Communication online version of this...
‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGESPublic Culture and (State) Television in MalaysiaUmi KhattabAbstract / Television has been a state pr...
Malaysia? Does public interest from an ‘Asian’ journalistic standpoint mean, interalia, taking preventive measures to avoi...
While the West may seem decentred through the ongoing and simultaneousprocess of globalization, regionalization, multicult...
and problematization that injustices and irregularities are brought to the fore andrectified. Moral panics do occur from ti...
be’. For most Malaysians, who do not meet most of their fellow country people, inthe consciousness of each, imaginatively,...
Most modern states today tend to be characterized by conflict and unlikenessrather than by likeness and cohesion. However, ...
nation’s many people and their cultural substance. With a stringently guarded andregulated migration policy (close to zero...
How and why do (not) the media in Malaysia, and in particular television,problematize ethnic minorities? How is television...
known to extensively utilize state-run radio and television to reach and win the elec-torate. If at all space was accorded...
CCTV in China, broadcasting mainly in Mandarin, is controlled by the CommunistParty, in democratic India, Doordarshan, usi...
potpouri of Chinese, Tamil and English news and entertainment programmeswhether from home or abroad. TV2 airs programmes f...
beggars, 63 percent of those arrested for violent crimes and less than 5 percent ofsuccessful university applicants (Oorji...
4. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) headed from 1979 to date by Samy Vellu, is a coalitionpartner with the Malaysian Ch...
Culture and the Politics of Representation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.Singapore and London: ISEAS.Goon...
Umi Khattab is a lecturer at the Media and Communications Programme atthe University of Melbourne, Australia. Khattab taug...
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‘Non’ mediated images public culture and state television in malaysia


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‘Non’ mediated images public culture and state television in malaysia

  1. 1. Communication online version of this article can be found at:DOI: 10.1177/17480485060657662006 68: 347International Communication GazetteUmi KhattabNon Mediated Images : Public Culture and (State) Television in MalaysiaPublished by:http://www.sagepublications.comcan be found at:International Communication GazetteAdditional services and information for Alerts: is This?- Jul 10, 2006Version of Record>>at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  2. 2. ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGESPublic Culture and (State) Television in MalaysiaUmi KhattabAbstract / Television has been a state privilege in Malaysia since independence from British rule in1957 and instrumental in Malaysia’s attempt to fashion and display public culture. RTM (Radio Tele-vision Malaysia) has functioned as a state mouthpiece, since 1963, most often representing deepdifferences between ethnic groups, and in the process manufacturing sacred and non-sacred circuitsof cultures. Under a one-party, Malay-dominated, national coalition rule since independence, statetelevision tends to reflect Malay culture in hegemonic and monolithic terms, failing to representdiverse differences within and between various ethnic and indigenous groups in Malaysia. Thearticle explores how the state strategizes public and private television in manufacturing a publicculture, arguing that the Vision 2020 desire to create a public Malay(sian) culture for polyethnicand multireligious Malaysia seems a myth mediated through polarized spheres. If state television ispublic service broadcasting (PSB), then it is clear that it is a utopia yet to arrive in postcolonial nationssuch as Malaysia.Keywords / culture / ethnicity/ Malay / Malaysia / minorities / policies / postcolonial / publicbroadcasting / state/ televisionIntroductionSince the Second World War and for a long time compared to other media forms,television is believed to have had a great impact on audiences, despite researcharguing that the forces influencing society are beyond television. Because of itsability to reach large numbers of people, it has been contended that television mustbe regulated in such a way that it is accountable neither to the state nor to themarket but to the public alone. In other words, it is argued that a civil society canbest be developed through the mechanism of public service broadcasting (PSB)detached from all forms of vested interest. As explained by Syvertsen (2003) andTracey (1998), this means providing states ‘with the power, both technical andeconomic, to ensure that what’s aired is morally, culturally and intellectually valuableto the general public’. This privilege comes with obligations and the authors maintainthese include principles of pluralism, diversity, universality, non-commercialism andindependence (see also Collins, 2004). To what extent is the public interest repre-sented through television’s central nation-building role in Asian countries such asThe International Communication GazetteCOPYRIGHT © 2006 SAGE PUBLICATIONSLONDON, THOUSAND OAKS & NEW DELHI 1748-0485 VOL 68(4): 347–361DOI: 10.1177/1748048506065766http://gaz.sagepub.comat Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  3. 