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.


32 responses »

  1. […] are not responsible for the content published. We encourage you to read the full article/post from the original source here. This entry was posted on Monday, September 22nd, 2008 and is filed under From Blogs. You can […]

  2. cherrytree says:

    i’ve been wanting to get a copy of that book. how can i get one?

  3. foreigner says:

    Better get your copy pronto, as it may be banned very soon, given the recent spate of gov’t sensitivity of criticism directed at the ruling elite. No matter if the book is gospel truth, which it most probably is, as exposure of the facts in public domain is like throwing salt into an open wound, and it must truly hurt.

    Mr Gatsiounis could be declared a persona non grata pretty soon, with no appeal to boot.

  4. monsterball says:

    I love reading facts and not fictions.
    But for our country….I have lived through every event.
    Yes…..youngsters and politicians…below 60 …all should buy and read….including …..Kua’s……”May 13th” book.

  5. jatt says:

    I think i found that book once..mph store i think. But never have chance to take a peek what say inside

    Malaysia politics The Truth

  6. wandererAUS says:

    sloone, you have just reactivated the hollow head of Botak Hamid, the book now, may only have 48hrs of shelf life!
    We have witnessed this BN administration are not promoting a Smart Country but, just the opposite. Easier to control of the lesser educated and to deceive.

  7. lucia says:

    susan, do you mind to publicise local, kee thuan chye’s book – ‘march 8: the day malaysia woke up’? it is a very good book and like gatsiounis’ book, it is also a collection of articles covering issues and events that led to the ‘political tsunami’ on march 8. i can repeat your last line too- 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 – which says the same for kee’s book.

    you can read about it in my post here and here.


  8. machitam says:

    Speaking after breaking fast at the Johor Police Contingent Headquarters, Saturday, he said the Government would always look into amending laws in accordance with the demands of changes and time.

    But before that could happen, the people should love their country by ensuring peace and security, he said.

    “In this country, we want to build a nation where the people understand their responsibility towards each other and also the sensitivities of the various races,” he said.

    However, until now he said there were still people who played the race card and sensitive issues that could inflame emotions and eventually lead to public disorder.

    Syed Hamid was asked on Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim and the Bar Council’s calls for a cautious review or complete abolishment of the ISA.

    who play the race card? The race card player is UMNO leaders…. “lempar batu sembunyi tangan”

  9. Ronin says:


    shld include this too. another view. how they will try not to implode. pls tell me your views.

    The most important political development in town has very little to do with Anwar Ibrahim. Instead, it is about the dynamics of the relationship between the Prime Minister and his deputy and how they approach the UMNO party elections that are set to commence with the divisional meetings on 9 October.

    Neither Abdullah Ahmad Badawi nor Najib Tun Razak wants to fight the other. They know that this would be disastrous for the party and even prove to be the final nail in its coffin. Both want to honour the spirit, if no longer the exact letter, of the transition plan which originally intended for Najib to take over the premiership and party presidency in June 2010. It was a deal brokered directly by the two men and endorsed by the party Supreme Council.

    But things began to fall apart after the loss at the Permatang Pauh by-election even though this had very little to do with Abdullah’s leadership (in fact it was seen more as a battle between Anwar Ibrahim and Najib). There was a resurgence of dissent within party ranks led by vice president, Muhyiddin Yassin, and egged on by Mahathir Mohamed from the outside. This was an opportunity to renew the pressure on Abdullah to go now rather than later. But the spark that lit the fire was Najib’s statement a couple of weeks ago that although he was committed to the transition plan, he would also leave it to the divisions to decide whether they want to support it as well. Politics is all about signaling. For many in the party, that statement by Najib was a signal that he would contest the presidency against Abdullah.

    Opportunistic dissenters like Muhyiddin latched onto Najib’s statement and instigated the grassroots to create a groundswell effect against Abdullah in order to pressure him to bow out in December. For Muhyiddin, this would be a dream scenario with him walking into the deputy presidency of the party probably unchallenged and thereby becoming also the Deputy Prime Minister. Everything came to a head at last week’s UMNO Supreme Council meeting where three members – Muhyiddin, Shafie Apdal and Rafidah Aziz – came out to ask Abdullah to hand over power to Najib earlier than the scheduled timetable. Pro-Abdullah forces in the council were told to stand down during the meeting in order to not worsen the situation.

