AMID the squalor and unsavouriness of recent political events and Anwar Ibrahim’s sudden arrest, the televised debate on the price of fuel by the PKR advisor and the Information Minister Shabery Cheek stood out as a beacon of where we should be heading as a nation.
As I watched the two men, (ably moderated by Datuk Johan Jaffar) debate, I felt an immense surge of pride for my country: finally, I thought we are beginning to reach a level of maturity where we can discuss and argue through issues of the day.
For too long we’ve been told that we cannot manage the discourse; that Malaysians will flare up, be overly emotional and riot. Apparently, we are a little better than small children whilst our political class is of course, beyond reproach – believe that and you’ll believe anything. Indeed, we want more openness – in our politics, our media and our government.
And for those in Umno who shirk the engagement with their political counterparts – shame on you. Shabery has shown rare courage and intelligence under fire. That he – a junior minister – was left to tackle Anwar (an acknowledged political giant) alone, reflects the enduring spirit of Umno’s younger leaders and a great deal – mostly negative – about the party’s grandees for whom public-speaking is a one-way process: we, the people listen as they lecture us.
The debate showed that both sides of the political divide could come together and discuss in an open, civil and rational manner. Frankly, this fact far outweighs whatever arguments the two men put forward on the oil price hike.
I would like to think that Malaysia has reached another milestone. The clock cannot and should not be turned back on media freedoms – the next target must be the invidious Printing and Publications Act.
Despite, or perhaps because of recent rumblings that ordinary Malaysians were “sick of politics”, both Anwar and Shabery chose to focus on the issue at hand and keep rhetoric to a minimum.
The Information Minister acquitted himself very well, and one dares say surprised many Malaysians who had grown used to Cabinet members embarrassing themselves on the public stage.
Shabery was well prepared and blessedly free of the elitist cadences that make listening to Malaysian grandees so dreary. Shabery has definitely raised the bar for his Cabinet colleagues.
We will now expect to see Prime Minister and his deputy, not to mention the rest of the Cabinet in similar encounters. The pressure of accountability and openness will be intense and continuous.
It will not let up. But remember if you treat us – the media – with contempt you are essentially broadcasting your contempt and disdain for the people who read our papers, internet sites and watch our TV news broadcasts.
However, if our leaders refuse to brave the gauntlet of public opinion the people’s scepticism and distrust will only increase. Of course the debate wasn’t without its nasty undercurrents as both men traded barbed comments about one another. But this is politics and underhanded behaviour is to be expected. Still, the debate was extremely civil in the main.
The ultimate winner of the night may well be Malaysia and her people.