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Role of Media in Promoting Cultural Diversity

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(Transcript of paper delivered by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar at the Canada/AIBD Regional Seminar on Broadcasting and Cultural Diversity held in Parkroyal Hotel, Kuala Lumpur from 8-10 March 2007.  This seminar was organized by the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD)and the paper was delivered on 8 March 2007).


In my presentation this morning, I will focus on two multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multicultural societies: Malaysia and Singapore, and evaluate the role of the media in promoting the cultural diversity in these two countries. I shall ask these three questions:


  1. how has the media promoted cultural diversity in these two countries
  2. what have been the positive and negative consequences of this role
  3. how can the media become a more effective and a more meaningful channel for the promotion of cultural diversity in general.


First – the role of the media in promoting cultural diversity in Malaysia and Singapore:


By and large, the media in Malaysia and Singapore have taken the cue from the state. the government on how they should approach the challenge of diversity. In other words, the parameters are defined by the state and the media has chosen to reflect the interests and aspirations of the state, when it comes to the question of cultural diversity.


Thus the media in Malaysia and Singapore report on the festivals of the different communities, their religious practices& the media publishes articles and broadcasts programmes on how the different communities mix and mingle with one another. Which is why in the last few weeks, we have had a lot of publicity in the Malaysian media to this very interesting practice of Malaysians of different backgrounds coming together to celebrate the Yee Sang ceremony as part of the Chinese New Year festivities. Newspapers were full of this.


The media also pays attention to the challenges faced by the different communities.  It provides solutions, very often solutions which are linked to the way the state looks at the challenge of diversity. The media has, I think, both in Malaysia and in Singapore done well in in reflecting the interests of the state, when it comes to the question of diversity


Why is this so? Both in Malaysia and in Singapore you have the phenomenon of a very strong state.  In both these countries, the state either owns or controls the media. In both the states, there are laws, which ensure that the media observes the parameters. In both the states, those who lead the media very often bend over backwards to accommodate the state. This is what is called self-censorship. Sometimes it is done because those who run the media feel that this is the best way of ensuring national interests; sometimes it is done as a way of furthering their own interests as the leaders of their respective media.


How does one evaluate this? Let me begin with the positive aspect of this role that the media has played. Believe me, it has had a positive impact. What is this positive impact?


There is no doubt at all that the media Malaysia and Singapore have played a major role in safeguarding inter -ethnic harmony. And this is no mean achievement.


Why? Because Malaysia and Singapore are among the most successful multiethnic societies in the world. And this is an observation which is based upon objective factors. There are two objective criteria that one can use to show that these are two societies which as multiethnic societies have done well in securing inter-ethnic harmony.


Firstly, in both Malaysia and Singapore there has been a minimum of political violence associated with cultural and religious issues. Political violence is a measure which students of society use very often to look at a multiethnic society.


What is the degree of political violence?


If you look at the last 50 years of Malaysia, and 40 odd years of Singapore, as an independent nation, political violence has been quite small. We have had a political riot in our history; Singapore also has had political violence in its history. If you compare it with some other multi-ethnic, multicultural societies, whether it is Fiji, Sri Lanka, India,  Pakistan, or United States of America, political violence has been kept to a minimum. It is an achievement.


And the other reason why one is confident about arguing that these two countries have done relatively well, is the state of the institutions of governance in both these countries. In both Singapore and Malaysia, the institutions of governance, both formal and informal, function. Whether it is in the realm of politics or economics or culture or if you look at media as an informal institution of governance – you will find that this society, Malaysian society, functions and achieves results. You can say the same about Singapore. So you have these two mult-ethnic societies doing fairly well, with the support of the media.  The media has been a pillar, in this endeavour.


That is the positive side. What about the negative side?


While we have done fairly well, because of the role the media has played, among other factors, we cannot run away from the fact that a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society is  – more than perhaps most other societies – in a state of flux.  It changes, it evolves. Which means that you cannot adopt a static approach to ethnic problems. And the problem of reflecting the interests of the state all the while is that you tend to adopt a static approach. You tend to give the impression that a solution that is applied by the state over a period of time is the solution. You tend to forget that as the situation changes, you would need another approach to face the challenges from another perspective. Let’s be more specific about this.


Look at Malaysia. Both the Malay community and the different non-Malay communities are in a state of  flux. That means their relationships are changing and evolving. In the case of  the Malay community, if you look at the situation 50 years after independence, it is a much more varied community in terms of its class structure than it was in 1957. You have in the Malay community, increasing gaps between the very rich and those who are at the very bottom of the pile. And it impacts on ethnic relations, it affects perception of oneself in relationship to the other.