3. Malaysia? Does public interest from an ‘Asian’ journalistic standpoint mean, interalia, taking preventive measures to avoid conflict and tension by ‘highlighting thepositive and not the negative’ (Moses, 2002: 105), as described by the news editorof The New Straits Times, a leading English-language newspaper in Malaysia?Theorists on Asian media such as Kitley (2003: 12) contend that institutionalizedrelationships between bureaucratic authorities and private corporations in strongstates block ‘the mediation of matters of public interest championed by civil society’.Thus, using Malaysia as a case study, I argue that PSB has not been conceivedin the traditional Western European sense and its current state is in effect a far cryfrom what is theorized. It was not born out of an Act of Parliament or by a RoyalCharter but via the power of the ruling Barisan Nasional – the national coalitionparty (Nain, 2002: 119). Some of the transformations taking place today in therealm of PSB in the US and Western Europe are not comparable to the scenario inMalaysia. ‘Western’ discourse on PSB has not only been challenged in recent timesin most of Western Europe and the US amid changing media technology and risingprivatization fever, but also bears little or no resemblance to its original conceptionin Asian countries such as Malaysia. While Western Europe and the US may lamentover the commercialization of the public domain, developing countries like Malaysiaare hacked by a doubled-edged sword – commercialization and indigenization(Malayismization) in the wake of globalization. As a state privilege, television inpostcolonial Malaysia has hardly ever been delegated to the citizenry. For example,those who control operation and content creation tend to assume that the peoplemust be guided, and television, especially in the context of a rapidly decolonizingand modernizing society, must protect the nation’s ‘public culture’ and for this thestate knows best. Cultural protectionism through state television tends largely torefer to the sifting and discarding of ‘foreign’ elements in the smooth institutional-ization of a Malay(sian) national culture. However, despite such an ambition,programme content tends to continue to reflect large portions of importation,though no longer entirely and purely from the ‘western world’. Where such impor-tation takes place, as in the case of popular game shows like the British Who Wantsto be a Millionaire? or the American Wheel of Fortune, local actors and icons replacethe foreign making them as culturally specific and appropriate as possible. While inEgypt a fatwa was issued calling Who Wants to be a Millionaire? a sinful form ofgambling (Banerjee, M., 2002: 109), it is of popular taste in modern Malaysiadrawing large audiences and large numbers of Muslim contestants. Indrajit Banerjee(2002) in his critique of the cultural imperialism thesis, explains how cultural produc-tion has been pluralized and in particular regionalized, in the context of liberaliza-tion and deregulation in most of Asia since the 1980s. Explaining this further,Mandira Banerjee (2002: 109) points out:. . . as the Western world is English centric, the pattern in Latin America, as in Asia and theMiddle East has proven to be geo-linguistic regions as well. Each becomes dominated by oneor more centres of audiovisual production. For instance, Mexico and Brazil for Latin America;Hong Kong and Taiwan for Chinese-speaking people; Egypt for the Arab world; India for theIndian populations of Asia and Africa.348 THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION GAZETTE VOL. 68 NO. 4at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  4. 4. While the West may seem decentred through the ongoing and simultaneousprocess of globalization, regionalization, multiculturalism and decolonization, thenotion of asserting national identity based on the superiority of the ‘Malay race’continues to suture media representations and discourses in modernizing Malaysia.The national broadcast industry as a whole is a Malay business corporation built onMalay national values for a Malay national family in multiethnic Malaysia. Minori-ties by accident of birth will remain a peripheralized national mediated symbol (seeMorley, 2004) until independent and fair-minded programme producers are born.The bangsa (race) essentialized characteristic of state policies such as the NewEconomic Policy1 and Vision 20202 perpetuates and deepens group identity andfirmly underwrites media discourses and images. Malays, Chinese and Indians3 arerepresented as though no differences prevail within each group and as if no otherethnic groups exist. Ethnic communities in Sabah and Sarawak and the Orang Asliin peninsular Malaysia, for instance, are often excluded. This exclusion is taken forgranted and naturalized in politics, employment, religion and education. The natu-ralization of bangsa, therefore, makes it a determining element of culture, politicsand economics in modern Malaysia.The article attempts to explore how the state strategizes public and private tele-vision in manufacturing a public culture, arguing that the Vision 2020 desire tocreate a public Malay(sian) culture for a polyethnic and multireligious Malaysiaseems nothing more than a myth mediated through polarized spheres.News DebasedDespite private television in the 1980s and the ushering of cable (Mega TV in 1994)and satellite television (Asia Satellite Television and Radio Organization – ASTRO –in 1996), free-to-air terrestrial television – born as a state instrument in 1963 –continues to remain a government apparatus. Thus, the notion of ‘high culture’traditionally linked to PSB does not seem commensurate with the multiplemeanings given to it in controlled and constricted environments where public tele-vision really means state television (penyiaran kerajaan). For example, although onemight have the opportunity to witness the nationally televised Olympics as worldcitizens and the pilgrimage to Mecca as Ummahs, one may not be fortunateenough to be presented with the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the Falun Gong perse-cution in China, death (by food poisoning) of activist Munir Said in Indonesia, theatrocities in East Timor prior to independence and at home, the Kampung Medanethnic conflict. Indeed, problems and issues confronting several minority communi-ties around the world and indigenous groups like the Orang Asli in the homelandseem so distasteful to producers that they have hardly ever been aired. This absenceof ethnic minority stories and images is in contrast to what Gabriel (1998) contendswith regard to British racialized ideas of the nation where there have often re-emerged narratives of otherness that take ethnic minorities as ‘visible explanations’for social problems such as crime and through such regular articulation of ‘differ-ence’ causing moral panics (see also Hall et al., 1978). Although minorities tend tobe criminalized this way in western media, I contend it is through such moral panicsKHATTAB: ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGES 349at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  5. 