I’ve been spending my days and nights reading BEYOND the VENEER by American journalist Ionnis Gatsiounis and I must say I am impressed. Gatsiounis resides in Kuala Lumpur and I can understand why unlike other foreign journalists and writers, he sees Malaysia as many of us do. He writes:
“On a personal level, the heart has grown quite fond of Malaysia. Travelling elsewhere I soon come to miss the country’s myriad quirks, and the optimism and generosity in abundance here. So many Malaysians have opened their hearts and shared their insights with me along the journey that there is no space to thank them by name here. All of you have the power to help make Malaysia the great nation it has shown glimpses of becoming, and I look forward to celebrating that day with you”.
Indeed, it is nice to know tha Gatsiounis has faith in us. The kind of faith that sometimes a few of us have lost due to Malaysia’s “myriad quirks”.
When I received his book in a mail from the writer himself, and after reading briefly a few pages, I shot him an email with thanks, saying: You seem to know us Malaysians inside out…For starters, what I will say now is that the book is: A must read contemporary history of Malaysia.
His book BEYOND the VENEER is a collection of articles covering issues and events that led to Malaysia’s “political tsunami” on March 8. Gatsiounis dissects Malaysia’s social fabric and analyses its idiosyncracies across 8 sections and 267 pages, ranging from themes such as: Before and after the 2008 elections, human rights, accountability, reviews and profiles, race and religion, geopolitics, grand plans and the world beyond.
His style is easy to read and interesting, without being verbose, and he interviewed a wide section of the society, not only focussing on head honchos in politics. That is important, for all too often, journalists only seem to prefer quotes from the “newsmakers of the year”, neglecting even ignoring so many alternative voices.
In those pages of his book, Gatsiounis not only shared his commentaries and analysis about the country’s politics but offered his own earnest observations, which I find most lacking among local journalists (I am really sorry to say).
On page 60, he related the events of a peaceful Bersih ( a group of 26 NGOs campigning for free and fair elections) demonstration last year where violence erupted due to police intervention:
“Then suddenly, police blitzed from the side, sending protestors scurrying. Some of those caught were dragged to the ground and kicked and punched by several officers before being hauled away. Minutes later, police rushd the shop lines alleys behind the Jamek Mosque area, barking and banging their clubs against drawn shop fronts, as shopkeepers and customers sought cover behind lattice gates. Plainclothesmen demanded those with cameras to shut them off or risk arrest. Back on Tunku Abdul Rahman Road, police fired water cannons from atop police trucks crawling towards retreating protestors”.
I can definitely relate to this incident as it reminded me very much of the November 2000 100,000 People’s rally during the reformasi days in Kesas Highway. It was an otherwise peaceful rally before police and FRU personnel decide to “join in the fun as well”.
Gatsiounis is critical without being bias. On page 58, he writes about “UMNO unwavering support for an affirmative action program favouring ethnic Malays over minority Chinese and Indians has bred animosity among non-Muslims and led them to scapegoat Malays for the country’s shortcomings, while ignoring their significant contributions to nation building”.
But he is also quick to add “Moreover it has too often become an excuse among non-Muslims not to reflect on their own respective community’s roles in the country’s vicious socio-political spiral and to take pro-active steps to reverse the trend”.
In some instances, he sounds cynical, but stops short of being overly sarcastic: “The Malaysian government certainly cannot be accused of selling out; rather it’s chosen to risk negative publicity to prevent the risk of moral decay. And somewhere that’s bound to win over some hearts” (Page 149, while commenting on Malaysia’s cancellation of popular and sexy performer Beyonce last year).
His observations about Malaysian politicians resonates well with my own: “Politicians often deal flippantly in subjects Malaysians are warned not to discuss – race, privilege, abuse of power, corruption, religion, even sex. In other nations claiming (as Malaysia often does) to be progressive, such utterances might well curtail the speaker’s political ambitions. In Malaysia’s raced-based ad religion-divided political landscape, they have a tendency to announce politicians as party stalwarts and have even been known to advance political careers” (Page 95).
There are many, many more interesting pages. This book has also been reviewed positively by many others such as Bakri Musa “Third World Reality Beneath Malaysia’s First World Veneer“. Transparency International Malaysia President Ramon Navaratnam says that BEYOND the VENEER “is a vital reading, an incisive analysis of trends and issues affecting Malaysia’s election results”, while Human Rights lawyer and activists (and blogger) Malik Imtiaz Sarwar says that “through his writings, Ioannis has shown that democracy Malaysia style is a perculiar things and that Malaysia is perhaps not ‘truly Asia’ after all”. I could not agree more. Read also “Ioannis between covers” by Sharon Bakar.
This book should be recommended to all those who want to remember one of Malaysia’s tumultous era as it struggles “for dignity and direction”, as Gatsiounis puts it. Just as we, as Malaysians, are still struggling to be one nation, despite 51 years of Independence from the British colonials.
Hope you’ll enjoy the book as much as I did.