Back in May 2017, a comedian slapped a film producer in front of the Malaysian Prime Minister. The Malaysian government has launched TN50, a plan to reach developed status by 2050 and started a series of dialogues with various stakeholders.
The Slap occurred during Prime Minister, Najib Razak’s dialogue with Malaysia’s entertainment industry. The producer, David Teo was upset that the moderator, actor Rosyam Nor had neglected to invite questions from the back and made his case somewhat passionately. A number of people felt he was being rude. Yes he was loud, but this is quite common in dialogues I’ve been to.
Rosyam Nor chastises Teo telling him to behave and eventually hands over the mike. As Teo began his question to the PM with a poem, the comedian (known as Mat Over) marched up to the stage and slapped Teo. Here’s a video of the incident.
Both were immediately dragged off by security.
What unfolds later is incredibly telling. Rosyam can be heard saying to the PM, “dia tu memang kurang ajar” (he is known for being rude). The PM mumbles inaudibly but then can be heard saying, “shift it to someone else”. Rosyam then lectures the audience saying the industry should feel ashamed for such behaviour in front of the PM.
Shortly afterwards, the two men come on stage and shake hands and hug each other as well as Rosyam and Najib. End of matter. At no point does the PM condemn Mat Over’s behaviour. Can anyone see his reaction in the video?
Later he tweets.
Mat Over tells the media:
“I don’t think my actions were extreme. I did it to teach him a lesson especially as it happened in front of the Prime Minister, who hosted us. I don’t regret what I did to David as he disrespected the Prime Minister and Datuk Rosyam Nor as moderator. As Malaysians, we should be polite and respectful.”
Teo says he considers the matter closed and will not take legal action.
A day later, a far right wing group known as the Red Shirts demand that Teo apologise for his rudeness. To date, no official person has demanded Mat Over’s apology.
“Action must be taken against Teo to serve as a lesson to all Malaysians not to behave rudely at an official function of the Prime Minister. We demand that Teo make a ‘live apology’ to all Malaysians. We cannot accept the apology he made during yesterday’s function as PM merely forgave him professionally. We are giving him three days to apologise. If he doesn’t, then we will meet with the Information Ministry and demand they take appropriate action against him”
Razali Zakaria wearing a Red Shirt
The police open a file. After all, this is a crime – causing hurt under the Penal Code. So far, no word.
Mat Over was a special guest at a Youth Day event in Terengganu. He wore a red shirt and was reported to be a hit.
You’re So Beautiful: A compliment or an attempt to shut up a woman?
Minister of Federal Territories, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor (known as Ku Nan) also held a TN50 dialogue. A young lady stood up and expressed her fears over the heightening crime and said she felt unsafe on the streets. She asked what measures would be taken to address crime and make streets safe. Clearly a valid question worthy of a serious answer.
What does Ku Nan say? “It’s because you’re so beautiful. The next time you go out, wear more comot (shabby) clothes,”
The audience laugh and there are several wolf whistles. She smiles embarrassedly, shakes her head, then continues to make her point steadily (see her reaction at 1.10mins into the video).
Let’s call both incidents for what they are
Case no 1 is assault. Case no 2 is sexual harassment and sexism.
Had Mat Over and Ku Nan been working in a company with strong values and corporate governance, both would have been disciplined. It is likely Mat Over would be fired and Ku Nan issued with a first warning (three strikes and you’re out). A company would do this to send a clear message that such behaviour that hurts fellow employees is not tolerated.
In these cases, what did leadership do? In The Slap, the Prime Minister stood by and smiled. In The Sexist Remarks, the remarks were made by the leader himself, the Minister.
What message does that send the public?
The irony is that these two incidents happened at a dialogue on the future of the country to share and listen to the public on their views and concerns. A dialogue implies a two way conversation. It is not a “Talk” where one or more people speak and the audience merely listen. Here, the speakers are meant to engage: listen to the audience, take it in and address their concerns. Concerns can often be negative and against the person on the stage. That is normal. It isn’t going to be pleasant and it certainly won’t be congratulatory.
The United States
At the recent town hall, Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur spoke on Trump’s healthcare bill. Here’s an angry man in Willingboro, New Jersey who did not get slapped or dismissed for looking too pretty. An African American woman was just as angry and was heard and treated with respect. MacArthur did not interrupt despite being attacked for voting for the revised healthcare bill. David Teo was a pussycat against these two.
Do Malaysians have difficulty listening to dissenting views?
Meanwhile, in Canada
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau faced even tougher opponents – protestors heckling as he spoke in a Winnipeg Town Hall. He applied his “teacher dealing with naughty children” skills respectfully and firmly. There was no slapping and no sexist remarks.