5. and problematization that injustices and irregularities are brought to the fore andrectified. Moral panics do occur from time to time in Malaysia but these mostlyproblematize the Malay and seem to deliberately stabilize and normalize Malayculture and politics. The sexuality-oriented news narratives of the Anwar Ibrahimtrial from 1998 to 2000 with media headlines such as ‘Sodomised: Two Jailed SixMonths for Sex with Anwar’ (The Sun, September 1998), ‘We Had Sex in the Car,says Munawar’ (The Sun, September 1998), and of the satanist-centred Muslimyouth deviance reports in 2001 with media headlines such as ‘Black Metal Focuseson Satanism’ (The New Straits Times, July 2001) and ‘Muftis Want Black Metal MusicDecreed “Haram”’ (The New Straits Times, August 2001) are two Malay-centredepisodes of moral panic in Malaysia – orchestrated mainly to stabilize Malay cultureand hegemony.Negative reporting of national events and people is not a principle of Malaysianjournalism, contends Moses (2002), a veteran journalist. However, how couldreporting approximate truth, when through the routine reliance on institutionalizedsources such as government officials, the media privilege their definition over eventsat the expense of counter-hegemonic minority voices (Cottle, 2000a: 432–3)?Through framing and agenda-setting, issues are played out to guard the ‘nationalculture’ and shoeshine national politics. Moses (2002) presents two useful examplesin his article – first, the Kampung Medan ethnic conflict in early 2001 (primarilybetween disadvantaged Indian and privileged Malay communities in a Kuala Lumpurghetto), which was not reported with any journalistic responsibility to citizens whohad the right to know; and second, the drastic fall in the intake of poor Indianstudents into public universities used by the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC)4 leaderto lobby for the perpetuation of an ethnic-based quota system that had in factdisadvantaged Indians and other minorities and over the last 30 years debased andethnically mutinied higher education in Malaysia. Neither the Indian politician northe media asked why Indians and other indigenous minorities were socioeconomi-cally backward, as was asked of the Malays three decades ago and justified throughthe New Economic Policy and legitimatized through stringent laws and regulations5that forbade the questioning of such a policy. Hence, instead of reporting conflict-ing views, unearthing root causes through in-depth ethnographic reporting andproviding fair space for debate, blanking the powerless, forgetting and/or buryingthem, seems the preferred position, under the pretext that Malaysian audiences arerecalcitrant.Place and IdentityInsofar as various ethnic groups are not represented as differentiated elements ofthe national culture, their exclusion from the public sphere can be seen as contribut-ing to a hegemonic discourse that seeks to assimilate differences and provide amythical account of a public national culture (Hall, 1980; Jakubowicz, 1994). In thecontext of ethnic minorities and the media in Australia, Jakubowicz (1994) contendsthat the media ‘in all their diversity are deeply implicated in the formulation of ourunderstanding of what the range of meaning behind the label “Australian” might350 THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION GAZETTE VOL. 68 NO. 4at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  6. 6. be’. For most Malaysians, who do not meet most of their fellow country people, inthe consciousness of each, imaginatively, they exist in communion and herein liesthe essence of the ‘national imagined community’ (Anderson, 1983). In proposinga definition of the nation, Anderson (1983: 15) says:It is an imagined political community. . . . It is imagined because the members of even thesmallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear ofthem, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion.Despite ethnic identifiers such as ‘I am Chinese’ or state-privileged ethnic positionssuch as ‘I am Bumiputra’,6 the nation remains a cultural unit of identification, atleast when one travels abroad and is confronted with the question, ‘where are youfrom?’ Thus, the answer, ‘from Malaysia’ will most often be followed with thequestion, ‘Are you Malay?’ Alas, ‘who am I?’ becomes a necessary question forethnic minorities and diasporas whose identities have become deterritorialized,hybridized and fluid. The media thus remain central to our conception of ‘who weare’ and ‘where we belong’ particularly in the context of diasporas and cross-culturalcommunities (see Barker, 1997, 1999). With increased movement of population andthe transfer and transplant of differing cultures within one nation, the method ofidentifying who we are through geographical location seems increasingly irrelevant(Sinclair and Cunningham, 2000). As argued by Indrajit Banerjee (2002: 524),globalization theory spells out ‘the need to understand cultural interactions andchange through processes of cultural hybridization and the articulations betweenvarious cultural identities and forms, ranging from the patrimonial and local to thetranscultural and international’. The nation as such is not the primary culturalidentification for a citizen. Like most other nations in an interconnected world, theMalaysian cultural nation is a fiction, an imaginative construct, seeking to unite itsdispersed and diverse multicultural citizenry. This fiction, mythologized for instancevia state television campaigns, tends to present, at the political nation-building level,public culture as mostly Malay and masculine, underpinned by Islamic mores andtopped by Malay ceremony, while at the global-commercial level public culturefrequently appears pluralistic, feminine and secular filled with lyrics such