Friday January 14, 2005

Dangers of a controlled society

By Gary Silverman

As the tsunami headed toward us in Penang, Malaysia, I was riding in a car with my wife and our two children, listening to "continuous relaxing favourites" on Light & Easy radio.
We were lucky. We had spent most of Christmas relaxing by the sea shore. But when the Asian tsunami hit the beaches of Penang on Boxing Day, we were on the other side of the island, visiting friends. We didn't see a thing.
It makes for a peculiar memory, particularly now that the sights and sounds of the tsunami have become so familiar. The television news networks talk of little else. Video clips of the rampaging water are shown again and again. So are the pictures of the body bags piled up in mounds.
My first-hand knowledge of the event is limited to what was said on Light & Easy radio as we drove around Penang that day. And what I remember most is that Light & Easy didn't say much. The radio network stuck to its easy-listening musical format for hours - come hell and high water, if you will.
We had headed out on Boxing Day before lunch, knowing that something had happened. Malaysian cable television - in other words, television for people with some money - now carries global networks like CNN and the BBC, and we had heard that there had been an earthquake off the coast of nearby Sumatra that morning. As the day progressed, we received calls on our mobile phones from friends near the beach. They told us they had survived something bad, but their details were sketchy.
We knew to stay away from the water, and we figured that we were safe where we were. But as we made our way around Penang, we flipped through the radio dial to see if the authorities could offer any direction. If they did, we didn't hear it on Light & Easy or anywhere else we checked, for that matter.
Instead, we received a reminder of the dangers of living in controlled society. Only a few kilometers away, people were being sucked into the sea. But all we heard on the radio were more songs from Elton John and Phil Collins, more synthesised strings, more murmuring electric pianos.
There are more repressive places in the world than Malaysia, but it is also no secret that press freedom in the country is limited. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country and the government maintains that it needs to exercise control over communication to prevent social unrest. As former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad put it recently: "Anarchy can take place because of an obsession with democratic freedoms."
But I doubt there ever has been a bet ter argument for a free press in Malaysia - or anywhere else - than the events of December 26. The tsunami was a reminder that no government can anticipate every problem. In a disaster, lives can be saved by keeping the public informed. It was scary to see how slowly information spread in a place where people have grown accustomed to the government directing public discourse.
I should also add that it was frightening to see how western corporate influences had contributed to the slow response of Malaysian radio. After all, the rigid Light & Easy radio format is an import - a sign of Malaysia's growing receptivity in recent years to outside business practices.
When I first visited Malaysia in the early 1990s, the government maintained greater direct control over radio but the results could be surprisingly freewheeling. I suspect that reflected the incompetence of radio bureaucrats, but it meant that there was still a place for the unexpected on radio. For example, Stupid Cupid, the 1958 Connie Francis hit, was played so often that I began to imagine that someone in a position of authority thought it was a recent release.
The radio could even be fun a decade ago. During my first trip to Malaysia, I rode in an inter-city taxi with a driver, who upon discovering I was a newcomer to his country, insisted on buying me a bag of rambutan, a local fruit. He then flipped the dial to a Country & Western radio programme and we charged through the dense Malaysian forest, throwing our rambutan pits out the window and listening to Johnny Cash sing Ring of Fire.
Now, radio in Malaysia is just as predictable - and boring - as radio in much of the developed world. Every so often, one of the stations broadcasting in the national language - Bahasa Malaysia - will dust off something by the country's greatest musician, the late P Ramlee. But for the most part, the fare on offer is completely formulaic.
The only reason I turned to Light & Easy - my neighbours will attest to my taste for music that is fast and loud - was that it represented the lesser of the various cultural evils. Unlike most Malaysian stations, Light & Easy plays the random oldie, and I listened in the hope of hearing something by Dusty Springfield or Frank Sinatra or someone else I could stomach.
After Boxing Day, however, I found that I could no longer take Light & Easy. The station's website says: "The Light & Easy network is designed to help listeners relax." But what I heard on the station only made me nervous.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"