Did Ahmad Ismail made the racial remark which was reported by Sin Chew paper? This central fact seems to be lost in the responses from various parties to the controversy. As a post-election monitoring of the Permatang Pauh by-election MAFREL call upon all parties to give factual/truth based settlement its due central place. Let’s examine how some responses deviate/undermine the truth based approach:
DPM Mohd Najib reportedly apologised over the remark `if the remark hurt the feeling of the Chinese community’. While this is taken as equivalent to an apology about the content of the racial remark(if verified) it is patently not identical. By the logic of the `apology’ if the remark did not receive complaints from the Chinese community then it is OK, no matter what the content may be. The PM follow up on this approach to ask Ahmad Ismail to apologise.
Then Ahmad Ismail reportedly refused to apologise on the ground that he never made the offending remark. To be exact he did admit that he made the `Chinese are immigrants’ remark -but he claimed that he meant to say it `in the historical context’ only. So he charged that the journalist quoted him out of context. Now did he actually made the historical context clear in his speech at Permatang Pauh-or is it an afterthought? Real witnesses or recording of the speech probably are the only ways to verify this. There are the 3 journalists and about 200 audience present at the ceramah-why are their help not tapped to obtain the truth? By jumping over this step it seems that there is an attempt to do damage control-which is a public relation exercise rather than a truth seeking approach.
Rather than seeking the truth the Opposition Leader of Penang State Assembly from UMNO Azhar Ibrahim (Penaga), along 13 UMNO division leaders, supported Ahamd Ismail’s stand. He claimed the misreporting could cause a racial riot and thus the reporter should be shot. Thus far there is no racial riot in the week after the report surfaced-though political parties -chiefly from BN, had criticised Ahmad/UMNO based on the report. There is no violent reaction due to a simple reason: everyone take the statement, repugnant as it appeared to them, as part of a civil debate. Just as past reprimand against sexist remarks by other politicians. Azhar’s exaggeration of the effect of the report seems to aim at justifying his equally exaggerated punishment for the alleged wrongdoer ie death by shooting. Such prosecutor-jury-executioner combination role only exemplify the conduct of dictators or feudal kings! By threatening violence to the reporter-and not showing much commitment to seek the truth, they seems to be afraid that the truth may not be on their side.
Some other distractions to this truth seeking approach are: some commentators try to justify the `pendatang’ remark by linking it to past questioning of Malays’ rights by non-Malays. This seems to admit the guilt than to defend Ahmad-something which Ahmad himself had not conceded. The journalists had pointed out that politicians has the habit to blame journalist for misreporting -and they had asked 2 other journalists present to become witnesses to the report. So far the score on seeking truth is : politicians: 0; Journalists : 1.
While the truth based approach is a missing element in the debate among politicians there is another angle to this debate: should Ahmad Ismail be prosecuted under Sedition Act for making racial statement -if this is verified? There is a strong stand by civil society groups that Ahmad should not be prosecuted under Sedition Act-an act which had more often been used or threatened to be used against civil society groups/individuals -and which restrict freedom of speech. Ahmad and his supporters should be punished by falling political support if they persist. And the Permatang Pauh by-election result seems to bear out that the racial campaigning by UMNO, among others, had caused UMNO/BN to lose worse than in the Mar General Elections. So it seems that racial campaign is not so voters friendly as some may like to think.
So what is the police doing about the investigation into Ahamd’s `racial remark’? Are they going after the truth or are they waiting for instruction from `above’? Or are they waiting for the issue to be overtaken by others-but leaving an inconclusive settlement hanging in the people’s collective consciousness?