as ‘Malaysiatruly Asia’. Not only do these images, at national and global levels, conflict, theyare constructed on narrow premises and as such fail to capture and deliver thewholesome and diverse history and culture of a Malaysian world.The official interpretation of history, art, people and language, contendsBenjamin (1968), always serves the interests of the contemporary ruling elite. In thecase of Australia, although multiculturalism has from time to time allowedaboriginal and ethnic minority communities to contest predominantly white defi-nitions of Australian nationhood, they still remain largely invisible or misrepresentedin images of the nation (Collins et al., 2000: 33). Turner (1997: 342) aptly argues:There is no natural reason why all of us who live on this island continent should share thesame government, the same institutions, common values or characteristics. That Australiansthink of themselves as doing so naturally is a result of the cultural construction of the idea ofthe nation through language, myth and history. The national identity is in a sense a national‘fiction’.KHATTAB: ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGES 351at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  7. 7. Most modern states today tend to be characterized by conflict and unlikenessrather than by likeness and cohesion. However, in haste to create new decolonizednations, through convergence and identification among a heterogeneous nationalpopulation, the modern state commonly seeks to impose a standardized nationalculture. The state as such selects elements from the pre-existing cultural wealthwithin its territory and radically transforms them into a homogenizing national highculture (Gellner, 1983: 55–8). This involves a rigorous process of screening, sifting,selecting and excluding in the process of writing the national history and culture.As a result, some accounts tend to be lost, destroyed or simply misplaced or for-gotten. Renan (1990: 110) says:Forgetting . . . is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in histori-cal studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquirybrings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations. Unityis always effected by means of brutality.In other words, Benjamin (1968: 263) points out the past is never understoodin its own right but is ‘filled with the presence of the now’. Thus, it is clear fromAnderson and Benjamin’s work that history writing is shaped by the owners of agiven society at a particular time and that history is as much – if not more – aboutthe ‘meanwhile’ (Anderson, 1983) as it is about the past. Bhabha (1990) broadensAnderson’s notion of the meanwhile arguing that it contains a ‘double-time’ – apedagogical temporality of state-imposed cultural homogeneity and historical conti-nuity and a performative temporality in which the citizens of a nation articulate theircontentious, unequal interests and identities against the totalizing force of the state.Simply put, the citizens of a nation must be understood as both the ‘objects’ andthe ‘subjects’ in the narration of the nation (Bhabha, 1990: 297).In a globalized world, shifts and transformations in interactions have led to theforging of transnational cultural communities, the rethinking of notions of placeand the compressing and collapsing of time and space, public and private(Meyrowitz, 1985). Mass communication technologies, in Babha’s (1990: 300)words ‘transform the “difference of space” into the “sameness of time” by replac-ing the lack of physical interaction amongst a national population with an imaginedbond’. Thus, media technologies facilitate the development and the imagination ofthe modern nation and it is the modern (strong) state that dictates the content ofthis process. Cultural institutions such as the media are often used by the state tofacilitate the process of ‘normalizing, rendering natural, taken-for-granted, in aword, “obvious” what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of aparticular and historical form of social order’ (Corrigan and Sayed, cited in Johnson,1994: 184). States ambitiously scheme and relentlessly strive to render natural andobvious ‘national culture’ and ‘national history’ due to their central positionality infostering a sense of cohesion among people over space and time.Nationally mediatized communities, hitherto, need to be reconceptualized andreimagined in light of the rapid flow of people, ideologies and technologies and inthe process, the transnationalizing, hybridizing and deterritorializing of communi-ties. This re-conceptualization needs to be underwritten by a fair account of the352 THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION GAZETTE VOL. 68 NO. 4at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  8. 8. nation’s many people and their cultural substance. With a stringently guarded andregulated migration policy (close to zero migration other than through cross-national marriages), Malaysia, unlike Australia, notwithstanding the White Australiapolicy prior to the 1960s, is not experiencing the dynamics of an ever increasingand changing flow of migrant communities. Nevertheless, Malaysia has historicallybeen dominated by a majority immigrant population made up of Malays, Chineseand Indians and has since the 1980s witnessed once more the arrival of largenumbers of new immigrants (legal and illegal) mostly from neighbouring Indonesia.Through the importation of foreign workers, in the main from Indonesia, thecountry is being offered and confronted by a new ‘Malay’ community – neitherMalaysian nor Bumiputra yet easily absorbable into either or both. Malaysia isestimated to have some 1.2 million foreign workers and an equal number of un-documented ones. More than 83 percent of the workers are from Indonesia whilethe rest are from the Philippines, Thailand, India, Cambodia, Laos, China, Vietnam,Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan (Asian Labour News, 16 May 2005). Why, onemay ask, are the bulk of migrant workers from Indonesia? Is this privileging of aforeign workforce also a significant part of the imagining of the