In Malaysia, is sorry really the hardest word?

The singer-songwriter team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin had a big hit in 1976. Their song, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”, is a mournful ballad about a romantic relationship which is falling apart.

The lyrics, “It’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd”, describe Malaysia’s political scene these days.

Our politicians have been apologising to the public, and to each other, for decades. They apologise mainly for making racist and bigoted remarks, for personal slander, character assassination, baseless insults, and to a lesser extant, for gender and sexually-biased attacks. Within nine months of the fledgling Pakatan Harapan government, however, the rate seems to have increased.

A majority of these apologies are laughable, almost ridiculous, which demonstrates the infantile level of the Malaysian political scene these days.

Lately, colourful “apologetic” members of both the ruling coalition and the opposition have been able to claim high accolades for both demanding and dishing out apologies.

Ultimately, it boils down to personality kinks based on ego trips and insecurity. Some of our politicians have become caught up in the larger political game of outdoing one another – not in issues that really matter to the public, but in preserving what they feel is their “dignity”.

Apologies in Malaysian political life, it seems, have little to do with creating stronger national cohesion.

There is no sense of remorse in the apology demanded or made. Apologies that are made feel forced, skin-deep and insincere. Apologies that are demanded are bellicose, misplaced and manufactured from an imagined reality. Worse still, we the public hardly feel any sense of potential reconciliation between the parties involved, despite one apology after another. In the process, our hopes for an improvement from the Barisan Nasional (BN) decades are slowly slipping away.

Last July, CEO of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, Mazlan Ismail, resigned. He said he wanted to leave the post “with a good reputation”.

In GE13, Mazlan was the BN candidate for Permatang Pauh. We might recall that in 2013, Anwar Ibrahim filed a defamation suit against Utusan Melayu, TV3 and Mazlan. As leader of the then-opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat), Anwar contested the Permatang Pauh seat in GE13 and defeated Mazlan.

In the events after GE13, Anwar accused all three parties of defaming him. In August 2018, after his resignation, Mazlan apologised for the statements he made about Anwar five years before, which were “without any reference”, and “promised not to repeat (his) statements in the future”.

The episode ended with a short and sweet statement from Anwar: “I accept this apology with an open heart… I hope our political scenario will not be smeared with slander and condemnation.”

It remains to be seen how sincere Mazlan’s apology was, but it was gracious of Anwar to accept it “with an open heart”.

Most of us would agree that slander of this nature, a baseless, empty accusation of corruption, is detrimental to any individual’s political career. It also has larger ramifications for the nation. In this case, an apology is befitting.

Our present political scenario, though, is pregnant with silly and childish name-calling that can hardly be called a national threat. Yet, there is a scramble to demand apologies and haste to oblige.

Two weeks ago, an insinuation by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang drew the wrath of minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa. Hadi hinted that Mujahid may have a degree but “has a small brain”. This form of banter is characteristic of five-year-olds. It is unexpected from grey-haired politicians who claim to represent a large minority of influential Muslim Malaysians.

What is crucial here is Mujahid’s reaction. As minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, and an individual who is respected for his intelligence in the Islamic affairs of the country, Mujahid should not have demanded that Hadi apologise. He should not have issued a letter for the withdrawal of the “small brain” remark.

A better course of action would have been to dismiss it and move on. It takes more than such remarks to influence the thinking public’s perception of their leaders. Contrary to what Mujahid felt, we the public do not think his image has been affected by the rantings of a desperate opposition politician.

The Malaysian public prefers their leaders to behave with matured dignity and confidence. We need them to fight their political battles on a higher level. Name-calling of this nature belongs to a very low rung. It does not deserve such retort, let alone an apology.

Former prime minister Najib Razak’s Al-Jazeera interview with journalist Mary Ann Jolley last October generated another knee-jerk demand for an apology. Utusan Malaysia’s editorial team slammed Najib, calling him a liar after his evasive answers to probing questions concerning 1MDB.

Utusan readers and Umno members felt they had been fooled. They wanted Najib to apologise for “wiping out the people’s confidence in BN’s leadership”. Definitely very legitimate reactions.

However, in light of the charges of embezzlement, money laundering and corruption that have already been made, Najib need not apologise. The legal system has already kicked in, and Najib is on the way to being publicly tried.

It is juvenile to cry foul over a case that has already gone many steps ahead. In this instance, it seems that the demand for Najib’s apology was to satisfy the egos of Utusan and Umno members. This is extremely unnecessary as it waters down the utility of political apologies.

Politics is a dirty dogfight. Egos are hurt when character assassinations are made. This is part of the brutal competition for the power to lead.

More importantly, leaders want to remain legitimate in the eyes of the voters. After all, we are a democracy. This legitimation can be challenged through fake news, lies, attacks on morality and intrusions into the private lives of these leaders.

Matured democracies in other parts of the world have a developed political culture of apology. Their leaders apologise for having wronged their citizens. The aim is to recommit to justice.

Ideally, an apology is demanded and obliged in recognition that there is something serious to apologise for. This recognition is shared by both the offender and the harmed.

Apologies are demanded when someone’s honour is at stake. This honour is linked to the bigger notion of state legitimacy.

The apology is made to restore such an honour as it has ramifications on state survival.

Apologies are not demanded or made for petty issues which have no influence on the lives of the present and future generations of the country.

Our politicians must be selective in how apologies are used. We must graduate from petty bickering to instil more confidence in the public.

Our leaders must devote more time and mental resources to tackling the serious issues facing our shaky democracy, such as the politicisation of race and religion.

It is a waste of time and an insult to our intelligence when our media runs three or four days of news coverage on politicians demanding apologies for useless ego-massaging issues.

Elton John is perceptive in saying that sorry is the hardest word. It is hard to say sorry if one is sincere about it.

Likewise, it should be a huge political responsibility to justify why an apology should be made or demanded. As the old adage goes, familiarity breeds contempt. The more we read about apologising politicians, the more likely we are to lose trust in them.

What we want are apologies for corrupt practices, nepotism, cronyism, flip-flop decisions, U-turn policies and unfulfilled promises.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.