On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Phrase that again, please?

Many writers and even some officials fall into this trap – using the same expressions over and over again, it’s almost automatic.

Ten worst clichés used by journalists (and maybe officials) in their news reports (and at press confe­rences):

1. Certain quarters: For some inexplicable reason, the Malaysian media and the country’s officials, particularly politicians and the police, are enamoured with the word “certain quarters”, or the Bahasa Malaysia equivalent, pihak tertentu. That phrase is hardly used anywhere else, but seems to pop up time and again here.

No one seems to be able to explain why it has to be “quarters” and never “certain groups or parties”, so, inevitably, it ends up being “certain quarters”. It’s almost the equivalent of tiga suku in Bahasa Malaysia, and there’s a joke somewhere in there for sure.

2. Neighbouring countries: Our authorities seem to have a phobia naming criminals from our, ahem, neighbour countries. It’s always negara jiran, and the last time I checked the map, only Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia can claim to have that kind of proximity with us. The Philippines, Brunei, and further away, Myanmar and Cambodia, somehow, do not (pardon the pun) “fit the profile” of the police and other officials when they reference negara jiran.

Likewise for the media. So, negara jiran has to be one of those three nations. And given our prejudices and sense of bias, the guessing game can become an interesting and funny one at times.

Malaysians can never understand the impeccable courtesy and manners of our officials, especially the kind extended to most foreigners.

But if a Malaysian is caught for an offence in Singapore or Thailand, you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be named and shamed. They won’t say from a “neighbouring country”, which could just be 10 minutes away on a clear traffic day.

3. Go all out: This has to be one of the most over-used and annoying phrases in Malaysian news. It’s difficult to be sure if this is down to poor vocabulary on the part of the reporters or just tardy approach to work, or simply, unimaginative officials. And this doesn’t exclusively apply to cops or politicians, but also sports coaches.

Classic examples include, “we will go all out in the general elections”, “we will go all out to nab the gangsters” and “we will go all out to win the title”. We must really be an out-going bunch because we simply love to go all out. We will go all out to make sure we keep using “all out” in our news reports and at press conferences. (It’s essentially lazy writing and lazy talking).

4. Leave no stone unturned: Our crime reporters and cops love this term passionately. So we keep reading about how “the police will leave no stone unturned” in their investigations. Of course, it will invariably be followed by the predictable “we will go all out” – these phrases are partners in crime almost.

Every Malaysian newspaper reader or TV viewer can tell what’s coming – “we are taking this very seriously and we will leave no stones unturned in our investigations”. What else were we expecting? “We will take this lightly and we will leave the stones as they are?” I’m not even certain if this is exactly what the police officer says, or what the reporter interprets and then creates. But possibly, after reading so many reports like these, I’m starting to wonder if there’s actually a vicious cycle at play, making the police officer to automatically use it.

5. Shock of my life: Another classic unimaginative and embarrassing bit of news reporting. I don’t think the legendary Michael Chong even uses it. So, for example, we have a 10-year-old boy who had a shock of his life when he discovered his dog was killed by a cat. Never mind that he hasn’t even lived a full life yet, since he is only 10 years old, but it has to be a shock of life. A jolt or even a shock, is never sufficient, it seems. It has to be the shock of his life.

6. Like a scene from a movie: Every fire drill, every security exercise often has to start with a snooze-worthy introduction – like a scene from a movie. This kind of news reporting has to be from a bad horror movie, if its source is indeed the cinema. And of course, the real story unfolds in the standard subsequent paras of bad reporting that “it’s a relief” that this is only an exercise. For goodness’ sake, Malaysians can tell the difference between a real disaster and a drill.

7. The ball is round: Another one from Captain Obvious’ handbook. Why not “difficult to predict”, or “I am too daft to predict” or “anything unexpected can happen”. Of course, we all know the ball is round. Even someone who barely knows how football – or soccer – is played can tell the ball is round. So, we don’t need a sports reporter giving himself a more respectable title of football analyst to tell us that he dare not guess the outcome of the game because the “ball is round”.

8. Agenda: The only agenda that most Malaysians have to deal with daily is the agenda of a meeting. But in Malaysia, based on media reports, it can be of a political nature … sometimes with subversive subtexts. So, we read and hear of “people with agenda” or (wait for it …) “certain quarters with an agenda” or ada pihak tertentu dengan agenda. Once again, the guessing game begins on what exactly this agenda is about. No one is clear.

On the bright side, “agenda” sounds far better than anasir anasir jahat, which was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s. Again, no one knows why it has to be jahat but the authorities came up with something better, and presto, we now have “agenda”.

9. Authorities: The media loves this cliché and they keep readers guessing. What constitutes “authorities” exactly? The Federal Government or state government? The Home Ministry, the police, immigration, the council, your employer? Or the wife or husband, who both also wield tremendous influence over our daily lives. They are serious authorities.

Come on, let’s confess, our spouses decide what we eat, what we watch in the cinema and where we go on holidays. So, when we read and hear the words “the authorities have decided”, we have to be sure which component of this influential (ahem) quarters. But the media prefers using this word pretty vaguely.

10. Do-or-die: With the general election looming, we will get to hear many of our politicians making these statements and the media will predictably pick up this mother of all clichés. Some of the politicians who have been using this worn-out script for decades, are still around.

Old soldiers, it is said, never die but fade away. But for politicians in Malaysia, they seem to continue forever and in some cases, refuse to retire, so they’re not about to ride into the sunset just yet. Old foes can even become new friends in our incredible Malaysian political landscape.

For sure, it will be a “do-or-die” battle for them in the impending elections, but we can be sure they will still be around if they lose. And we will be treated to the same boring clichés again the next round … like a scratched record.