Malaysian nationmanifested via modern architectural icons such as the world’s tallest Petronas TwinTowers (1457 feet), laboured on by an Indonesian workforce for their Malaysianbrethrens? Goh (1998: 173), in referring to Malaysia’s fetish for loftiness, quotes anadvertisement that reads, ‘At 500 feet above sea level, you can’t help but look downon others.’Thus, as large numbers of Indonesians become assimilated into the Malayculture and as Malaysian Chinese and Indian minorities shrink and continue toremain outside the Malay public culture, a mythic sense of ‘national cultural unity’and homogeneity becomes highly problematic. The ‘outsiders’ (immigrant Indo-nesian workers) are made to belong while the ‘insiders’ (Malaysian Chinese, Indianand other minorities) are left to remain outside because they do not belong to a‘traditional (mythical) “way of life”’ (Cottle, 2000b: 5). The national public is ‘usuallyconstructed in the language of some particular ethnos, membership of which theneffectively becomes the prerequisite for the enjoyment of a political citizenshipwithin the nation-state’ (Morley, 2000: 118). Anderson (1983: 30) and Bhabha(1990) both contend that ‘the imagining of a national communion is made possibleby the development of mass media technologies which provide the technical meansfor re-presenting the kind of imagined community that is the nation’. AlthoughBhabha and Anderson present a non-essentialist understanding of the nation,Bhabha examines how difference is articulated moving on as such from Anderson’sconcern with how sameness is imagined within national boundaries.Television typically organized as a centralized national broadcaster is a symbolicinstitution vital in mediating the contemporary national fiction to the public. Hall(1996) describes how the media function as an important site of cultural produc-tion where the meaning of race (ethnicity) is articulated and re-presented. As vanDijk (1991: 39) argues in the context of western media: ‘if the press endorses theideology that legitimates white group dominance, it may be expected that it willdiscredit, marginalize or problematize anti-racist positions and groups’.KHATTAB: ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGES 353at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  9. 9. How and why do (not) the media in Malaysia, and in particular television,problematize ethnic minorities? How is television used by the state in the(re)construction of public culture and national identity? First, some understandingof Malaysia’s broadcast history.Before television, radio played a territorializing role in the formation of inde-pendent Malaya (1957) and the Federation of Malaysia (1963). Significantly, in theperiod between 1948 and 1960 (known as the Emergency) in the propaganda offen-sive against Communist insurgency and during confrontation with Indonesia in 1965,radio played a determining role. Glattbach and Balakrishnan (1978) identified theCommunist insurgency of 1948 and the confrontation with Indonesia in 1965 as keyfactors that spurred radio expansion in the formative years of Malaysia. Kitley andNain (2003) likewise maintain that ‘the emergency had a major impact on the infra-structure and ideology of broadcasting in Malaysia’. Following commercial radiobroadcasting in 1962 and the external service Suara Malaysia a year after, televisionbroadcasting saw its entry into the Malaysian multicultural fabric on 28 December1963 (Glattbach and Balakrishnan, 1978), approximately six years following indepen-dence from British rule, and since has been a state monopoly, perpetuating the Britishset up dating back to 1946 when the first Department of Broadcasting was estab-lished in Singapore (part of Malaysia until 1965). In other words, its purpose sinceinception has been to propagate state ideology. A second emergency, following thebloody ethnic riots of 13 May 1969, led to a second television network being set upin November 1969. In the same year, and following the riots, major structural andideological changes took place: importantly the integration of radio and television(Radio Television Malaysia, RTM) into the Department of Broadcasting under theMinistry of Information and Broadcasting. The primary role of RTM has since beenthe promotion of national consciousness, national unity and a Malaysian culturealigned to Rukunegara – the state ideology. At policy level, broadcasting is regardedas a major tool in developing national unity in a multiracial society (Glattbach andBalakrishnan, 1978; Kitley and Nain, 2003). Although broadcasting has beenand continues to be carried out in four languages (Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamiland Mandarin), catering to the linguistic needs of multiethnic Malaysians, BahasaMalaysia became the ‘national language’ of the broadcast industry, following the1969 ethnic riots, supposedly to eliminate a divisive sphere (McDaniel, 1994) andpremised on the assumption that strategic delivery of developmental information tothe Kampung (Malay) folks would be eased through the Malay language. Clearly,Malaysia’s broadcast history has been shaped by the need to counter foreign ideologylike Communism, Indonesian-ism and British-ism. In fact, radio and television func-tioned as key weapons in the cultural territorialization of Malaya/sia. This part ofhistory is not forgotten, in fact it overarches the industry today, which seems eth-nically divisive and culturally protective in its programming.Free-to-Air Television TodayThe air space, thus, has been the domain of the state. Every prime minister in everyelection campaign since 1957 following independence from British rule has been354 THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION GAZETTE VOL. 68 NO. 4at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  10. 