Asia Watch: Race to the Bottom

Michael Shannon

A frequent complaint in Australian political commentary is that the level of debate here is pedestrian at best, especially at election time. Indeed, if hyperbole and distortion is the daily gruel of politics worldwide then it has a special flavour in Malaysia, where Israel is invoked on the slightest pretext to smear political opponents.

Despite his democratic “reformasi” credentials, Malaysian Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is a repeat offender. Two years ago, Anwar was suspended from parliament for six months after claiming Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government got the idea for its “1Malaysia” campaign from PR consultancy Apco Worldwide, which allegedly drew upon the successful One Israel campaign of Ehud Barak in 1999. The Government has denied any connection.

In a virtual re-run, Anwar has now demanded PM Najib explain the Government’s latest tourism slogan “Endless Possibilities” after the revelation that the phrase is also used by the Israeli tourism ministry. “Now we have enough evidence. Similar to ‘One Israel’ campaign. Najib must explain. Now it is more dire. It can’t be a coincidence,” Anwar said on August 29.

According to a statement released by PM Najib’s office, the Israeli campaign titled “Israel. One place. Endless Possibilities” came out four months after Najib unveiled the Malaysian campaign at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

Anwar says he is not satisfied with the government’s explanation. “Now that it has been shown that Endless Possibilities has been used by Israel, how will the government justify continuing with the campaign?” he asked.

Even a water dispute between the Malaysian states of Penang and Kedah can draw an Israeli comparison. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng criticised a Kedah assemblyman’s proposal to block the natural river flow into its neighbouring state because of Penang’s refusal to pay for using raw water from the river. “For Kedah to suggest blocking it from flowing to us is cruel just like Israel’s cruelty against the Palestinians,” he said.

While Israel remains the ultimate bogey, any association with Palestinians bestows virtual sanctification. The Malaysian Road Transport Department will soon launch a special “GAZA” vehicle registration plate, with the standard run of 9,999 numbers.

The GAZA plate is being introduced in conjunction with the Perdana Global Peace Foundation Club (PGPFC) to raise funds in support of their “humanitarian mission in the Middle East”. As noted in last month’s column, the PGPFC has a conspiratorial worldview that places the US and Israel at the centre of its demonology.

The Club announced it had received an endorsement letter from PM Najib, and that it hopes to raise 4 million ringgit (A$1.3 million) from public bidding for the plate issue.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia the public discourse is all-too-often debased by self-styled moral warriors whose campaigns often result in official capitulation.

Having already forced the Miss World Beauty Pageant to drop the bikini segment from their two-week 2013 show in Bali and Bogor to be held at the end of September, Islamist hardliners are now trying to eject the pageant from Indonesian soil altogether. The notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has threatened further protests across the country to prevent Indonesia from hosting the competition, while its leader Riziek Shihab has declared the pageant is “only an excuse to exhibit women’s body parts.”

Among the other groups protesting the pageant is the Indonesian Ulema Council, an influential Islamic body that often issues fatwas, including controversial rulings against smoking and yoga. “Our position is clear, we reject Indonesia being the host of Miss World,” council chairman Amidan Shaberah said. “Because exposing their bodies in a contest is against Islamic teachings.”

RCTI, the official broadcaster and local organiser of the event, says the concerns are being heard and that some adjustments are being made to make the pageant “more appropriate for Indonesian culture”, but the bikini ban is not enough for some as hardliners also have a problem with any clothing that reveals womens’ figures. (The broadcaster also disclosed that Miss Israel had dropped out of the competition, but did not elaborate.)

Bali Governor I Made Mangku Pastika has voiced his support for the event, arguing that – aside from the substantial money the pageant brings – it would present Bali and Indonesia in a positive light. Some positive light would be timely after US pop star Lady Gaga was forced to cancel a concert in Jakarta last year after protesters threatened to burn down the venue.

The obvious irony of the protests is that top officials of the biggest Islamic political party, the Prosperous Justice Party, are facing corruption hearings because, back in January, a senior aide was arrested in a hotel room in Jakarta with a naked female student and cash alleged to be a massive bribe over import quotas for beef. The noisy Islamist moralisers have had little to say about that.