From MM Focus [15 November 2002 ]

'Malaysia can serve as model for world'

NEW Straits Times Press group editor-in-chief Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad was speaking of the Malaysian Effect at the International Seminar on Violence, Media & Challenges of Modern Societies at Nikko Hotel.

The Malaysian Effect, he said, is the ability to use what is good and useful from our cultural traditions and political systems, against what is unwholesome, troublesome and unwelcome.
While Malaysia has taken elements of nationalism to create a distinct sense of identity and inculcate pride among its citizens, it has also allowed an appropriate degree of parochialism to ensure an acceptable level of cultural comfort for all.
Abdullah said this interesting paradox in Malaysia's multi-cultural nature makes the country, on the one hand, fairly unique in the world.
"I can think of no other country with a comparable mix of cultures, languages and religions, delicately balanced and skilfully managed, the way it was done in Malaysia.
"Most other exercises in multi-culturalism seek to subordinate all constituent elements in a greater whole, which we might call "nationalism", or to assert the supremacy of one particular culture over the others, which we might call "parochialism".
"Is Malaysia a different model? Yes and no. Once again, this special Malaysian Effect is at work.
"The Malaysian Effect is the ability to use what is good and useful, from cultural traditions to political systems, against what is unwholesome, troublesome and unwelcome.
"So, while Malaysia can seem unique in many ways, in other ways we should be seen as a microcosm of the world, as a whole.
"How we do things in Malaysia should serve as a model for this increasingly divided and intolerant world. Not just in the things we get right, but also where we've gone wrong.
"We need such clear-headed analysis, because only then might we see that, by and large, we have got more things right than wrong," said Abdullah.
On the role of the media, Abdullah said it could not change, adding that it was the same for Malaysia as anywhere else in the world.
He said, the question was not the role itself, but how well it was played.
When the media was managed well, Abdullah added, it was a mirror on its home societies, amplifiers of its people's voices, partners in the processes and systems of governance, and the doors and windows to the wider world.
"In performing these functions, the media encourages and accelerates the development of a literate and informed society.
"Few countries can match Malaysia in the emphasis we have always paid to inter-communal understanding.
"Frankly, the most valuable use of communication is not in expressing love but in eliminating hate.
"As a political entity, Malaysia is a sometimes discordant modern symphony. A firm conductor has always been an asset to our orchestra.
"Unlike many other national experiments in the past century, Malaysia was not founded in the driving ego of a single heroic political leader or ideology." To this day, Abdullah said, Malaysia continued to grapple with some intractable questions, especially on education, language, culture and religion. "This is, again, part of the media's role. As much as we stand between the Government and the people in this country, it could be said that if the Government thinks we favour the people, and the people think we favour the Government, then we're doing our jobs well." He said, this would mean that the media was providing the information the people needed, adding that it was done reliably, accurately and fairly.
On the New Straits Times, Abdullah said the newspaper's reason for being over the last 157 years was to provide an authoritative and accurate daily representation of the nation.
"As an English language daily, however, we do not tend to cover ethnic minorities, religions or groups for their own sake, as cultural curiosities, perhaps.
"We take a much more inclusive approach to Malaysian affairs, and tend to naturally gravitate, in our choice of stories or spin, towards our common denominators; the events and issues that concern all, regardless of ethnographic considerations.
"The role of the media must include vigilance against the promotion of divisiveness, intolerance and ignorance in others, and in ourselves.
"Some things must be held as absolute and incontrovertible. Otherwise, change is impossible to manage.
Abdullah said that in an ideal world, bad journalism would simply die out very quickly, as people would reject it. But in this far-from-ideal world, in which everyone with an agenda has the right to think it's legitimate until proved otherwise, even doing well is not enough.
"For when we do our jobs badly, we contribute not to understanding but to ignorance; not to compassion but to hate; not to unity but to discord.
"Sadly, evidence of this is all around us in the global media, as much as right here at home. Rumours are reported as fact; suppositions as analysis; rhetoric as commentary.
"The standards of language, thinking and expression have declined badly in the past generation. So, it also remains part of the media's role to uphold good language, clear thinking and lucid expression."