    So what does Najib do now? For all intents and purposes, he is still outwardly committed to the transition plan and does not want to fight Abdullah. He knows that if he digs his heels in with Abdullah, the top job will be there for him by mid 2010 at the latest but in all probability much earlier since Abdullah himself has said that he is willing to be flexible about retiring sooner. The only thing that worries Najib is that if he sticks with Abdullah and there is a challenge from a Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah-Muhyiddin team, he might get swept away along with Abdullah. However, these fears are unfounded. Party leaders know that if Najib swings his support totally behind Abdullah and their forces work together on the ground, there is no other alternative combination that can beat them.

    For Najib, if he decides not to honour his word to Abdullah, he knows he will be stuck with Muhyiddin as his deputy. This would be a problem for him later because the two men are suspicious of one another having once been rivals for the job of Abdullah’s deputy. Muhyiddin has also demonstrated via his dissent towards Abdullah that he is a man who has no qualms stabbing his boss in the back, and may do the same to Najib especially in a time of political crisis. Muhyiddin will also not be beholden to Najib because he will think that his elevation to deputy premier and deputy president of UMNO has little to do with Najib. So for these reasons, Najib will not want Muhyiddin as his deputy.

    Najib would be in a much more comfortable position if he goes with the transition deal with Abdullah, and then when the time comes for Abdullah to step down, Najib would have three vice presidents to choose from as his deputy. Not only does this give him the luxury of choice but it will most certainly make the person he selects as his deputy completely beholden to him because it will be entirely Najib’s decision unlike the scenario of having Muhyiddin forced on him.

    There are also other reasons Najib should stick with Abdullah. As far as UMNO members are concerned, Najib may be popular. This is courtesy of a solid network that he has cultivated for the last three decades. But his image and credibility publicly is something else. For many people Najib is synonymous with the brutal murder of the Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu. Regardless of Najib’s repeated religious oaths that he never even met Altantuya, the taint refuses to go away especially since the man accused of abetting the murder, Razak Baginda, was a close advisor and friend to Najib. Apart from the Altantuya case, Najib is also dogged by shady arms purchases notably the procurement of Sukhoi fighter jets and submarines in which Razak is suspected of pocketing hundreds of millions of Ringgit worth of commission direct from the principal. So with the SAS (Sukhoi, Altantuya, Submarine) scandal tarnishing his public image, Najib still needs Abdullah as a shield of sorts. In fact, Anwar is relentless in his attacks on the SAS issues exposing it as Najib’s vulnerable Achilles’ heel. So long as Abdullah is around, Najib can use the time to rehabilitate his public image especially with his new portfolio at the Treasury where he can enact popular policies to deflect the public’s attention from the SAS issues.

    Finally, the last thing Najib wants is to go through a bruising fight with Abdullah. Najib may ultimately win the battle with current sentiment against Abdullah and his formidable network in UMNO, but could lose the war because of a damaged and divided party.. Abdullah may be against the ropes but he’s not going to be a pushover. His supporters will use every advantage of incumbency to fight any challenge and it will significantly split UMNO. This is something that Najib can ill-afford. Even if he takes on and beats Abdullah, he will be left with a party ruined. The implications of this are serious. If BN component parties see a broken UMNO, they might just take it as a signal to jump ship and join Anwar. That could prove to be the final act on the demise of UMNO and it will be on Najib’s watch.

    So although Najib may feel insecure about taking his chances with Abdullah for the fear of going down with him, he stands to gain more from sticking to the transition plan and fighting it out by Abdullah’s side. It will give him the freedom to choose his deputy, a shield against attacks, time to rehabilitate his battered public image and it will avoid a damaging contest that can destroy UMNO. It must also be remembered that the next few months will be crucial on Anwar front. The sodomy trial will get under way and Najib will not want to be alone when all the sordid details of the case are revealed given his association with Saiful Bukhari Azlan who accuses Anwar of having sodomized him. Without Abdullah, the focus will be entirely on Najib and this could damage further his public image.

    Given these arguments, Najib should come out soon to give a categorical statement to support Abdullah’s candidacy for party president. It may not only appear to be the wisest choice but also one that will make Najib most secure in the long run.

  10. wandererAUS says:

    Sloone, will you give us bloggers to comment on the dentist Toyo’s denial of Teresa detention under ISA? Let’s expose this coward and a liar.

    My apology on a different subject.

  11. Valerie says:

    Susan, where can we buy this book please? thanks.

  12. Bala Pillai says:

    >The most important political development in town has
    >very little to do with Anwar Ibrahim.

    Oh Ronin, give us a break. You have been in the teacup for too long. Tectonic shifts exist, they happen just as tsunamis do. Anwar is central to a tectonic shift about to culminate. And thank heavens for Malaysia that it is.

    Against the tectonic shift, Badawi with or vs Najib is “been there, done that”. It is irrelevant. Badawi loses to the tsunami of progress or Najib will.

