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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #67

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

The Fourth Estate

The colonial rulers, never sympathetic to native causes, saw fit to give the locals room to express themselves. Malay newspapers and periodicals thrived during colonial times. While espousing nationalistic goals, these publications kept the masses informed as well as providing important avenues for Malay writers to showcase their talent. Many prominent authors polished their skills writing for these publications.

These publications also served another important function; they encouraged lively debates among Malays. The topics covered were equally varied, from nationalism to religion. No topic was deemed sensitive or beyond discussion. The result was that the public had remarkably diverse opinions even on such popular issues as independence. To me this was one of the finer legacies of colonial rule. To be sure, the British were not above supporting those publications sympathetic to the colonial cause, but the essential fact remains that the colonials allowed such freedom. Tunku Abdul Rahman recalled how he had to struggle against Malay publications covertly supported by the British that were not sympathetic to the independence movement.28

Today, five decades after independence, the authorities are forgetting this important legacy. The mass media in Malaysia, as in most of the Third World, are an embarrassment. Far from being the vigilant guardian of the public interest and fearless watchdog on the government, Malaysian media are nothing more than the propaganda arm of the government. The major media are either part of the government machinery like Radio and Television Malaysia, or wholly owned by it (Bernama, the national news agency). The ruling parties also own major media companies like The New Straits Times and The Star. These publications serve more as unabashed cheerleaders for the government and ruling parties. They are essentially the ruling parties’ glorified newsletters. They make no pretense to be otherwise, even when that goes against their commercial interest. Thus during elections, they refuse to accept advertising from the opposition parties!

They also fail miserably in their minimal obligation to keep the public informed. These government-owned media and those owned by the ruling parties should be exposed for what they are—propaganda agencies. Being owned or funded by the government does not mean that you cannot discharge your duties of keeping the public informed; UK’s BBC clearly demonstrates that.

By any criterion, the quality of the mainstream media is deplorable. If I were to compile an anthology of essays by Malaysians, few of the pieces from the mainstream papers would merit inclusion. The sloppy writing is matched only by the careless editing. There is not even consistency of style or spelling.

When I advise my nieces and nephews on how to improve their English, my very first suggestion is for them not to read the mainstream newspapers. The quality is such that the New Straits Time owned by UMNO has a rapidly declining readership. Nor does it attract talented writers and journalists. In late 2006, the senior editor of The New Straits Times was exposed for brazenly plagiarizing a piece from an American publication.29

Tune to RTM. Its news broadcasts consist of nothing more than what the prime minister says and does for that day, plus press releases from the various ministries. Among UMNO elite, there are fierce internal battles on who gets what coverage on NST, and whether it is on the front page or buried deep inside. They even argue on the size of font used! Never mind that the general public does even read the paper. The minister in charge of RTM bitterly complained that none of the reporters would cover his press conferences. The sad part was that he was not in the least embarrassed to announce that fact!

The public hunger for reliable and independent news is responsible for the explosive growth of the alternative and independent media, and the Internet blogs and news and commentary portals. Raja Petra’s Malaysia-Today.net regularly gets over a million hits a day. Any of the mainstream papers would be lucky to get a fraction of that! Many of the political and business scandals are exposed either by the foreign or alternative media. The compliant mainstream media do eventually cover such misdeeds, only after they have been widely disseminated over the Internet. The government’s reaction, totally typical, was to threaten censoring cyberspace.

A vibrant democracy requires its citizens to be well informed. The major responsibility falls on the mass media; hence the label “fourth estate.” The press also needs to act as effective checks and balances on the authorities, especially in Malaysia where the opposition is either nonexistent or ineffectual. Similarly, to attract investors the country must have reliable sources of news. There must be somebody to keep those executives and corporations in check, and to monitor the regulators. Financial news and information cannot simply be the self-serving corporate press releases. Investors need reliable information to make informed decisions. It is in the interest of the nation to have a free and vibrant press.

All these institutions—from the judiciary and financial intermediaries to the mass media and civil society—play important roles in a modern economy. They must be nurtured and enhanced.

Cont’d: Bless Our Geography

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