Malaysia: All Real Estate, No Fourth Estate

A response to Panglima Garang’s article titled, ‘Malaysia, a land of no growth’ and a consideration of the role of the media in a democracy.

Given that the BN lost the popular vote in Peninsular Malaysia in the last general elections one may reasonably surmise that the frustration amongst Malaysians with the direction of our beloved country is fairly widespread. But what are the common factors that fuel this frustration felt by a large proportion of Malaysians?

I sense a great deal of uncertainty over this very crucial question. It is as a direct result of this uncertainty that we are witnessing the more extremist elements of our society and political culture rearing their ugly heads.

If we take the view that the majority of Malaysians are in favour of a more moderate, equitable society then perhaps if there was a clearer idea of what the Malaysian public as a whole broadly thought and felt on a range of “sensitive” issues, the bigots and religious extremists in our midsts would for the sake of their own political survival feel obliged to tone down their language and behaviour. Similarly, the more progressive elements would be emboldened.

So what are the barometers of Malaysian public opinion? In most democratic societies it is the media that plays this role. That is why it is sometimes known as the ‘fourth arm of government’ or the Fourth Estate following from the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.

Do we see the Malaysian media playing the rightful role that it should if Malaysia is a true democracy? Do we see the mainstream newspapers robustly debating the issues of the day? Do we see politicians from the various sides of the political spectrum engaging in debates through the media? Do we see these politicians engaging through the media with the Malaysian people whom they claim to represent? Do we see the Malaysian media educating the Malaysian people about the most important issues that affect our country by providing unbiased coverage?

No, we do not.

The people are left with two starkly contrasting choices: blogs and other online media which taken as a whole are often perceived as anti-government and the mainstream media which handles the government with kid gloves and is by default and by reason of ownership seen as the mouthpieces of the government. Is it any wonder that it is difficult to gauge public sentiment in this environment? Is it any wonder that in this state of confusion and disarray that the more nefarious elements come out to play?

So how do we address this? What is the solution?

The heads of those media organisations must push for greater space. Gone are the days when certain topics are off-limits because they are “too sensitive”. If they are not debated and discussed responsibly through the mainstream media then they will be debated online where moderation and responsible discussion may be forgotten.

It is high time that the Malaysian media step up to the plate and play their part in transforming Malaysia into a true democracy.

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Umran Kadir is a lawyer who now lives in the UK.

Posted on 5 January 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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