Here is the email I was going to send to Rehman Rashid, author of what I’m tempted to describe as the best book I’ve read this year, A Malaysian Journey.
A few weeks ago I was invited to come speak in Kuala Lumpur on how governments around the world have responded to the challenges posed by the rise of citizen media – you know, blogs, podcasts, and the like. The stuff old school journalists like yourself tend to obsess over and demonize at the same time. My co-panelist, I learned, was named Marina Mahatir and her name was spoken with a degree of reverence. She was (didn’t I know this already? they asked) the daughter of Malaysia’s most famous and infamous leader. She was also a former journalist and now an enthusiastic blogger in support of free speech.
I had known none of this and so clearly I had quite a bit of reading to do before trying to speak authoritatively about any subject at all. On a stopover at KLIA’s budget hub I visited the bookstore across from McDonalds and read the first page of every book lumped together on the ‘Malaysia’ shelf.
You had me by the end of the first paragraph. And the reason why – I hope you don’t cringe at this – is because your writing had nothing of the stuffy and defensive air of South East Asian analysis that I had come to expect. No, it felt much more like reading a wandering and distracted blog. In other words, once I started, I couldn’t stop turning the pages.
Until now, sitting pool-side at a Nairobi hotel whose façade of swankiness gently gives way to lethargic maids, leaky pipes, and still-moist towels. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that the author who is supposed to be introducing me to Malaysia, its history, culture and people, is also the ex-boyfriend of the person I will soon be speaking with.
Which makes me feel all the more like I’m reading a blog and not a book – this is exactly the kind of interconnectedness that has become routine online, but still seems behind-closed-doors in the self-censored world of print publishing.
I have no idea where I’m sending this email to, nor for that matter why I am sending it, but serendipity has always been enough to inspire me to hold out my hand and offer a greeting. Especially to someone I already feel that I know (and here blogs and books are equally deceiving). I have hopes that you’ll receive this email with your sandals still wet after a dive somewhere in Bermuda.
If, instead, you happen to be in KL, I’d be most honored to meet you and to learn what the future might hold for you and what you might hold for the future. I’ll be in KL from Oct. 1 – 5. The event’s organizers have promised to keep me busy, but I’m sure that I could sneak out for a cup of coffee or a meal if you’re available.
But then, just before pressing send, I googled his name. Standard procedure, right?
There is an irony in the fact that Rehman Rashid’s online reputation has been written by the very people he chose to attack, Malaysia’s blogging community. Here are his words from a column this March titled “Broken down in the barnyard of free expression”:
The local blogosphere is the domain of life-challenged grumblestiltskins and disenfranchised pundits whose asinine maunderings only show why they should never have had day jobs in the first place. Rumour, inuendo, half-truths and damned lies are their stock-in-trade, and previously sacrosanct standards, principles and ethics are now laughable. Are they not entitled to their opinion? Of course they are, as much as everyone is entitled to ignore them. I would venture, however, that everyone has an opinion and a rectum, and not that many seem capable of telling one from the other.
Distinguishing an opinion from a rectum? I’m not sure where he’s going with that one, but it makes for a lovely visual. Of course – as I’m sure Rashid knew they would – the Malaysian bloggers pounced. Rocky alone attracted over 100 comments. The most disingenuous statement, however – the one that Rashid should actually be ashamed of – is this:
previously sacrosanct standards, principles and ethics are now laughable.
Sacrosanct! Malaysian journalism? Rashid himself has been hired and fired from the New Straits Times multiple times throughout his career as he has struggled maintaining a balance between his idealism and his elitism. In 1987 he left the paper after being reprimanded for writing a scathing editorial criticising the Mahatir government for banning three newspapers during Operasi Lalang. (In his book, he writes of the episode: “I cannot look back upon this episode now without the greatest shame. So feebly had I defended myself. A word for the journalistic fraternity, and then it was yes sir no sir three bags full sir. My capitulation was completely, and virtually immediate.”) He later rejoined the paper, but was booted again in 2003 after refusing to ghost-write for editor-in-chief Abdullah Ahmad. He’s now back at the New Straits Times, a newspaper which is still owned and controlled by UMNO, Malaysia’s institutionalized ruling party. Sacrosanct standards?
Rashid knows that blogging is good for his country. In fact, in 1993, when A Malaysian Journey was first published, he pleaded for the impending communications revolution. This is how he put it:
I had come to think of Malaysia as a galaxy of stars in a night sky: uncountable motes of brilliance in the dark, each of them shining with an internal light. But each shining alone. Brilliant Malaysians were everywhere: in business, industry, the media, the schools and colleges, the cities, towns and villages. But so many seemed to burn alone, unaware of the existence of the others. The key was to link them. Network them. Let each shining light extend a ray of talent and ability to the others, conjoining, reinforcing, enfolding each individual seed of potential in a nourishing field of support. When that multitude of stars began irradiating each other, when their light began to mingle, then the night would be transformed into day, and their light would illuminate this nation, and not merely glow in the darkness like a constellation of fanciful dreams.
Of course, that is precisely what blogging has enabled in Malaysia. Those ‘uncountable motes of brilliance’ are SK Thew and Bernard Khoo, Marina Mahatir and Malik Imtiaz, Tony Yew and Nathaniel Tan. The list goes on. Just five years ago, most of them had no idea who the others were.
But so far, I admit, we have been unfair to Mr. Rashid. The above excerpt from his column is just one tangential rant of a larger neo-Luddite manifesto. Just like Ned Lud destroyed sock-making machines during England’s Industrial Revolution because he feared they would ruin the livelihoods of human knitters, Rehman Rashid says he would like to destroy all “devices of information & communications technology.” Why? Probably because he fears for his own livelihood. Rehman Rashid – the 1993 idealist – wanted all of Malaysia’s brilliance to shine. The 2007 elitist, however, has discovered that the brilliance of Malaysian bloggers has dimmed the previously established uniqueness of his own column and voice. Rashid is a great writer and a keen observer. But then, so are hundreds if not thousands of other Malaysians and I think he resents the crowds within the kingdom of commentary.
I have great sympathy for Rehman Rashid. Unlike his colleagues Rocky and A. Kadir Jasin, Rashid hasn’t been patient enough or clever enough to use the new technology to his benefit. Or maybe just not humble enough.
Which is too bad because there are signs that he would have made a brilliant blogger. Just check out this comment that he left on Aizuddin Danian’s blog back in March of 2005:
It seems to me we each have an idea of who we are, and each of us lives in the hope of finding someone who can see us the way we see ourselves. To see through our words what we truly mean; to judge from our actions, our true intent. This is almost laughably difficult, but this, I think, is our yearning as human beings. But why is it so difficult, so rare and precious, to have others see us as we see ourselves, and know us as we know ourselves? It has been said that “the sins done to us we carry in a pouch around our neck; our own in a sack on our backs”. This is why, I have learned, everyone you meet can teach you part of what you need to know about yourself. No exceptions. You learn from them what you are to them. They can see the sack on our back. It can be a most humbling experience, but it is usually useful. It does not lighten the burden, but it can enlighten it.