You have to address this dimension. One cannot adopt the approach one would have adopted in late 60s or early 70s, when Malay society was different – it did not have the differentiation that it has today, which is so obvious in terms of economic and social interests. Is the state capable of responding to this? Is the media capable of responding to this? Does the media reflect these changes? Can the media reflect these changes if it adopts the static approach dictated by state interests? That is the challenge.


Likewise, if you look at the non-Malay communities.   The recently domiciled non-Malay communities of 1957 were very different from communities which, over a a period of 50 years, have become more entrenched, more rooted in Malaysian society. Their  aspirations would be different, their outlook would be different and this would impact on ethnic relations. You have to take this into account when you write about non-Malay aspirations.  And this is something which a static approach does not allow for.


You don’t address new problems, you don’t articulate new solutions. This is something which both the Malaysian government and the Singapore government, in different ways, will have to take into account.


This is the negative side of being a pillar of the state when it comes to addressing the challenges of cultural diversity. You have to go beyond playing that role.


And that brings me to the last question. How does one do this in a situation where there are laws that do not take too kindly to journalists who attempt to be adventurous, to go beyond the parameters set by the state.  These maybe journalists from the print or broadcast media who would like to ask some novel questions about ethnic relations – about notions of change and evolution of ethnic relations in terms of class interests and perceptions.  How do you ask these questions in a society where laws perpetuate the static approach?


I think there is a way out without having to transgress the laws, without having to get into trouble, In other words, you can play safe and yet be creative, you can test the boundaries, you can bring new and dynamic ideas. How can one do this?


I think it is very important for our journalists to educate themselves about the challenge of diversity. Let me say this very frankly. There are very few journalists Malaysia and in Singapore who really understand what the of diversity is.  There are very few who research into issues of diversity, accumulate knowledge about diversity in the way anthropologists, sociologists and students of ethnic relations know diversity. There are a few who have done investigative work when it comes to the question of diverstiy.  What one is saying is that if you look at journalism you will find specialists in areas such as sports,  or fashion or cusine but there are very few specialists when it comes to areas such as  ethnic relations and cultural diversity. Why can’t we have specialists in cultural  diversity, why can’t we have people in radio, television, in newspapers who really know ethnic relations and who would be recognized by the media, by the people, as specialists. Pardon me for saying this, but I can’t think of a single journalist in Malaysia whom I can regard, who my colleagues would regard, as a specialist in ethnic relations.  It is a pity Let us try and develop such individuals. And if we had such individuals then the situation would be different, even if we were operating under the same parameters.

The framework would be the same, the same laws, the same rules, but if the people were well versed in ethnic relations, then they would write with authority, about a whole variety of  issues. At the same time, we need to have editors, leaders of the media who appreciate the importance of diversity.  On the one hand, we need journalists who are well-versed in ethnic relations.  On the other hand, we need editors who are willing to give prominence to stories related to ethnic diversity.


Let me give you an example.


A few months ago, something that was heart-rending happened in this country in the area of ethnic relations. There was this case of a boy who had died in our national service programme.  He was involved in a fight with another boy and he was killed accidentally.  The dead lad happened to be from the Malay community. The boy who killed him by accident was from the Indian community. The victim was a Muslim and the boy who was responsible for his death was a Hindu. What was moving about what happened after the incident.  The Hindu mother of the boy who killed the national service trainee, and nearly all the people in her village decided to visit the mother of the boy who was killed and asked for forgiveness.   It was reported in some of the papers. It was reported on television but it was not highlighted.   It should have been in the front pages of newspapers, this episode.  In the context of multi-ethnic Malaysia, it was such a moving event. There was no retribution, no talk of revenge. It was just humanity at work: forgiveness. Both mothers hugged each other.   They wept on each other’s shoulders.


But because the media did not highlight the event – there was no discussion or reflection on the event – it did not make an impact. Compare this with the way our media highlights gossip involving movie stars, singers, politicians.  This is the way media works everywhere. This is universally true.  But in this is the challenge for the media in a multicultural, multiethnic society.  We have to focus on those issues which are fundamental to a society like Malaysia or Singapore or, for that matter, other multicultural societies. Can you imagine the impact of highlighting stories about reaching out to one another, helping one another.


