The Malaysian media, which way is it heading?

By Shafizan Mohamed

Media is a very important institution in the formation of a nation. A well-organised media system can create a prosperous and harmonious country through the distribution of information that can educate the public, foster the spirit of nationalism and ensure the well-being of its citizens. Especially in this modern age defined by the advancement of communication technology, media is now part of everyday life. It is, therefore, imperative for a country to plan and organise its media system wisely to ensure that the media become the agent of development and unity.

Developmental Media

Since Independence in 1957, Malaysia has practised a ‘developmental media’ system in which the media play a role in every aspect of national development including the economy, education, social, culture and religion. Most developing and emerging countries such as Indonesia, South Korea and Singapore also adopted the same system as it requires a country’s media system to move in line with government’s aspirations. This makes it easier for the government to announce, promote and carry out planned development programmes and strategies.

Under the Barisan Nasional government, the media has been used to develop the country while strengthening the political position of the ruling coalition. The government depended a great deal on the dominance of Malay Muslim population for political support, and in order to strengthen its administration, this sentiment also became the basis of the Malaysian media system. This was evident from the media content. In the 1960s, the media prioritised usage of Bahasa Melayu and the centrality of the Malay figure. Television and radio programmes often featured the Malay as the protagonist often supported by a Chinese or an Indian character. Bahasa Melayu, as the national language, has been used in most of the programmes including advertisements.

In line with efforts to develop the local media industry, the 1970s and 1980s gave rise to many local production companies that produced more localised media content while simultaneously replacing imported western programmes that had previously dominated radio and television. The 1990s was a more competitive era for local media with the birth of private media companies like ASTRO (All-Asian Satellite Television and Radio Operator) and Media Prima. Around this time also patriotic songs became a must on radio and television. Malaysians regardless of race and ethnicity who grew up in the 70s, 80s and early 90s are familiar with songs such as ‘Setia’, ‘Senyum’ and ‘Dirgahayu Tanah Airku’ that sowed the sentiments of patriotism among the people.

Islamic Nationalism

Islamic nationalism grew under the leadership of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad when he was the fourth Prime Minister then. Realising that Islam could unite the Malay Muslims who are the majority voters, Dr. Mahathir designed a unique sense of nationalism in which Islam became more than a religious belief, rather a significant driver to economic, societal and cultural development of the Malays. Through the creation of the halal economy for example, the Malay Muslims were able to build a sustainable economy in which they were able to produce and consume local products that would support the national economy while maintaining the Islamic virtue. As a result, the Malays became more conscious in choosing products that are halal and this included media products.

To fulfil the demand for more halal and Malay-oriented programmes, the the Malay or Bumiputra entrepreneurs were given incentives and encouragements. The influence and domination of the Malay Muslim values in the Malaysian media system continued throughout the new millennium. The establishment in 2003 of Radio IKIM, which became one of the world’s first broadcast media dedicated to Islam, was a testament to this development. Although the rapid pace of technological and economic globalisation has pushed most local media companies to become more entertainment profit oriented, the Malay Muslim identity remains strong. In fact, more Islamic media networks such as TV Alhijrah, ASTRO Oasis, Salam FM and TV9 were created to commercially and culturally compete in the face of onslaught of globalised media.

However, it is undeniable that among the weaknesses of the ‘developmental media’ system, is that it allowed many governments to use the media to remain in power by restricting information flow and enacting laws that tend to limit press freedom and democratic practices. In the name of development and national unity, the Barisan Nasional government has enacted laws and legislations that are perceived to be biased to the ruling party. Media companies were owned and run by those who were close and subservient to the ruling administration, and did not challenge the political status quo. Therefore, it is not surprising media programmes that towed the government line were allowed to be aired or published. Although it is undeniable that the media operating under the Barisan Nasional government tend to be propagandistic, controversial and at times discriminatory, nevertheless, it had a strong foundation and direction. The media was used for development and solidarity driven by the Malay Islamic identity.

New Malaysia?

Indeed, May 2018 was historic as it saw the downfall of the Barisan Nasional’s six decades of dominant rule in the 14th general election when Malaysians chose to vote the coalition out of the Federal government, opting instead for a new political coalition, the Pakatan Harapan. At the time, it was said that a New Malaysia was born. While it is still unclear what exactly is meant by the New Malaysia, it was generally understood that the new government aspired to become more transparent, fair and open.

For the first time in the history of the country, the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia which governed the media system, was led by a non-Malay minister. Gobin Singh Deo, who began serving as the Minister following the formation of the new cabinet, had promised that he would prioritise media freedom and loosen the media laws and restrictions. This was indeed opposed to the approach taken by the previous Barisan Nasional government. While many had applauded his intentions, fear and skepticism were equally high especially among the conservative Malays and the Muslim audiences when the issues were openly debated and criticised in the media. Will such tendency for media freedom disrupt the Islamic media system supported by the Malay Muslim audiences? Will a free media downplay the Malay Muslims status quo who had dominated the local media production and content?

 Post-Crisis Media

The effect of the loosening of media control was easily observed as most news media outlets became more liberal in their coverage of political and social issues. Some news media were obvious of their political inclinations and these led to a more politicised media coverage. The intense politicking escalated well into the year 2020 that on 23 February, the Pakatan Harapan government lost its political support which subsequently saw the resignation of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad as the Prime Minister and the collapse of his cabinet, paving the way for a new coalition government, the Perikatan Nasional, under Tan Sri Muhyidin Yassin to take over.

Thus, in the early months of 2020, Malaysia was caught in a major political turmoil that had confused and even angered Malaysians who wished for a stable government. At the height of the political crisis, Malaysia has been affected by an even more serious crisis, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic which by then became a global phenomenon.

In the early months of March 2020, Malaysia recorded the highest COVID-19 cases in South East Asia and this had coincidentally silenced the political drama which previously dominated the Malaysian media coverage. The new albeit fragile Perikatan Nasional government was handed with a major crisis to manage, and all discussions and talks about political crisis took a back seat. The Malaysian media automatically went into a crisis mode in which there is a unified agreement that the media’s main role is to maintain social order and to support the authorities in their attempt to manage the spread of the pandemic. In short, the COVID-19 crisis had pushed the Malaysian media back to its ‘developmental media’ role. 

Perhaps it is still too early to see what impact the new Perikatan Nasional government will have on the Malaysian media. Will it continue to liberalise and give more freedom to the media, as attempted by the Pakatan Harapan government, slowly erasing the Malay Muslim status quo, or will it revert to the biased media role as practised by the Barisan Nasional government?

It is safe to say that a middle path would be the best option for this government. It has the opportunity to learn from its predecessors, hence it should not take lightly the mistakes done by the previous governments. An autocratic media rule will no longer be relevant but a relaxed media system that does not acknowledge the local status quo is not a realistic approach either. Thus, it is important that the current government carefully design a media system that can build a more civilised society that balances societal and political developments with commercial gains. A unique Malaysian identity needs to be evident in the national media system. Nonetheless, will the Perikatan Nasional government be able to do this when its status as a government is still being questioned by many? ***

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