Source: The Star - Marina Mahathir (View expressed here is solely the opinion of the source)
When speaking about Malaysia abroad, we must bear in mind that the audience overseas is different from those at home.
IT always fascinates me that while we seem uninterested in what goes on elsewhere in the world, conversely the world is interested in us.
I have just returned from a dialogue session in Brussels where I was invited to speak on the role of religion in policymaking in our country to diplomats from the European Union.
Now you may wonder why they would ask me to speak on this instead of a government person.
I can’t really say why except that none of the other speakers, from Indonesia and from academia, were government people either.
I suppose the rationale is that, for the government point of view, these diplomats can easily go to our nearest embassy but for a more rounded picture, they need to ask non-government people.
In any case, our diplomats are also invited to these dialogues and they are free to provide their own input into the discussion.
When we go abroad to speak, there is always the issue of how to approach speaking about your own country.
On the one hand, you don’t want to do a straight public relations job where everything is rosy and nice.
On the other hand, you don’t want to do a hatchet job either, because, relatively speaking, we are better off than most countries.
The only way to approach it is to present facts and analyse them in a way that provides some meaning of their impact on people.
For example, we can talk about laws that we have as they are.
Or, we can talk about the effect they have on people, how, if they are punitive, they can circumscribe people’s behaviour, stifle creativity and sometimes cause even more misery than necessary.
We can look at them through a gender lens and see how laws might impact on men and women differently, simply because men and women experience life in different ways.
Or, we can show how marginalised people have very little access to justice due to poverty or lack of knowledge.
Some people think that when speaking in front of foreigners, we should only present a good image of our country and should never wash our dirty linen in public.
I’m not sure talking about only the good things is necessarily presenting the rosiest image of the country.
For one thing, in these sorts of circles, foreigners often already know something about Malaysia and therefore know when you’re painting an overly rosy picture.
If they ask you an awkward question, stumbling over the answer makes you look even worse.
It is really how you conduct yourself in dialogues like these and whether you are able to answer difficult questions with equanimity that really convinces people that you know your stuff.
They may not agree with you, but they can respect you.
Over the years I have seen both terrible and excellent speakers from our country overseas.
Some were from government and some from the non-government sector.
I understand how difficult it is to do public speaking but people in leadership positions should be used to it.
The only difference is to understand that speaking overseas requires a different style from that at home.
It’s not about giving different impressions abroad than at home, but it is important to know that very often you have to speak to a more sophisticated audience overseas than you do at home.
For instance, you simply cannot seriously tell an overseas crowd that water bottles and salt were proof of an attempted coup.
They would wonder about the level of Ministerial smarts we have.
Nor can we use unsubstantiated Malaysian logic to explain things overseas.
Or Malaysian particularism, that way we have of excusing everything we do just because we are Malaysian and are therefore somehow different.
Imagine telling the French, for example, that their laws are of minor importance to us.
Who on earth, they may rightly ask, do we think we are?
In these days of news that gets uploaded to a global audience instantly, it is difficult to pretend that there is an invisible border around our country that somehow demarcates the way we speak at home and abroad.
People interested in Malaysia on the other side of the world already know all about our triumphs and tragedies within seconds of them happening.
They are not obliged to agree with everything we do and we should not act as if they should.
After all we are not obliged to agree with them either.
But it would make life much easier if we did not have to hang our heads in shame at what our leaders say and do so often.
All of us want to be proud of our Malaysia. But sometimes it’s tough.