185 years ago, a Danish writer called Hans Christian Andersen released his third and final volume of fairy tale stories that would change his life. His previous works, which included The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, The Princess and the Pea, and Thumbelina, were poorly received. The criticisms were so harsh that he put off writing fairy tales for a whole year.
But his final volume became an instant classic. Together with The Little Mermaid, he published The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came to be recognised as one of the great works of 19th-century literature. Modelled after the 14th-century Spanish fable called Libro de Los Ejemplos, the 1,500-word story became a cautionary tale for children and adults alike about the temptation of pride and ignorance.
The Emperor in the story was known to be vain and pompous, who wants only the best and finest of the land – and this included clothes. Two weavers promised him the best clothes anyone has ever seen. Only the smartest and greatest in society could see it, and because the material was as fine and light “as a spider web”, the Emperor would not even know it is worn over him. The Emperor loved the idea.
When the Emperor finally “wore” the clothes, he could not see anything. But his pride stopped him from telling the truth. His ministers and advisors could not see anything, but they were afraid of admitting it. And when he walks out in public, no one points out that the Emperor has no clothes, fearing that they would puncture the Emperor’s ego and look stupid. So the Emperor and his ministers continued to live in a lie.
The caution that this fable makes is that sometimes even the simplest of truth – like whether the Emperor has clothes on – is clouded by our pride and ignorance. Thus, we choose to ignore the truth, or even hide the truth, because we are afraid of offending the ruler. So we take comfort in the thought that others are as afraid as we are, so we become condemned to live in denial.
What clothes would the Emperor wear?
Prime minister Muhyiddin’s recent visits to one of the Covid-19’s worst-hit hospitals, the Tengku Ampuan RahimahHospital (HTAR), and the aid distribution centre, reminded me of this fable. In one he wore a light-blue clothe, the other he held up a dark-blue clothe.
Before Muhyiddin’s visit on 13 July, the name “Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital” became synonymous with a collapsing healthcare system. Photos and videos circulated on the internet proved the hospitals indeed looked like a “disaster movie”.
Despite weeks of doctors warning about the rising admissions, the hospital management seemed ignorant to requests until infamous pictures of the canvas beds outside the Emergency Department was circulated. Videos showed patients lying on the bench, bed, and floor with only an arm’s length separating them, struggling for clear breaths and daylight when they awake.
Overworked medical officers started resigning almost immediately due to exhaustion and fatigue, potentially also over the uncertain future of being a contract worker.
The scenes of HTAR were shared in other hospitals as well. Ampang Hospital has quadrupled admissions that necessitated using corridors and walkways for beds; Selayang Hospital saw oxygen ports meant for one being shared with a few, with more hospitals forced to ration their care and choosing who to save.
Most of these anecdotes are the only glimpse we have of what is going on. Due to the gag order imposed on the medical staff, most of them could only speak on anonymity.
The suppression of truth is the first step towards donning the Emperor with an invisible cloth. These gag orders underlie a fear: If the public finds out the truth, they would be furious at the government and the prime minister, and these hospitals do not want to be a problem to their masters.
When the prime minister visited HTAR, he was greeted with smiling staff through a rehearsed protocol made necessary by the prime minister’s officers. Staffs put a face shield on him, and the prime minister donned a light-blue medical clothe.
Rumours spread in the form of WhatsApp screenshots in a doctors’ group that the hospital has cleared the emergency department, and housemen were displaced from their hostels, with one day’s notice, to make way for new admissions. The purpose, they say, is to give the impression to the prime minister that the situation is under control.
“Big boss comes to visit the Emergency Department, with magic, the Emergency Department becomes empty today,” a message with the prime minister’s photo read.
HTAR’s hospital director Dr Zulkarnain Mohd Rawi has subsequently dismissed these rumours, claiming that the relocation of the patients was planned in advance, and that the housemen were displaced with four days’ notice, not one.
Even after the clarification, citizens were still not convinced. Bending over backwards to please our bosses seemed long embedded in our culture.
Full kitchen of supplies
After his diarrhoea held him captive, the prime minister charged on with his planned site visits. Two days later, he metminister Rina Harun at the Bakul Prihatin Negara aid distribution centre. This time, staffs were stationed around the Dewan Perdana Nur in Putrajaya to show the variety of food included in each RM50 basket.
He held the box, shook it, and posed for flashing cameras, before holding up a t-shirt that prints “Prihatin Negara”. He then walked to a table covered in a blue table cloth and tuckedhis hands on his waist as Rina explained the items that the prime minister rarely uses: sardine, biscuits, bee hoon, kicap, and flour.
At a brief press conference, he said that he is satisfied with the progress so far. “There is no need to hang a white or black flag, but it’s okay to hang a blue flag,” said the prime minister.
Then comes the punchline: “I think if we go to the ground we will probably find the kitchen of homes to be full (of supplies).”
I trust that if Muhyiddin arranges for house visits to aid the recipient’s kitchens, he would be able to find kitchens that are full of supplies. He could have minister Rina as the explainer again to show him which is the sardine he has given, and which are the biscuits. He would then finish his visit with photo ops.
Because the Emperor is fully clothed.