On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The lost middle ground

Depending on which side of the political divide you are on, they both seem to have supporters and detractors.

From the way they were cheered on by the students at the forum at Universiti Utara Malaysia, they sure have their set of admirers.

The conventional wisdom is always to listen more, instead of wanting to talk more. But we enter a new dimension when one person lectures, belittles and talks down to another person with countless reminders of “listen, listen, listen”.

In this case, we hope that Sharifah has learnt her lesson. She should listen to some good advice by signing up for a course in public speaking, body language and good etiquette. It’s pretty clear she failed in all these areas.

I am sure most of us would agree that she came across as patronising, condescending and arrogant. In short, the president of the Suara Wanita 1Malaysia sounded like a big bully. The visual of her walking around the floor, taking command while the other panellists looked on helplessly and hopelessly on stage, didn’t help.

Worse, when she pulled the microphone away from Bawani, it spoke volumes of her incompetence as a leader. Her political career, if she has any, has ended and that can be seen from the number of political leaders who have distanced themselves from her.

The low point was when she insinuated that those who do not like Malaysia could leave, which smacks of racism. Worse, there was actually cheering from the floor. Her irrelevant animal analogy convinced me she had lost her plot.

But let’s give Sharifah points for her good command of English and confidence. She probably got high marks for leadership until last week.

Bawani also needs a lesson in public speaking. She is the kind of opinionated person many of us would have encountered at public forums.

Participants are often invited to ask questions and the moderator normally accepts a degree of flexibility by allowing them to express some brief opinions first. Often, we hold our breath and cannot wait for the person to just ask the question, rather than go on and on.

Obviously, Bawani couldn’t wait to pounce on Sharifah. She was in combative mood, as evident from her tone and gestures, and was delivering a ceramah, the result of attending too many opposition ceramah, perhaps. Like a politician, she hogged the microphone and refused to let go.

She turned up for the forum with a fixed mind, and in attack mode, just like Sharifah, who appeared to just want to extol the virtues of the government.

Bawani isn’t the political novice that some Netizens would want to think. She was a full-time personal assistant to a Parti Sosialis Malaysia leader for four years.

She was a familiar face at anti-government demonstrations and, as expected, pictures of her participation and cosying up with PSM leaders were uploaded on the blogs.

Still, let’s give her points for youthful idealism and readiness to fight for the marginalised in our society.

And that’s the problem with most of us. The political divide is so entrenched and deep that there is no reasoning any more. The middle ground is lost. We are incapable of articulating our points in a persuasive and rational manner, preferring instead to shout, as in a ceramah, or to talk down, in the “big brother/sister knows best” attitude.

Looking at the comments posted by their supporters on the Net, the name-calling is incredibly ugly. The hundreds of comments posted are filled with hatred, which speaks poorly for many of us who talk so much about freedom of expression.

Why should Bawani’s Indian ethnicity and Sharifah’s Indian-Muslim background even be debated? This only reinforces my argument that we do not appear capable of engaging in a good debate without indulging in low-level semantics.

Maybe it’s our conservative Malaysian background, our education system where we let teachers dominate the classes, or our political system. But we need to grow up. Perhaps this is part of our growing-up pains as Malaysian democracy finally opens up.