Malaysia's more racialised media

A number of religious controversies in Malaysia this year have led observers to ask if Malaysians are becoming too sensitive to perceived insults to their race and religion.

At a seminar at the Institute of South-east Asian studies last month, Malaysian media experts gave their take on racialised media and its effect on freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Why is the media coverage in Malaysia mostly racialised?

Malays are the majority race, comprising about 60 per cent of the population in Malaysia. Thus the Umno-led government has to ensure that this majority ethnic group reads, listens, watches news from only one source.

The idea is that if the Umno-led government allows the Malays to accept the fact that there is an alternative (multiracial opposition party), then there is a possibility that the Malays will realise that there is no need to hold onto the party to protect their race. Hence, race-based politics will die a natural death.

That's why Umno-BN "went all out" on that theme during the last election: "If you do not vote for Umno-BN, it means the end of Malays, the end of Islam, the end of everything."

There is short-term gain for Barisan Nasional (BN) as this ensures it controls the politics of Malaysia. The long-term problem, however, is that after such an intensified racial campaign for the past 30 years or more, there are bound to be Malays who believe this propaganda as real.

Many begin to believe in racial supremacy. This is bad for a multiracial Malaysia.

Some people say that not many Malays read Utusan but ideas in Utusan have become the script for TV3 or RTM, watched by millions, and, in the long term, people start believing it.

I've seen comments on the Internet that say: "He may be corrupt, but he's Malay, so it's OK. He's still our people." That's racism. Not all Malays think like that but some do.

Which is why after the last general election, Utusan Malaysia (the official Umno paper) can come up with a headline like "Apa lagi Cina mau?" or "What more do the Chinese want?"

It's a form of demonisation, attacking the Democratic Action Party as a Chinese-only party and Chinese bogeyman, as if its only (reason for) existence is to destroy the Malays.

Mr Wan Hamidi Hamid has spent 25 years in journalism, and has worked at Berita Harian, New Straits Times, The Star and The Sun, as well as The Straits Times in Singapore. He is now editor-in-chief of Rocket Publications, the newsletter of the Democratic Action Party.

Does new media help to counteract this?

With new media taking off in Malaysia, Malaysians are sharing all kinds of news, whether from New Straits Times, Utusan, Roketkini, Malaysian Insider or Malaysiakini. They are sharing it, putting a spin to the news; and basically they're taking our content and using it as their discontent about the country.

People take one bit of fact, they twist it around like a Rubik's cube and you get something else.

However, in the last 10, 15 years, we've noticed that the language has become more shrill, it's becoming more racialised. The malcontents have taken over.

They dredge things up from YouTube, even a dog video from three years ago, using them as an example of new media and its effect on the country - we in the new media are reprobates, infidels and we will corrupt this country.

It's only Utusan (Malaysia) really that brings this all up and made this into the biggest noise. Then the government says: We need to act on this. The thing is, nothing is happening in the country, it's all happening in the newspaper.

We (in the English media) are not hounded. They're not bothered about ideas in English.

They wouldn't have been bothered about Professor James Chin editing a book about Abdullah Badawi, except for those 36 pages, with the former prime minister talking about his time. They knew because of online media, and took whatever we wrote and turned it around.

Mr Jahabar Sadiq, CEO and editor of news portal The Malaysian Insider, has been in journalism since 1988.

Does the new generation of Malaysians care?

There are a significant number of Malaysians, especially my generation and potentially younger, who don't give a crap about politics. When they look at old media and the wonderful news programming that you see on Malaysian TV, there is a complete disengagement.

That's where I came in (in 2010) with this satirical online show called That Effing Show, where I talk into the camera, and another three or four members come in and we act out certain prejudices in a humorous way: it is basically a commentary on the ridiculous world that we live in.

You have the Mr Brown show here in Singapore, and it's similar.

In the past three years, what's got more difficult is that the humour we try to produce is not nearly as funny as real-life situations in Malaysia.

How is Islamisation in Malaysia affecting people's lives?

It's unbelievable that in Malaysia right now, a fatwa, an advisory legal opinion, is able to turn into a piece of legislation with the full effect of law without due process.

The constitutional framework in Malaysia is such that religion is a matter for each state to legislate upon. While there is a certain wisdom to this in that fatwas are issued according to the mores of the community of each state, the downside to that is that there are different fatwas to observe in each state. Times have changed, people are more mobile.

We live in a borderless world today, especially with the advent of the Internet. It may be time to revisit the notion that a fatwa issued to suit the local social mores of a community is still a sensible model in this day and age.

Mr Erza Zaid is a publisher of books he characterises as "incendiary". He hosts BFM 89.9's evening show, as well as That Effing Show on YouTube.

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