Sunday, August 07 2005

THE SUNDAY COLUMN: Rumour and the Ugly Malaysian

By Kalimullah Hassan

CHRISTOPHER J. LaFleur, the United States ambassador, has been in the country several months and has grown to appreciate the many things Malaysian that we hold dear: peace, racial and religious harmony and moderation.
LaFleur is very pleasant company and it is easy to like him. Just like his British counterpart Bruce Cleghorn, people will find him a very good diplomat. You may not agree with everything he believes in but you respect him for his views.
But like most diplomats and foreigners in Malaysia, Mr LaFleur, too, has noticed one thing about Malaysia — we are obsessed with rumours.
On Friday at 3.15pm, I did a word search on Yahoo for ‘rumour’ and there were 15.4 million results. The top item was: M’sia denies rumours that health of PM’s wife has declined — Borneo Bulletin
It is not the first time. And it will not be the last. Rumour mongering is an age-old affliction affecting every society. Only, in Malaysia, we seem to have too much of it.
Those who are old enough and lived through that worst period in our country’s history, the May 13 riots, will remember how rumours further inflamed the bloodletting.
Every night, when the television programmes came on, there would be regular announcements asking Malaysians not to spread rumours.
Small orange stickers with the words Jangan sekali-kali sebarkan khabar angin (Do not spread rumours) in four languages — Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil and Mandarin — were distributed throughout the country.
Kids like me had fun sticking these on to our textbooks, chairs and windowpanes, not knowing the seriousness of that message.
We just have to pause and ask ourselves: could some lives have been saved if rumours had not inflamed emotions? The answer has to be yes.
And what does that make those who started the rumours? Murderers, no less.
There are so many wise sayings and quotations about rumours over the centuries past, and yet, it is the nature of human beings that they seldom pause to think of the effect they have on others.
Alexander Pope, in his Temple of Fame, said:
The flying rumours gather’d as they roll’d
Scarce any tale was sooner heard than told;
And all who told it added something new
And all who heard it made enlargements too.

From ancient Roman times to William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Will Rogers, from the greatest writers to the greatest religions of the world, all have seen the evil that rumours can do and all have warned of it.
Islam considers slander, because that is effectively what most rumours turn out to be, as one of the vilest of transgressions.
The Bible says, "And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things, which they ought not."
The idle, the tattlers (gossipers) and the busybodies, speaking things that they ought not speak — they are nothing more than vile, insidious, contemptible people who sometimes know the effects of their rumours; which makes them worse, but most times, just do not care, which does not make them any better.
If May 13 is a benchmark, then this old saying should make sense why the authorities spent so much effort and money on trying to curb rumours. The saying goes: "Often an entire city has suffered because of an evil man."
There are hundreds of old sayings and quotations about the evil of rumour mongering. For a Sunday read, perhaps a few of these should give us food for thought:
- Straightway throughout the Libyan cities flies rumour the report of evil things than which nothing is swifter; it flourishes by its very activity and gains new strength by its movements; small at first through fear, it soon raises itself aloft and sweeps onward along the earth.
Yet its head reaches the clouds. A huge and horrid monster covered with many feathers: and for every plume a sharp eye, for every pinion a biting tongue. Everywhere its voices sound, to everything its ears are open. (Virgil)
- Some report elsewhere whatever is told them; the measure of fiction always increases, and each fresh narrator adds something to what he has heard. (Latin)
- Enemies carry a report in form different from the original.
- I will be gone, that pitiful rumour may report my flight to console thy ear. (Shakespeare in All’s Well That Ends Well.)
- Rumour is a pipe blown by surmises, jealousies, and conjectures.
- Every rumour is believed against the unfortunate.
- Rumour does not always err; it sometimes even elects a man.
The evil among us will continue to spread the slander and lies because ill weed grow apace (evil will not die because it grows briskly) and because as the Chinese proverb goes, "crows everywhere are equally black". (Bad people are bad no matter where you find them because human nature never changes.)
Bad people there were early this week, with their rumours about the Prime Minister’s wife, Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment in Los Angeles for cancer. The rumours started on Monday, the day Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi left Kuala Lumpur to visit her.
No matter that the newspapers had reported it was a visit that had been planned for some time, and that Abdullah managed to get some time off this week only after attending the Umno general assembly. Yet, people were ready to believe the worst.
The SMS added to the coffers of the telcos and the phone lines were burnt with "latest updates".
Media offices were deluged with calls, as were friends and relatives of both the Prime Minister and first lady.
Those who know them cried; they prayed. Former first lady Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Ali broke down and called around to find out when she heard, as did many others.
And for what? Is it just the pleasure of being the first with the latest news or merely an evil wish?
There is another old saying that says: "And the evil wish is most evil to the wisher." How we wish that were true.
There are some who argue that there is interest in public figures because of who they are. Hogwash. Pray tell, what reason is there to spread falsity about anyone, public figure or not?
But this is the way of the ugly Malaysian. And there are many.
Sometime last year, a lawyer with one of the country’s largest legal firms — someone I do not even know — sent an e-mail saying I had died.
I found out subsequently that he mistook me for someone else but nevertheless, my secretary began to receive calls asking for details of the funeral.
It was amusing to some but the first thing I did was to call my wife and children and let them know of the rumours, lest they receive a call wanting to verify my "death".
How many marriages have broken up or stalled because of suspicions sowed by rumours?
How many careers have been ruined? How many lives destroyed?
Unfortunately, for most of us, passing on a juicy piece of news is something that we find hard to resist.
In Malaysia, the worst culprits are politicians and journalists, the hangers on who must try to show they are in the know, and the political riff raff who carry too far the belief that knowledge is power.
So, Mr Ambassador, you are right. This is a country of rumours.
This is a country that has a large share of people ready to believe in anything, and this is a country where there is a larger proportion than norm of people who take delight in spreading vile rumours and slander.
Fortunately, we have less of those kinds of people and more of the decent human beings our country is known for.
And if we believe that good will always triumph over evil, then there will be fewer and fewer of those kind of evil rumour-spreading people. Amen. Warning: include( failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /hsphere/local/home/pgoh13/ on line 148 Warning: include(): Failed opening '' for inclusion (include_path='.:/hsphere/shared/php55/include/php/PEAR') in /hsphere/local/home/pgoh13/ on line 148