If you go back and look at the archival records, you will be surprised there have been numerous cases, even in the midst of ethnic tensions and conflicts of people reaching out to one another, people of different communities caring for one another. This is what we have to highlight.  This requires investigation, it requires research, it requires some understanding of Malaysia’s multi ethnic, multi cultural matrix.


This is what is lacking in the media. We have to try and overcome this challenge. If we really understood the significance of multicultural diversity, then I think we would look at other societies, try to learn from other societies.  There is quite a bit to learn from western societies, the way they have handled the challenge of diversity.


Amongst western societies, one of the most successful in dealing with the challenge of diversity is Canada. It is a society which has taken the challenge of diversity seriously, ever since Pierre Trudeau proclaimed his commitment to multiculturalism in the early seventies.  They have made it part of policy, part of law. And this is one of the strengths of Western society.  The way in which it addresses problems from a rules based perspective. Creating rules, laws, policies, so that everyone knows where everyone stands.  That is important in multi-ethnic societies. You have a clear idea of what the rules are, what the laws are.


But let me add very quickly, friends, that is not enough. In dealing with the challenge of diversity, it is not enough to have laws, rules and policies. They are useful. But they are not sufficient. Why? Because the question of diversity, the question of recognizing the other as your equal,  the other as important as yourself, is a question that is related to the heart. It is how you feel. It is not just a question of institutions and laws.  Respecting another human being, recognizing the humanity in the other person,  must emerge from the heart.  It involves feelings, emotions, sentiments. Which is why friends, we must also look at our own societies and learn from our own history and our own philosophy. Societies in Asia have a lot to offer the world in this area. And I want to give you an example to support this – but before I do that, let me add that there has been bigotry chauvinism, communalism in our past. That is very much part of our history too. And we must not be ashamed to admit this. Right through our history, every culture, every religion is guilty of this – of chauvinism, of communalism, of bigotry. Without exception. But at the same time there are beautiful chapters that in our history reveal our humanity, a very profound humanity in all our cultures and religions. And we have to harness that. Journalists, academics, politicians have not done enough of this. Partly because they are ignorant, partly because of our mindset. Somehow we feel that if there is anything useful to learn, it must come from the West.  This is part of the problem. We all suffer from that. We don’t realize for instance that while there are a lot of good things in the West, there are also a lot things which are negative.  We should change our mindset. We should look at our own history and acknowledge that there are many positive elements that should be brought to the surface.


It would be instructive  to look at our philosophies and our histories to learn how our civilizations had dealt with diversity. Just now Javad pointed out that Asia is very diverse. It is very true.  I shall illustrate Asia’s acceptance of religious and cultural diversity, in contrast to Europe’s reluctance to accept diversity, by comparing two regional organizations.


There are two regional organizations in the world, which have done fairly well, one better than the other. The first is the European Union. A very successful regional outfit. Largely a product of one particular type of civilization. The European Union has tremendous difficulty in accepting religious and cultural diversity. That is one of the reasons why Turkey has been kept out of European Union. Turkey has been knocking at the door of the European Union for almost 50 years. Right through history, Europe has found it difficult to accept diversity. The question of ‘the other’ has been problematic for Europe. It was Jew or Gypsy in the past;  today it is the Muslim. This has been the bugbear of European civilization: how to deal with the other.


Now contrast that with the Association of  Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping, the second most successful regional entity in the world.  567 million people. One of the most diverse regions in the world. The question of our diversity has never been problem. Every religious tradition is represented in ASEAN. Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, Muslim, Hindu – they are all part of ASEAN.  ASEAN is proud of its diversity. This is partly because of our history and our philosophies.  If we look at Buddhism, Buddhism represented by the Emperor Ashoka.  Look at the respect for diversity shown by this emperor.  Centuries, thousands of years ago.  Look at Islam. Very often presented in the contemporary media – and not just the western media – as a civilization or a religion that is bigoted, narrow, incapable of accepting diversity. Yet if you look at history, its philosophy, you get a totally different picture. There is perhaps no religious scripture in the world which embraces diversity the way the Qur’an embraces diversity. It tells you openly that God has made people different so that they would know one another.  Even more important it says God would have made you into a single people, but God did not do it so that God could test you to see whether you would practise goodness. In other words, diversity is a test of our goodness. It is so clearly stated in the Qur’an.


The Qur’an tells us that the paradise it not just for Muslims, it says openly that Christians, Jews, Sabeans, anyone who believes in God and because of that belief, does good, that person would be rewarded. No religious scripture opens the door of paradise to people who do not belong to that community. Most Muslims don’t even acknowledge this. