The fickle nature of public opinion


The week has been cynically and sarcastically declared as the week of “terkejut”, to which the closest English equivalent would be shocked.

“Terkejut”, like shocked, does not conjure anything pleasant, and would most times be associated with the feeling that comes upon receiving bad news.

And it became a word of choice for the week following Ihsan Perdana Sdn Bhd MD Datuk Dr Shamsul Anwar Sulaiman, who, when testifying in court said Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak seemed “terkejut dan sedih” (shocked and upset) when he learned that someone had credited millions into his accounts.

Dr Shamsul Anwar was a witness in the trial of the former prime minister (PM) who is facing seven charges of money laundering, CBT (criminal breach of trust) and abuse of power involving RM42 million of SRC International Sdn Bhd funds.

If  Dr Shamsul Anwar’s choice of words in describing Najib’s reaction was intended to put the former PM in a better light, it resulted in the exact opposite.

Critics on social media were quick to pounce on it. On top of declaring it the week of “terkejut”, they trolled and mocked the former PM.

Even polls were held, while past deeds associated with Najib in allegedly wanting to “cover up” the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) and related scandals were regurgitated and given new angles and narratives.

Some may view that there’s no reason to put too much thoughts on the“terkejut” week, given the sometimes flippant nature of social media as followers will move on when something juicier comes along.

Furthermore, much as it was not a great week for Najib, he would surely not be too perturbed.

After all, his followers had declared him the “King of Trolls” and he seems to accept it as an honour, and surely too, he will not be shocked by the trolling and mocking he’s getting as he himself is quite adept to it.

But what is obvious is that these financial scandals associated with Najib are very much entrenched in the Malaysian psyche.

The divide between supporters and critics are equally entrenched, developing into a schism that has reached a level that has gone beyond a debate of whether the crime was committed or otherwise.

If in the past, when the issue became scandalised, most would have probably thought that once it was brought to court, the trial would determine the outcome and the lawyers and prosecutors would have the bulk of the debate and the judge — the final say.

But it was not to be.

It has become so political that the players are dragging in everything extraneous from religion, race, family, sympathy, legacy, etc. You name it, you’ll have it.

Then again, it is only expected as the court is the least predictable especially for political players, as the decision can go either way.

Taking the political path vis-à-vis the court of public opinion is a better option as the aggrieved has the bigger say and the narratives, again, are not regulated — at least until they are found defamatory, slanderous or seditious.

Even then, whether the utterances were unbecoming or otherwise, it is the court of public opinion that will determine it and social media hass become such an influential court of public opinion that cybertroopers are paid to set up fake accounts to create an artificial landscape.

The result of this is exactly what the “Malu Apa Bossku” — or loosely translated as “What is there to be ashamed of boss” — wave that Najib had been riding on for the past few months after his sheepish, albeit disgraceful, exit as the PM.

There are opinions that the new wave of popularity enjoyed by Najib is a result of the failure of the new Pakatan Harapan Government in fulfiling their promises and meeting expectations.

It may be so, but surely an unhappiness with the performance of a Government should not be equal to turning to a scandalised leader who is facing dozens of cases in court.

It was then pointed out that the court of public opinion is indeed fickle, and it is not merely a development involving Najib. It had occurred in other nations, the closest being the Philippines.

The nation had a kleptocrat in Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1965 until 1986 when he and his infamous wife, “2,700 pairs of shoes” Imelda, were forced to flee following the People Power Revolution.

Most would have thought that after Ferdinand died in exile in Hawaii, the dark episode of the Philippines’ history would be buried alongside.

It was not to be. The pain and anguish of those who suffered under his rule were relived as political forces worked on bringing back his remains to be buried in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila.

His widow Imelda and his children returned to participate, were elected and became part of the Philippine political landscape.

But much as they managed to regain their footing, and to a certain degree, position in the nation’s social strata, Ferdinand’s kleptocratic legacy haunted them throughout.

If a similar thing occurs in Malaysia, it should not be shocking as it has already occurred in other parts of the world.

But it will be an unpleasant surprise nevertheless.

  • Shamsul Akmar is the editor at The Malaysian Reserve.