KL’s ‘Baghdad Bob’

Zainuddin Maidin, former information minister of Malaysia, described by observers as “a nobody who wants to be somebody again,” has found a new career: slinging outrageous barbs at famous Indonesians. He hopes this new career will salvage him from oblivion.

He started with former President BJ Habibie. In his column in Utusan Malaysia, a daily that’s identified with the ruling party, he wrote that, like Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Habibie sold out to foreign powers and was “a traitor to his nation” and a “dog of imperialism.” Naturally, that triggered uproar in Indonesia.

Livid parliamentarians, other politicians and pundits called for an apology from the Malaysian government. President Yudhoyono had just taken a screening of the tearjerker of a biopic, “Habibie dan Ainun,” when he gave his response, which was nevertheless thoughtfully measured. He called the column “improper and unethical and could jeopardize good ties between Indonesia and Malaysia.”

That was on the eve of his trip to Kuala Lumpur for the regular bilateral summit between the two countries. He said he would raise the issue of “mutual respect and tolerance” during the meeting, and assured the public that Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had made all the proper diplomatic responses to the affront. Minister Marty has a regular dialogue with his Malaysian counterpart and the matter must have been taken up between them. But on the column itself, he said, “I haven’t read the article and I’m not interested in reading it.”

When former President Habibie himself read the column he only smiled as if he had just suffered the antics of a bad comedian. Later he wrote in the Habibie Center’s Twitter, “When s’one insults u, take it as a compliment that they spend so much time thinking abt u, when u don’t even think abt them.” No drama there, but plenty of wisdom.

I’ve read the column. I’m too laid-back to call the writer an idiot but other observers, many of them Malaysians, aren’t so charitable. They remember how, during the first Bersih Rally for election reform, Zainuddin as information minister insisted that nothing unusual was happening, while an incensed Malaysian public watched live TV coverage of a violent police dispersal of a huge demonstration. For that, an American expat compares him to “Baghdad Bob,” Saddam Hussein’s information minister, who ridiculously boasted of his master’s invincibility while American tanks were rolling unopposed toward Baghdad.

The comparison is a bit unfair to Baghdad Bob, who spoke fairly competent English. Interviewed by Al Jazeera at the height of Bersih I, Zainuddin brutally mangled the Queen’s English. I understand Zainuddin is a product of the University of Michigan; if so, the venerable educational institution now has a crack in its reputation.

Since that affront against President Habibie, Zainuddin has also insulted the late President Gus Dur and prominent politician Amien Rais, accusing them of conspiring to destabilize Indonesia in 1997. His obvious purpose is to link the name of Anwar Ibrahim to those “hateful Indonesians” so the opposition will lose the forthcoming hotly contested elections, and perchance he’ll be a minister again.

Thus he underestimates the intelligence of the Malaysian electorate and of his own party leaders. And he buries under his vitriol the constructive aspects of Malaysia-Indonesia relations: burgeoning trade and investment relations, cooperation to settle migrant worker issues and maritime boundaries, and countless exemplary personal friendships.

Perhaps it’s time to revive the Global Inter-Media Dialogue that Indonesia and Norway used to sponsor — not to craft an international instrument against blasphemy or a code of ethics — but to find ways of unearthing from the muck of yellow journalism the positive realities about this multicultural world for media audiences to appreciate.

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