father-in-law’s life. 

Yahaya’s reason for writing about him: “His name is mentioned in every conversation I have with Umno politicians. In Umno politics, anyone who is close to the president is very powerful. Even the corporate people talk about him and not all of it is favourable.” 

Just how damaging can such books be to someone like Khairy? 

“Anwar Ibrahim was toppled because of a book. It’s best not to take anything too lightly,” said the above Malay columnist. 

Others say it is best to grit one's teeth and wade through the publicity in silence. They point to the string of books on former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin who simply kept diam (silent) through it all. 

And given the encouraging sales from Yahaya's latest effort, more writers are likely to want to cash in on Khairy. 

The guy is hot.  

But who will get burnt – the author or the subject?  


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