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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Liberation Through Information

Liberation Through Information
M. Bakri Musa
In the past, the challenge of stirring people out of their comfort zone and igniting their imagination is compounded by their physical isolation. Today, the digital waves penetrate the thickest of coconut shells. Even the most remote villages now have access to the Internet. In the past the expression was, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Gay Paree!” Today, Gay Paree comes to them, thanks to the digital revolution.
            Digital technology levels the playing field; it also opens up a limitless world of news, information, and viewpoints, as well as opportunities. This leveling means that in the cyber world, David can have the same presence as Goliath; similarly, the village idiot and Einstein. Without the capacity for critical thinking one could easily mistake Goliath for David or the village idiot for Einstein. The consequences to the former could be physically devastating; for the latter, intellectually stunting.
            That is not the only downside to the digital revolution. Consider the crude attempts by UMNO to influence public opinion by paying bloggers who are sympathetic to its cause. Then there is China, equally clumsy, rewarding those who post pro-government sentiments on anti-government websites. Both attempts of idiots posing as Einsteins are garish and ineffective. Prostitutes, whether literal or metaphorical, are easily spotted. To those capable of critical analyses, fake news and “alternative facts” remain as such no matter how they are presented.
            More sinister is the use of the Internet by the state to spy on its citizens. At its crudest there is Iran using images posted on Facebook to trace anti-government activists. More sophisticated is the data-mining software to track the activities of citizens. This penchant for violating citizens’ privacy and rights is a common practice not only with authoritarian regimes like China but also such supposed champions of freedom as America.
            While the Internet brings an abundance of news and data it requires one to have some capacity for critical thinking to sift through them. If we lack this faculty we would end up focusing only on those viewpoints that support our preconceived notions, as with UMNO supporters reading (and believing) only The New Straits Times and Utusan Melayu, while those in the opposition, Malaysia Today*[1] and Malaysiakini. This “confirmation bias” is the bad news; it contributes to deepening polarization which is potentially disastrous for a plural society like Malaysia. Far from opening up minds, this confirmation bias closes them.
            This pernicious trend is also seen in America despite its more educated citizens and their familiarity with a broad diversity of views. Conservative Americans increasingly tune to Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal exclusively; liberals, CNN and the New York Times. As a result, America today is more polarized.
            The solution is not to have a single source of news (those in power would love that so they could control it) but to encourage as many viewpoints and news sources as possible while teaching citizens to think critically and have an open mind.
            This is the crucial role of a responsible media. This cannot simply be wished for; the government must actively nurture and be committed to this instead of thwarting it, as the authorities do now.
            Having the media in private rather than government hands would not ensure this either. American media is private, and through that they have successfully projected a facade of independence. However, it is only that, a facade. In reality they are beholden to their owners’ private agenda and or special interest groups, in particular their advertisers. In their coverage of the Middle East for example, an area of vital interest to Americans, the US media has been particularly myopic and subservient to these interest groups as well as their owners’ agenda.
            Consider the coverage of major international events including and especially the recent uprisings in the Arab world by Al Jazeera, BBC, and the CBC, all government- owned (Qatar, Britain and Canada respectively). Those have been far superior to that of the so-called “independent” American media like the main networks.
            Even in America, partly government-funded PBS trumps the venerable, privately-held CBS. What is obvious is that ownership is not the key; the critical element is the professionalism of journalists and editors, and their ability to free themselves from their superiors, be they corporate executives and owners or ruling bureaucrats and politicians.
            Journalists are no saints. Consider the recent “documentaries” by British FBC Media on the Malaysian palm oil industry and “interviews” with Prime Minister Najib that were aired on major international media. It turned out that even the esteemed BBC and CNN could be fooled into believing blatant infomercials as documentaries. Those “interviews” with Najib were basically paid commercials, with the money going not to the network but the PR firm. Far from appearing statesman-like, Najib looked like a desperate “John” being tricked by a cheap streetwalker powdered up to look high class.
            There was a time when American journalists were the most trusted, personified by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Albert J. Morrow, and more recently, Tom Brokaw and Bernie Shaw. With the proliferation of television channels available through cable, there is now fragmentation of and consequent scramble for viewers. The result is a race to the bottom, catering to the lowest common denominator with hard news being replaced by the salacious and sensational. No wonder the overall audiences for the major networks have declined. Today nobody takes any notice of the news anchors of the major networks. They are more like over-exposed celebrities than trusted journalists; they have lost their gravitas and influence. The Annual White House Correspondents Dinner vie with the Oscars as the social event of the year. Like actors, these journalists revel in the world of make believe.
            I have no problem with the major media outlets being government owned, such as Bernama and RTM, or controlled by the major political parties (NST, The Star, Harakah). I just wish that their staff, from cub reporters to senior editors, are aware of their awesome responsibility to inform the public and thus the need to be professional. They should at least appreciate the difference between solid objective news coverage and advocacy editorial commentaries. For this to become a reality they have to be professionally trained.
            I am not a fan of “J” schools, but I do wish that Malaysian reporters and editors could have the chance to go beyond just being “Form Five” journalists (middle school graduates). They should have broad-based liberal educations and be capable of exercising independent judgment. They should not be content with regurgitating press releases or being carma (contraction of cari makan; hired hands) journalists.
            Only with a responsible professional media could we prepare our citizens to appreciate the Jeffersonian wisdom:  Every difference in opinion is not a difference of principle.
            Leaders have a critical role in fostering this climate of healthy discourse; they must set the example. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear Prime Minister Najib labeling opposition leaders as “traitors” and “anti-nationals.” Najib dishonors himself and his office when he resorts to such childishness. His followers are only too willing to ape him; monkey see, monkey do.
            We must demand a higher standard of personal decency from our leaders. We should not tolerate it when they descend into the gutter. When they do, we should never follow them. We should expect more displays of civility as demonstrated by the recent (2009) photograph of Prime Minister Najib and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim enjoying teh tarik in the lobby of Parliament. Sadly, such class acts are becoming rare. Instead today we have Prime Minister Najib calling his predecessor Mahathir a traitor, and the latter likewise labelling his successor a thief.
Next:  Modern Technology as Instruments of Liberation
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

[1] Malaysia Today has today (2017) switched sides; it is now the mouth piece of UMNO.


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