Political termites and figures of speech


In politics just as in literature, at times it’s more effective to use a figure of speech to convey certain messages to certain individuals or parties especially when or where blunt speech can be taken as undiplomatic or considered too confrontational.

A figure of speech is a word or phrase that possesses a separate meaning from its literal definition. It can be an analogy, a symbol, metaphor or simile, designed to make a comparison or to convey latent meanings. It can be the exaggeration of hyperbole to provide a dramatic or successful effect.

The target audience should be able to read and understand it in the context of the political narrative or phrases uttered. For others, they have to read in between the lines.

In Malay there is a proverb that’s apt for describing this political communication strategy: Sindir anak pukul menantu.

That was exactly what the Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg did when he delivered a speech during the launch of Marudi Waterfront three months ago.

It was then that he talked about political termites alluding to political leaders or parties whose sole purpose is to eat out the inner structures or foundation of the alliance they are in until it collapses.

Abang Johari

As GPS chairman, Abang Johari knows the situation in his house or ship fully well. He is fully in control as the head of his house or the captain or ‘nakhoda’ of his ship.

Thus, he doesn’t want anyone to rock the ship or become a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In real politics, you cannot necessarily trust someone simply because they appear to be kind and friendly or claim to be friendly.

When he was approached later by reporters to clarify if he was referring to Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB), the chief minister replied, “I’ll let you interpret”.

For me, as a person trained in literature, the interpretation or meaning understood by critics or interpreters isn’t necessarily the same as the original intention of the speaker or messenger.

At times it’s difficult to be on the same wave length as the political leader.

Interpretation of symbols and analogies can be very risky and interpretation of words used by certain politicians can be misleading because as in literature, meanings can be multi-faceted.

However, when Abang Johari left it to the media to interpret his words, it was considered a right approach. After all, orators don’t normally interpret their own speeches!

Writers or speakers don’t normally interpret for their audiences. In this case, it’s up to the audiences, particularly the targeted ones, to interpret, analyse and understand the analogy, phrases and expression in the context of the whole discourse.

Abang Johari, with his 40 years’ experience in politics knows how to convey his message to certain leaders either in the party or the opposition, more so if it is sensitive in nature. In other words, some meanings and messages have to be conveyed indirectly through metaphors, symbols and analogies.

Abang Johari said back then that it was very dangerous to keep ‘anai-anai’ (termites) within GPS because they could destroy it.

Despite the fact that termites are important decomposers of organic matter, don’t forget that they are silent, wood-eating pests that can cause serious and costly damage to a house in a matter of weeks.

What do you do when you know that termites are infesting your house? Usually professional pest terminators are needed to inspect and treat the problem. But what about termites in a political alliance or coalition like GPS? How do you deal with it? Should you kill the termites or do you pretend that the termites are not around?

GPS, which was formed on June 12 last year, comprises of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) and Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). The United People’s Party (UPP) which was renamed or rebranded as Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) is not a component member but claimed to be GPS-friendly.

In using “termites” as an analogy, the chief minister was obviously referring to members of a certain political organisation.

“Like termites, they hollow out the structure of an organisation and thereby cause damage. We reject termites within GPS,” he told about 4,000 people clad in GPS T-shirts in Marudi when launching Marudi Waterfront.

Therefore, the chief minister called the component members of GPS to unite and uphold the spirit of harmony and peace, saying he will always give priority to them.

So, I strongly believe that when Abang Johari mentioned termites three months ago in Marudi he was in fact referring to PSB and its president Datuk Sri Wong Soon Koh. But did Wong read and understand the latent message?

Why did Abang Johari use the analogy and figure of speech then? Was it not during that time that PSB was trying to lure away members of the coalition like SUPP, PRS and PDP?

It seems Abang Jo was already wise to the tricks played by PSB. Warnings were given but they fell on deaf ears. Why did PSB accept party hoppers and tried to align with Pakatan Harapan (PH) as perceived by the common folk? PSB’s sincerity was called into question. Didn’t the party foresee this problem?

PSB has always been regarded as a pain in the neck for GPS since Barisan Nasional was in power. The alliance tried its best to accommodate PSB by appointing Wong as Finance Minister and International Trade and E-Commerce Minister.

As if that was not enough, PSB representatives were among the more than 700 councillors appointed for the state’s 24 local councils. Still, it wasn’t a surprise when PSB was excluded from the new list which was approved by the state Cabinet last Thursday.

In fact, PSB’s candidates were fielded as direct candidates in the state and general elections. Definitely these gestures were more than enough to prove GPS’ sincerity. What else did Wong want?

Wong Soon Koh

Wong at a press conference after the launch of the party at its annual delegate conference (ADF) in Sibu last Saturday said, he would seek the chief minister’s advice on whether he should quit his positions in the Cabinet as Second Finance Minister and state International Trade and E-Commerce Minister.

According to Wong the delegates had passed a resolution to let him decide on whether or not to resign and when to resign.

“Let me say this: I will seek the chief minister’s advice. It was he who appointed me,” he was quoted as having said.

James Masing

Personally, I think, Wong need not seek Abang Johari’s advice. The writing is very clear on the wall for him to see, and as Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing said, you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to see and understand that the writing has been on the wall for quite a while.

Now, what are the ways forward? For GPS it’s time to get rid of the ‘termites’, and for PSB, they have to think of the best alternative. For one thing they could align with PH and face off against GPS come the next state election.

Also for GPS, there is a need to reshuffle the Cabinet. Abang Johari was asked this question a few times last week. A Cabinet reshuffle it seems is unavoidable if Soon Koh is booted out.

Let’s take appropriate action against the political termites to stop them from destroying the house further and see what happens next.


  • Associate Professor Dr Jeniri Amir is a lecturer and political analyst at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.
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