10. known to extensively utilize state-run radio and television to reach and win the elec-torate. If at all space was accorded to opposition parties such as the secular Demo-cratic Action Party (DAP) or the Islamic Parti Seislam Malaysia (PAS), it has mostlybeen in detrimental light. This in effect explains the continued rule of the BarisanNasional (known as The Alliance from 1957 to 1969), since independence to date.While Malaysians have hardly had the privilege to view the flipside to any issue, norwitness national televised debates, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, in his desire tounite the Malaysian people, recently allowed such a debate among opposing politi-cal parties on state television. Furthermore, in a post-Mahathir, freed-Anwar7climate, the Malaysian media appear to cautiously attempt to decriminalize AnwarIbrahim. While the face of national television may seem to change under differentleaderships and may seem fairer in Malaysia’s modern times, it will tend to continueto serve the ambitions and aspirations of the state.As argued earlier, Malaysia’s public (and private) free-to-air television is a stateinstitution; a significant arm that has the potential to reach 90 percent of house-holds owning at least one television set. TV1 the prime channel (saluran perdana)and TV2 the golden channel (saluran emas) together with a website boast of provid-ing Malaysians with an agora of infotainment and of achieving 80 percent localprogramme content. In 1984, the first free-to-air privatized television station (TV3)arrived under Mahathir’s privatization and liberalization policy. This was followed byMetrovision in 1995 (ceased broadcasting in 1999), Natseven TV (NTV7) in 1998,8TV (previously Metrovision) in January 2004 and Channel 9 (launched in Septem-ber 2003, stopped in 2005, expected to resume in early 2006). This has beencomplemented with the arrival of cable (Mega TV) in 1994, Malaysia’s first subscrip-tion television network, offering eight channels 24 hours a day, and satellite tele-vision (ASTRO) in 1996 offering 32 television channels with a further 16 radiochannels using a Ku-band beam to reach subscribers. These private networks (TV3,8TV and Channel 9) are said to be owned by Media Prima Berhad (MP), reportedto be currently negotiating the purchase of NTV7.8 Hence, private television seemsa single-handed monopoly no different from state television. In fact what seems aduopoly in the form of state (RTM) and private (Media Prima = TV3 + NTV7 + 8TV+ Channel 9) is indeed a monopoly as the key stakeholder, directly or indirectly,remains the main ruling party, UMNO (United Malays National Organization).Despite privatization, as argued earlier on, foreign programmes (not necessarily‘western’) continue to occupy close to 40 percent of broadcast time mainly cateringto the multiethnic and multilingual characteristic of the Malaysian population(Karthigesu, cited in Goonasekera, 2001: 295).Since the state-funded RTM abolished licences in April 2000 (Balraj, 2003), ithas become more dependent on advertising revenue, further marginalizing ethnicminorities as programmes concentrate on the wealthiest segments of society,which is often the Malays and Chinese. Fundamentally, television’s potential toserve as a national public sphere, to create a national family, to brand nationalculture and to build the imagery of good government and good people is nowhereto be denied as we see it being harnessed and exploited in myriad ways by rulingelites whether in Communist or democratic environments. For example, whileKHATTAB: ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGES 355at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  11. 11. CCTV in China, broadcasting mainly in Mandarin, is controlled by the CommunistParty, in democratic India, Doordarshan, using Hindi in the main, remains a govern-ment instrument central to cultural hegemony (Pashupati et al., 2003). In Japan,where the NHK is people-funded and free from commercial impositions, control overprogramme content, in the spirit of nationalism, is said to be a monopoly of themanagerial elite (Yoshimi, 2003). Nations, in other words, are branding and posi-tioning themselves via state-run television, creating a hyper-reality of nationalculture, and this process seems enabled by commercialized public television in mostof Asia, which now has a three-fold purpose – perpetuating state ideology, strength-ening public culture while profiteering. Hence the traditional notions of PSB seemto remain a utopia, whether in India, Japan, China or Malaysia.The liberal democratic notion of public broadcasting has been related to JürgenHabermas’s (see Sparks, 2004) idea of the public sphere. Simply put, this meanscontemporary mass media must guarantee access to all citizens in unrestricted andunlimited ways, and who, if not the public broadcasters, could do this better for thepeople? In a strictly theoretical sense, PSB is expected to operate universally and inclu-sively shifting beyond state and corporate vested interest. But, one may ask, howuniversal and inclusive is the notion of the public sphere particularly when under-stood in a historically white, patriarchal, patrician and bourgeois context (Morley,2004; Sparks, 2004)? As Syvertsen (2003) argues, in reference to the Norwegiancase, public broadcasting in its traditional form has been acutely difficult to operateand regulate in an era of globalization, media convergence and commercialization.Privileged CultureGiven the above, I contend that in modern Malaysia public broadcasting deviatesfrom traditional democratic ideals and re-presents mythical images of public culturein ethnic sphericules and attempts to make normal and acceptable the following:1. Privileging one group over several others, one language and one set of valuesover others;2. Promoting the vested interest of the main ruling political party, i.e. the UnitedMalays National Organization (UMNO).3. Representing a polarized Malaysian society, i.e. Malays and non-Malays orBumiputra and non-Bumiputra (ethnic minorities or colonial immigrants);4. Mediating two public spheres – one sacred and the other non-sacred – andwithin each enabling several circuits of discourses and practices, yet denyingdiversity and differences to prevail.Clearly, a privileged Malay public sphere is evident in TV1 and a non-Malay publicsphere in TV2. It seems, in other words, the sacred and the non-sacred are beingnationally mediated. The former is filled with purity; it is non-penetrable by foreigncultural elements and seems beyond ‘the nons’ (a colloquial reference to minori-ties). The primary language is Malay and the values are Islamic. The latter, however,is typically like the Malaysian hawker food, rojak. It seems free for all, with a356 THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION GAZETTE VOL. 68 NO. 4at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  12. 