    (BTW, I might be wrong, totally wrong, but are you by any chance a 4th floor apparatchik trying to take the wind out of the sail of the trigger-happy Najib boys ?)

  13. bamboo river says:

    Will put that book in my list when I visit the bookstore.
    Congrats Susan on your 4 million hits.

  14. anthjoe says:

    the book is available in MPH bookshops. I don’t think it will be banned. It is a collection of articles published in many publications over the years. But very uncompromising account of our political scene.
    get it and read it. it only cost rm39.90

  15. Harrsion says:

    Wow Bamboo, you read a lot I guess since the last time you told that Monsterball borrowed you a few books. I used to read philosophy many years back. In fact since I am able to access the internet from my home since 2000, I have been glued to it. 🙂

  16. Blog Surfer says:

    Unless one knows Greek, trying to pronounce this writer’s name as printed must prove to be problematic.

    Can you enlighten on how to say his name phonetically ?

  17. monsterball says:

    No Harrison..only two books loan to Bamboo River.
    And wanting to read books is very good.
    I hope youngsters learn…not only from school books..but read more factual and discovery books…..always..hungry for more knowledge.
    In no time….Bamboo River….maybe ….the walking encyclopedia.

  18. monsterball says:

    I have lots of books….and my goodness….books are not cheap nowadays.
    I love biographies…favourites are Lee Kuan Yew..Moa Tze Tung. There is a book ..written by Mao’s doctor for 17 years.
    If Mao was alive…this doctor would be shot dead!
    I cannot help laughing and laughing….reading it …three times over.
    He described Mao never bathe…and when Nixon met him..he was sprinkled with perfume..to smell nice. He swam…with shit around and told others..he was like a tiger…an animal…so shit was normal..to him.
    The part that tells when Mao died…the Chinese had endless problems trying to embalm the body….few hours later..body blooted like a fish!!
    And few more days….body must lie in State for public to view.
    But Chinese are mater sculptures!!
    So they made as plastic mould likeness of him…and Mao’s body was actually not shown. Later…the Russians came and helped solve their problems.
    I love comparative religions studies…and being a Malaysian Chinese…I bought as many books I can get on Chinese history.
    I cannot travel..without a book in my bag.
    And if one wants to enjoy a good laugh again…buy books written by Groucho Marx.

  19. ella-mae says:

    happy birthday, susan :)))))))))))

  20. Phua Kai Lit says:

    Dear Ronin 16:09:03

    Thanks for your analysis.

    It looks like no “Thabo Mbeki” will occur in Malaysia.
    No graceful exit from power like a true statesman (KJ won’t let him? 😉 KJ needs
    him desperately for his own survival). We may get a “Ferdinand Marcos” instead.

    If I were an UMNO member who is concerned about its dwindling support and itscontinued survival, I would press for genuine reforms under Tengku Razaleigh as the UMNO President instead.

  21. Anonymous says:

    chaptokam is now MIA. (missing in action)

  22. simplemathfinancialsolutions says:

    http://www.simplemath.info We All Love reading your post…. Keep it coming

  23. Amanda says:

    Hi I think everyone has almost forget that RPK is still in Polis Raja Di Malaysia arrest. Please voice out more for RPK and Sheih the bloggers, therefore the can comeout sooner. Funny photoshop poster from sheih.

  24. Amanda says:

    Susan please speak up for our RPK & read Malaysia Kininnews today.
    Everyone please voice out.

  25. casey says:

    Oh! Happy B`day to you Susan.

  26. wickwax says:


    let’s trade! Lol…

  27. Harrsion says:

    Dear Ella,

    U don’t want to wish a “Happy-Birthday” with a grumpy face. That was what I posted at Patrick Teoh’s blog- a face like losing 100 Grand at a casino. 🙂
    So, Happy Birthday, Susan! 😀

  28. Vindica says:

    Another must read, check out Huzir Zulaiman’s Blog “Wide Angle” entitled “The Malaysian Political Oscars!” Here is the link….http://huzirsulaiman.blogspot.com/2008/09/wide-angle-37-spiked-malaysian.html

  29. sloone says:

    Hi everyone;
    I believe the book is now available in all major bookstores.

  30. monsterball says:

    wickwax…I wish I know who you are..and give you some books……FOC!!

  31. Lori says:

    Dear Susan,

    We noticed your review of Beyond the Veneer. Would you be interested in reviewing Ioannis Gatsiounis’ latest fiction book, Velvet & Cinder Blocks (a collection of short stories) on your blog? If so, kindly contact me and I will provide you with more details.

    Thank you.

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