“We need to be able to have responsible conversations in this country. We need to listen to each other respectfully, and we are going to disagree from time to time. That happens. That’s why we have elections. That’s why we have opportunities to debate. That’s why I’m having town halls to make sure that I’m hearing from a broad range of voices”
Feedback is valuable
A dialogue or any form of public consultation is valuable in gauging public sentiment. It is important for a person speaking up to be heard. Even if the host does not agree with the questioner or cannot promise what they want, just LISTEN. This validates the questioner and they would be more receptive to the answer, even if its “no, we can’t”. If you cut the questioner off, humiliate them or dismiss them with a “you’re pretty” remark, you have just completely invalidated what they are trying to tell you. Not only are you not listening, you have lost their support and left them feeling numb and resentful. The more conservative Malaysian sees this differently. There are unspoken rules which leave foreigners utterly perplexed.
How Shame avoids Accountability
Malaysians are driven by shame. Instead of taking accountability for slapping Teo, Mat Over shifted the blame to his victim. Teo shamed the entertainment community by being rude in front of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was gracious enough to host them at his house. Guests cannot be rude to their host. There are several factors at play here:
- The deep culture of Shame
- The huge Power Distance between an ordinary person and a person in authority
- Psychopathic traits
- Objectification/dehumanising of the Other
Shame vs Guilt
Dr Asma Abdullah, a self described corporate anthropologist, worked several decades with Exxon in Malaysia and was fascinated with the different management styles between Americans and Malaysians. She used a card game showing cultural value dimensions.
While in Oil and Gas, I was fortunate to play the card game.
An opposing dimension that struck me was the Guilt-Shame spectrum. Guilt is when you are guided by your inner moral compass. For example, you would not litter even if there was no one around for miles. This is personal accountability. You are driven by shame if you act based on whether anyone sees you. Face saving is important – your own face or those you are loyal to, for example your boss, your father, your prime minister. How you are seen is more important than what you do.
Dr Asmah found that Westerners were more swayed by Guilt, and Asians by Shame. There are of course exceptions, but if you apply this to The Slap, you would see that the focus is on good manners (adab) requiring respect to a person in authority. Rosyam displayed this when he said he was ashamed that his community, were not showing adab in front of the Prime Minister. This is shame driven.
In Canada and the US, society does not expect you to be compliant (read as polite by Malaysians) to a person in authority. The individuals’ rights is as important as the community (Individualism and Collectivism is another value dimension Dr Asmah has examined).
Let’s couple the Shame with Power Dynamics. You may have heard of Hofstede’s Power Dynamic Index.
Hofstede developed the Power Dynamic Index as part of Cultural Dimensions in the 70s for the IBM, then a huge multinational in trying to understand the multicultural differences in their offices across the globe. Behaviour between a boss and a subordinate in various countries differed. In the US a subordinate addresses a boss by first name but in other countries, Madam or Mr is used.
Malaysians are hung up on high scores. Did we get 100? We did better. We scored 104 the first time round. Now it’s reflected as 100. Malaysia has the highest power distance in the world. This is NOT good news.
Malaysia scores very high on this dimension (score of 100)which means that people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy in an organisation is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat. Challenges to the leadership are not well-received.
This is borne out of a deeply feudalistic society where historically to speak up against a Ruler would mean treason and certain death. A famous story tells of Hang Tuah, a warrior and admiral to the Malacca Sultan who killed his best friend Hang Jebat for going against the Sultan. Hang Jebat had rebelled against the Sultan’s command that Hang Tuah be executed on rumours that Tuah had an affair with the Sultan’s ladies-in-waiting. Hang Tuah chose loyalty to his king over his friend. You could call this blind loyalty but in the context of a high power dynamic with the Sultan being supreme, how else could Hang Tuah have resolved his conflict?
The DNA of submission in Malaysians is so strong, it is hard to go against a boss who is corrupt.
“Senior-level people get no information, and believe that they have nothing to improve upon, and junior-level people do not bring ideas forward. It’s hard to innovate under these conditions.” Kate Sweetman, In Asia, Power Gets in the Way
In The Slap, the focus is shifted from the perpetrator, Mat Over, to the victim, David Teo. The Slap had the effect of shutting up not just Teo, but anyone else who even dare to be “rude” which is loosely defined as being confrontational or disagreeing with the host. Teo bore the pain, but the message is clear to the rest of the audience and now the public at large. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t speak up. We were all taught this as basic manners, but it should certainly not apply in a democratic space where diverse viewpoints have a right to be heard, especially anti-establishment views.
The Malaysian setting filled with shame and big power distance is ripe for cunning psychopaths who can reap havoc unchallenged. I spoke of psychopaths in my previous article Mother’s Day Reflections: It’s Time Humanity Take Over the Workplace and my next article shows the psychopath interplay surrounding The Slap and The Sexist Remark in Part 2 of The Slap: Peering into a Psychopath’s Bag of Tricks: Slaps and Sexist Remarks.