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‘Facts’ about panda, radiation and crime

 | July 18, 2012

Allaying public fear and anger can only come with consistent, transparent and truthful communication by the authorities and the government.

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Our politicians love telling us to “stick to the facts” when more often than not, we — the public and yes, the media too — are being drowned in spins, half-truths and outright lies.

Perhaps I’ll take the hint from one controversial deputy chief editor who was recently quoted as saying:“Media practitioners are allowed to spin the facts to paint a ‘desired picture’ to the reader.”

Shall we just forget talking about facts for a moment? Allow me to talk about something else instead — perception.

Last week, I was in Japan. On the very day I visited the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, a baby giant panda died. It was an accident: the one-week-old cub, still unnamed, died of pneumonia after its mother’s milk seeped into its tiny lungs.

At the zoo, I saw a familiar scene of cameramen and newscasters camping outside the zoo, milling about and interviewing mourning zoo visitors. It was an international news item which possibly affected the already strained relations between Japan and China.

Beholding the scene before me, my mind was instantly teleported back to Malaysia.

Didn’t we just hear about China agreeing to loan two baby pandas to us for a decade?

Last month, China officially agreed to loan the pandas as a symbol of the republic’s healthy relationship with Malaysia and 40 years of diplomatic ties. It is estimated to cost a whooping RM20 million.

Animal rights groups immediately jumped up, saying that this is a bad, bad idea. Better ways to spend money, they say.

Yes, the facts are that the authorities seems to have it all planned out and are working on making this a success.

Yes, the facts are that we have promised to keep these creatures in special enclosures “being” built at the wetlands park in Putrajaya.

Yes, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry reportedly has surveyed two giant panda enclosures in Singapore and Thailand to prepare for our own.

Yes, the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia has even identified 15ha of land at Paya Indah Wetlands to plant four kinds of bamboos for panda food.

Everything seems to be in order. But really?

Truth is, when I was in the Japanese zoo, I was reminded again how different my country’s zoo was, compared to others. One zoo was stinkier, haphazard, and generally not so well maintained while the other was the antithesis of that. I leave it to you to guess which is which.

The question anyone would then ask is: if such a tragic accidental death could happen at such a structured, systematic, and disciplined culture such as Japan– what horrors await if these sensitive pandas were sent to Malaysia?

Those kinds of fears have nothing to do with facts. They are mere “irresponsible speculation”, our responsible government would say.

But ask the man on the street if he remembers the number of times our authorities have mishandled a public project or building. And perhaps we don’t have to go far, and just look at the number of letters FMT publishes about the deplorable conditions of our zoos and the ways animals are treated.

Or maybe the fact that we can boast to have produced one of the most notorious wildlife traffickers in the world right under the watch of our wildlife authorities?

Straying from facts

Similarly, when the whole Lynas controversy blew up, exacerbated by the fact that the Fukushima disaster was still fresh in everyone’s minds, it didn’t surprise me.

I won’t blame anyone for getting overly emotional eventhough one is a nuclear plant while the other is a rare earth plant. “Radiation” is a sensitive word, and for reasonable reasons.

We can argue that issues in Malaysia have also been politicised by publicity-savvy opposition leaders, who are not innocent of straying from facts too.

But most importantly, I feel, is that when our government keeps telling us that they have all the facts, they have all the figures, and they know it all (and we don’t) – people start to get annoyed. Angry even.

But ask the man on the street if he would like to have some kind of guarantee from the authorities and he’ll quickly nod and say “of course”. Ask those folk from Bukit Merah if they would trust the government and large corporations after their bad experiences dealing with rare earth?

Or maybe we could just ask our FMT reporter and videographer how long it took for them to feel skin irritations when they visited Bukit Koman in Raub, Pahang?

Are these feelings of distrust facts? No. They are “imaginary fears”, our ruling politicians might say.

Recently, we may have read about an apparent hike in crime. Are these real or mere perception?

Yes, the government is saying that everything is under control.

Yes, facts and figures may have indicated a drop (though this could also be a drop in police reports).

Yes, the media and the vibrant online community may have helped given these cases more publicity than they would have been given years ago.

But people are tired of denials, and dismissals, because like it or not, crime is happening in Malaysia. And perhaps we just want the government to say “Yes, we care”.

Despite what the authorities and police might feel about being victimised or and wrongly accused, I do not think that the public wants an apology from the Inspector-General of Police saying: “I’m sorry that my men did not protect you at that moment.”

Many understand that there are not enough men-in-blue to start with, and it is impossible to place them every where.

Maybe they just want someone to say: “Okay, I understand. I would feel the same if I were you. We’re in this together, let’s talk things out and work things out and make things better. Okay?”

Allaying public fear and anger can only come with consistent, transparent and truthful communication by the authorities and the government.

Truth is, facts have never stopped accidents from happening. Facts do not make people forget that you’ve made mistakes in the past.

Facts are cold and heartless and perhaps what the public want is a warmer and more understanding, friendlier, government.

Over these and many other issues in this country, one thing seems consistent to me: many Malaysians are just not convinced anymore.

And that, I dare say, is a fact.


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