Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Kangkung, or water spinach, has been trending in Malaysia since last week after Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak cited it as an example of a commodity that has become less expensive over the course of his administration.

Najib was responding to protests against rising prices caused by the government’s decision to cut subsidies. During the New Year celebration, thousands joined a street parade in Kuala Lumpur to denounce the increase in prices of basic goods and services such as petrol, sugar, and toll fees.

Najib complained that the government is often blamed for rising prices – but ignored when prices go down.

“When the prices come down, why are there no praises for the government? When it goes up, the government gets the blame. This is unfair because [such issues are determined by] the weather condition,” Najib said in Bahasa.

Then, he highlighted kangkung’s cheap price in the market: “I read in the newspaper that some prices have come down. Kangkung prices once went up and now it is down.”

This remark ignited an uproarious public reaction. It unleashed a kangkung meme which quickly went viral on social media. Najib’s enemies used it to criticize the government’s economic policies, in particular the slashing of subsidies for sensitive consumer goods. They painted Najib as a clueless leader and insensitive to the worsening situation of the poor.

In a subsequent speech, Najib was unapologetic for his kangkung remark. He clarified that he merely used the green vegetable as an example to explain the economic principle of supply and demand. He also added that kangkung and sotong (squid) are his favorite foods.

But Najib was reminded by critics that people are not complaining against price increases in all products but only those which are subject to government regulation or price controls such as petrol, sugar and toll rates. They added that no one is blaming Najib for the fluctuating price of kangkung, the humble vegetable of the masses.

It is also misleading to use kangkung as a price index of consumer products since households spend a paltry 2 percent of their monthly budget on buying vegetables.

Indeed, Najib could have used better examples to assure the public that food prices have remained stable. But the humorous reaction to his kangkung gaffe could be a reflection too of the rising public dissatisfaction with Najib and the ruling party, which has been in power since the late 1950s.

Perhaps ordinary Malaysians, burdened with economic difficulties such as high prices and depressed wages, were simply expressing their frustration through humor. Instead of being sympathetic, Najib appeared to be mocking the plight of his constituents when he delivered his now infamous kangkung remark.

Thanks to the kangkung-loving Najib, the opposition now has a symbol to rally more Malaysians against the government. If the Bersih (clean) election reform movement has the color yellow for its symbol, perhaps the Reduce Cost of Living Movement (Gerakan Turun Kos Sara Hidup) or Turun could further popularize the green leafy vegetable as a new protest icon. Kangkung is rich with meaning: it’s cool because it’s green; and it can represent all Malaysians because it grows nearly everywhere in the country.

Why the Media are Angry in Malaysia

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysian journalists have recently joined ranks and formed an informal coalition called Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm), or Angry Media Movement, after the government suspended a weekly magazine for allegedly violating its publication permit.

Geramm spearheaded political action in Kuala Lumpur last January 4, which was dubbed the “red pencil” protest because journalists who joined the activity carried red pencils, breaking them in half to symbolize the continuing and worsening censorship in Malaysia.

The protest was triggered by the indefinite suspension of The Heat magazine last December, despite the lack of a clear explanation as to why the Ministry of Home Affairs came up with the decision. The order reportedly took effect even if the magazine publisher has yet to reply to the show-cause letter issued by the ministry.

Many believe that the magazine was suspended because it made the mistake of publishing a story last November about the spending habits of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor.

Some of Najib’s expenses, such as utility bills in his official residence, have been questioned in parliament. Meanwhile, the First Lady recently figured in a controversy after she used a government aircraft to attend a conference in another country.

It appears that The Heat editors have already met officials of the Home Affairs and they have expressed willingness to cooperate with the ministry to resolve the issue. But for Geramm, the suspension of the magazine was a serious threat to media freedom which should be vigorously denounced.

Instead of simply focusing on the suspension issue, the red pencil protest also covered other media-related issues such as censorship, harassment of journalists and ethics.

“The red pencil represents journalists who were injured and a culture of control by the powers that be. Listen to the breaking sound. That is the suffering of journalists and the media when it is broken,” explained Fathi Aris Omar, spokesman of Geramm and editor of online media site Malaysiakini.

Geramm forwarded eight demands to the government, which naturally included the withdrawal of the suspension of The Heat weekly and that it should be allowed to operate as normal. Then it asked for a thorough investigation of the violence inflicted by the police against media practitioners during the Bersih (clean) rally in 2012. Bersih was a broad election reform movement that was able to gather hundreds of thousands in the streets prior to the 13th General Elections.

One of those who supported the Geramm-led protest was Bersih founder Ambiga Sreenavasan.

Geramm is also calling for the abolition of the publication permit that is made mandatory under the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). This is the law cited by the government when it suspended The Heat. This specific demand was supported by Christopher Leong, president of the Malaysian Bar, who described the PPPA law as “an archaic piece of legislation that no longer holds any relevance in a modern democracy.”

“The Act has been used and abused to influence, bully, intimidate, threaten and punish the press. Such legislative and governmental control of the press, including licensing regimes, should end,” Leong added.

In addition, Geramm is asking the government and political parties to allow all media practitioners to cover government events and to be given access to public buildings for news gathering purposes. Geramm also wants the government to “apologize to media practitioners for any breach of media freedom and rights.”

But Geramm’s last two demands are directed to media groups which included the reminder to “practice good journalistic ethics and give balanced and fair reporting to all,” as well as to “uphold the spirit of press freedom and human rights.”

Geramm hinted that the red pencil protest might not be the first and last time that journalists will unite and take to the streets to push for greater media freedom in the country. This should serve as a warning to the government because it means that the lifting of the questionable suspension of The Heat weekly might not be enough to dampen the political heat caused by the rising anger of Malaysian journalists. In other words, the only way forward for Malaysia is to free The Heat and more importantly, free the media.

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