Decolonising the Malaysian media

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COMMENT In the aftermath of the colonial empires, the mass media, and in particular television, were touted as a modern, technologically-driven means to help develop the new nation-states by transmitting and educating the people in terms of language, values, and knowledge.

This ‘transmission model’, sees the audience as passive recipients of media messages where – if the message is constructed properly – the people of the nation will assimilate these messages into their lives.

For states intent on closely controlling their population, this approach has two fundamental flaws.

First, free media have a tendency not to deliver the message that states want. This can be addressed to a large degree through authoritarian control of media.

However, the second flaw is not possible for the state to regulate – the homogenous mass audience that would hypothetically assimilate and implement the message does not exist.

Every individual interprets media messages based on their own values, motivations and experiences.

This is what the totalitarian communist states found: Although they had full control of the media, the education system, and few even dared to express their true feelings within their family – media propaganda about living in a worker’s paradise did not convince people waiting in queues for such basics as bread or oil.

In Malaysia, state control of the media has been evident ever since the Umno takeover of Utusan Melayu in 1961 , if not before.

The advent of the Internet – enabling a decentralised production and distribution of information – challenged the control of the Umno state.

At first, generating content for mass reception was more limited by technical skills – e.g. how to make a website, to distribute via email lists, etc, – and access to the Internet.

Social media, however, comes fully packaged with content creation and distribution

functions built in and accessible to all users – and broadband access is now widespread on both fixed and mobile devices.

PM uses social media to his advantage

Ever since his creation of a ‘personal’ website in 2008, the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has sought to use social media to his advantage.

Following the recent upheavals he has appealed to retirees to correct ‘baseless accusations in the social media,’ and called on the three million Umno members to ‘ dominate social media .’

In this, he seems to be seeking to replicate the Umno state’s long-standing media control, in what is most likely a futile attempt to leverage the very affordances – the ease of access and content production – that make the Internet fundamentally different from the ‘old’ media.

Although the Internet has put the last nail in the coffin of the developmental transmission model, Umno is proposing to extend that model by arguing for more legislation to control online media.

The newly-appointed Barisan Nasional strategic communications director Abdul Rahman Dahlan ( photo ) has said , ‘If we cannot have self-discipline, then the government has to step in.’

Portraying Malaysians as ‘not mature’ enough for the Internet – or free speech – is a consistent theme of the Umno state that seems to hark back to a time when Queen Victoria, as the ‘Mother of the Empire’, would dispense to her subjects wisdom, threats and punishment in varying measures.

This colonial attitude is also evident in the specious infantilising of the Malay people of Malaysia, who are consistently portrayed by the Umno state as being unable to defend themselves, and prone to uncontrollable and irrational responses to ‘sensitive’ issues.

There is no doubt that the Internet sees many unsavoury characters peddling lies and spouting inflammatory provocations – in this, it mirrors the offline world.

There is also no doubt that it offers something that offline Malaysia does not yet have, a means to decolonise the media, and shine a light on those in power who prefer to operate in the shadows of captured judicial and legislative institutions.


JULIAN HOPKINS is a lecturer in Communication at Monash University Malaysia.

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