12. potpouri of Chinese, Tamil and English news and entertainment programmeswhether from home or abroad. TV2 airs programmes for the Chinese largelyimported from Hong Kong; for the Indians imported from India; and for the English-speaking viewers imported from Singapore and the US in the main. While, on theone hand, RTM may point out that it is providing fair content for all minority groupsvia TV2, on the other, knowingly or not, it is guilty of perpetuating a deeply rootedpure and impure public sphere, and in the process hindering the state’s (Mahathir’s)vision of creating a single Malaysian race (bangsa Malaysia) come 2020.Within the Malay public sphere itself, there prevails a form of subtle dualism –one for the Rakyat (urban Malays) and one for the Ummah (Kampung Malays). Iron-ically the Ummah tend to refer to the Kampung masses who are constantlybombarded with Islamic genre because they are presumably seen as an importantconstituent of the opposition Islamic party (PAS) and therefore must be won overby the ruling coalition party. The Rakyat, literally meaning citizenry and by suchvirtue inclusive of all people, tends, in practice, to denote the Malay Bumiputra,privileged middle class, who are an important constituent of the ruling Malay party,UMNO, whose undivided loyalty must be preserved and nurtured. Thus, while theUmmah and the Rakyat are the chosen audiences for TV1 – the prime channel andthe first channel, all the rest of the audiences, albeit the nons, are fed rojak via asecond (class?) channel. Differences within the Ummah and within the Rakyat aresimply ignored because each as a group represents a political affiliation – the formertowards PAS and the latter towards UMNO. To be inclusive in a divisive manner isbut a reflection of the Malaysian ethnic-based political party system where the rulingBarisan Nasional is made up of the UMNO (a Malay party) representing the Rakyat,while the MIC (Indian component party) and MCA (Chinese component party)represent the nons. Indeed, state broadcasting in Malaysia reflects how one ethnicgroup is privileged over several other ethnic groups. If public broadcasting is to berealized in any meaningful sense, Malaysia’s race-essentialized politics must changeto accord such a privilege to all Malaysians.ConclusionWhile western scholars have said much about the ‘whiteness’ of western media(see Allan, 1999; Cottle, 2000b; Fiske, 1994; Hall, 1996; Hartmann and Husband,1974; Sinclair and Cunningham, 2000; Turner, 1997; van Dijk, 1991), nothingreally has been said about the ‘blankness’ of Malaysian media. Whatever is counter-hegemonic is blanked in the Malaysian media and minorities have been absent andunderrepresented for a long time. Their presence, insofar as they are subordinatelypositioned, has been rather unpleasant. In all forms of home-made genres –commercial advertising, public campaigns, films, dramas, news, documentaries andsitcoms – for ideological and ringgit reasons, state television blanks minorities, inparticular Indians and other indigenous minorities. According to Oorjitham (2001)about 54 percent of Malaysian Indians work on plantations or as urban labourerson low wages with limited access to housing, education and jobs. Accounting for8 percent of the Malaysian population, Indians make up 41 percent of MalaysianKHATTAB: ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGES 357at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  13. 13. beggars, 63 percent of those arrested for violent crimes and less than 5 percent ofsuccessful university applicants (Oorjitham, 2001). It is not surprising that no singlepublic campaign has thus far been designed to help improve the lot of the minorityIndians. In fact, in most state campaigns, designed to improve the lot of the alreadyaffluent urban Malays, characters of an Indian appearance have often been depictedas ‘sick’ or destructive. For example, in a healthy lifestyle campaign in 2002, it wasfound that an Indian-looking male was represented as a diabetic patient beingadvised by a Malay-looking medical doctor and in a public property campaign, anIndian-looking male was depicted as vandalizing public property (Khattab, 2004).As Hall (1996: 342) argues: ‘even the dominant, colonizing, imperializing poweronly knows who and what it is and can experience the pleasure of its own powerof domination in and through the construction of Other’.While the normalization and universalization of whiteness through media repre-sentation are being challenged extensively, is it worth imagining the normalizationof ‘Malayness’ in the construction of Bangsa Malaysia? Malaysian audiences areresisting such mediatization in alternative spaces such as via Malaysiakini, the onlyalternative (online) newspaper. Blogs and websites to some extent fulfil the notionsof the public sphere and provide cyber-avenues for critical debate. Stringent laws,however, retard the growth of rich alternative forms of discourses and articulations.Emulating western forms of media, the ethnically polarized public spheres inMalaysia seem further corrupted by the disappearance of citizenry and in its placea burgeoning consumerist middle class advanced by commercial television andboosted by an ICT state agenda privileging one group over several others. Throughmediatized essentialist perspectives of ‘race’ and ‘capitalism’, Malaysia’s culturalpurse is being emptied and its national narration made blank and bland. Ascommunities within the national territory are subjugated to the same rhythms ofnational broadcast service, notions of equality and commonality seem promoted(Moran, 2004; Morley, 2004) creating as such a false consciousness and a misplacedsense of security and reality.NotesThis article is a revised version of a paper presented at the 14th AMIC conference in Beijing, 18–21July 2005.1. