Friday September 21, 2012
Culture, media and democracy
ROAMING BEYOND THE FENCE BY TUNKU 'ABIDIN MUHRIZ
This interaction of students at UiTM Digital Media Carnival in Malacca on ‘new media and the opening of young minds’ convinced me more than ever that passing laws to regulate interactions and behaviour of young Malaysians will be entirely ineffective.
AFTER Istanbul, a city which contains a Unesco heritage site, I visited a city which forms half of one.
It was my first trip to Malacca since 2008 and I was impressed by how much it has changed.
For the first time, the river was cited as a “must-see” attraction.
The Malacca River Cruise boats were crammed with (mainly domestic) tourists having to negotiate a haphazard boarding routine.
The automated commentary was adequate but could have been improved by facts about the old-looking bridges and the identities of the graffiti artists whose artwork adorned the bankside buildings.
There was one serious omission though: as the imposing St Francis Xavier Church appeared around the river’s last meander, I was expecting to hear about the building and its worshippers since its establishment in 1845, but there was not a word from the narrator.
Still, after a reassuring excursion through Jonker and Heeren Streets (the post-colonial names are stubbornly ignored), I understood my Malaccan friend’s gratitude to Unesco (“if only our Government would take our local historians as seriously!”).
Then, I was off to the Malacca International Trade Centre to dialogue with students attending the UiTM Digital Media Carnival on “new media and the opening of young minds”.
As usual, it was refreshing to speak to such enthusiastic young Malaysians, and these ones were unusually tech-savvy, given their intended careers in the media and communications sector.
They were very interested in discussing the power of new media and the “correct” role of media in a democracy – both highly dynamic issues in recent times – but I should have mentioned that in an age where tasteless and disrespectful films can cause riots, it’s important to locate responsibility and exercise some logic before condemning a country because some of its citizens are imbeciles.
Surveying the stalls afterwards was equally interesting: potential employers were out in force to entice these future graduates, as were entrepreneurs and NGOs advertising their goods and causes.
I returned home with lots of free reading materials, including magazines ranging from Nur (in which every woman is depicted in a tudung) to Glam Lelaki (quite the opposite, reminiscent of British GQ).
As if that was not a fascinating enough insight into the diversity in contemporary Malay student lifestyles, the remaining literature was mainly manga translated into Malay (an art form perhaps more likely to “penetrate the foundations of modern philosophy” than Gangnam Style).
This latest interaction with these students convinced me more than ever that passing laws to regulate interactions and behaviour of young Malaysians will be entirely ineffective, an argument that I reproduced at the roundtable discussion on the National Harmony Act organised by UKM’s Institute for Ethnic Studies and the Department of National Unity and Integration in the Prime Minister’s Department on Wednesday.
It would be folly to introduce laws that seek to punish behaviour deemed to be counterproductive to “national harmony” if the root causes are not dealt with by properly teaching history and citizenship in our schools.
Furthermore, civil society expansion in the last few years has proven that Malaysians are perfectly willing to join forces across ethnic, religious and class lines towards common causes, whether it is promoting PPSMI, free and fair elections or the environment.
In the short time that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were here, they witnessed this vibrancy from Malaysians of every stripe. They both performed well in their speeches – he at the British Malaysian Chamber of Commerce luncheon, she at Hospis Malaysia – and they were mobbed everywhere they went.
It is unfortunate for us that the glowing headlines about Malaysia in the international press as a result of the royal tour were interrupted by news that the ministry had approved scientifically-questionable guidelines on how to spot lesbian and gay schoolchildren (the ministry denied endorsing these guidelines, but that was less reported).
And it was unfortunate for the royal couple that a French newspaper published topless photos of Catherine, though by the way they chatted to everyone assembled at the British High Commissioner’s tea, there was no sign that they would let the tour be marred as a result.
Now, another French publication has decided to publish some odious cartoons.
This action was immediately condemned by the French government, which has also felt the need to increase security at its embassies worldwide as a result.
It will be interesting to see how the majority of French citizens react to this, in what is sure to spark many more questions on the “correct” role of the media in a democracy.
> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.