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was implemented in the 1970s, immediately following the 1969ethnic conflict, to help raise up Malays, who were seen as economically backward in compari-son to the Chinese and Indians. Under an affirmative action programme, Malays were givenspecial privileges such as quotas allowing them to enter universities and gain employment evenif less qualified than applicants from other races. It also allocated 30 percent of the equity inlocal companies to Malays ( Malaysia’s Vision 2020 to become an industrialized First World country was launched byMahathir Mohamed in February 1991. It prescribes inter alia that Malaysia ‘must be a nationthat is fully developed in terms of national unity and social cohesion, in terms of social justice,political stability, system of government, quality of life, social and spiritual values, national pride’(Goh, 1998: 170).3. Malaysia’s 25 million population is largely multiethnic, made up of 58 percent Malays (Bumiputra),24 percent Chinese, 8 percent Indian and 10 percent other (including indigenous) ethnic groups.358 THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION GAZETTE VOL. 68 NO. 4at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  14. 14. 4. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) headed from 1979 to date by Samy Vellu, is a coalitionpartner with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), United Malays National Organization(UMNO) and 10 other parties mainly from Sabah and Sarawak, in the ruling Barisan Nasional(BN), which was formed in 1973 as a successor to The Alliance (Parti Perikatan) and has ruledsince independence.5. For example, the Internal Security Act of 1960 sees as offensive speech or publication abouttraditional Malay rulers, Islam (the official religion), the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia) or that which may incite ethnic conflict.6. Bumiputra is a Malay term that means son or prince of the soil. It has been normalized inMalaysia to refer to indigenous communities such as the Malays and communities in Sabah andSarawak. It however excludes the Orang Asli, an indigenous community in peninsular Malaysia.7. Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from his position as deputy prime minister and from UMNO inSeptember 1998 by the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, and imprisoned for nine yearson charges of sodomy and corruption. Following Mahathir’s resignation in October 2003, andunder the premiership of Abdullah Badawi the charges against Anwar were reversed by theappeals court and he was freed in September 2004.8. At:–8tv-channel-9-owner-gobbles-up.html, 21 July2005.ReferencesAllan, S. (1999) News Culture. Buckingham and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.London and New York: Verso.Asian Labour News (2005) ‘Southeast Asia: Images of Migrants Often Negative – Critics’, 16 May:2; at:, S. (2003) ‘Malaysia’, pp. 168–75 in A. Goonasekera et al. (eds) Asian CommunicationHandbook. Singapore: AMIC and NTU.Banerjee, I. (2002) ‘The Locals Strike Back? Media Globalisation and Localisation in the New AsianTelevision Landscape’, Gazette 64(6): 517–35.Banerjee, M. (2002) ‘Trends in International TV Broadcasting’, Media Asia 29(2): 107–10.Barker, C. (1997) ‘Cultural Identities and Cultural Imperialism’, pp. 182–206 in Global Television:An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.Barker, C. (1999) ‘Audiences, Identities and Television Talk’, pp. 108–40 in Television, Globalizationand Cultural Identities. Buckingham/Philadelphia: Open University Press.Benjamin, W. (1968) Illuminations, ed. H.Arendt, trans. H. Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace and World.Bhabha, H.K. (1990) ‘DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation’,pp. 291–322 in H.K. Bhabha (ed.) Nation and Narration. London: Routledge.Collins, J. et al. (2000) Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime: Youth, Ethnicity and Crime. Sydney: PlutoPress.Collins, R. (2004) ‘“Ises” and “Oughts”: Public Service Broadcasting in Europe’, pp. 33–47 inR.C. Allen and A. Hill (eds) The Television Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.Cottle, S. (2000a) ‘Rethinking News Access’, Journalism Studies 1(3): 427–48.Cottle, S. (2000b) ‘Introduction: Media Research and Ethnic Minorities: Mapping the Field’,pp. 1–29 in S. Cottle (ed.) Ethnic Minorities and the Media: Changing Cultural Boundaries.Buckingham and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.Fiske, J. (1994) Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change. Minneapolis: University ofMinnesota Press.Gabriel, J. (1998) Whitewash: Racialised Politics and the Media. London and New York: Routledge.Gellner, E. (1983) Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Glattbach, J. and R. Balakrishnan (1978) ‘Malaysia’, pp. 142–53 in J.A. Lent (ed.) Broadcasting inAsia and the Pacific: A Continental Survey of Radio and Television. Philadelphia, PA: TempleUniversity Press.Goh, B.L. (1998) ‘Modern Dreams: An Enquiry into Power, Cityspace Transformations and CulturalDifference in Contemporary Malaysia’, pp. 169–202 in J.S. Kahn (ed.) Southeast Asian Identities:KHATTAB: ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGES 359at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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  16. 16. Umi Khattab is a lecturer at the Media and Communications Programme atthe University of Melbourne, Australia. Khattab taught and researched previ-ously in Malaysia where she also wrote as a columnist for The New Straits Times.Khattab conducts research in minorities and the media, Asia-Pacific media,public relations, news and audiences.Address Media and Communications Programme, Faculty of Arts, University ofMelbourne, VIC 3010, Australia. [email:]KHATTAB: ‘NON’ MEDIATED IMAGES 361at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on June 5, 2013gaz.sagepub.comDownloaded from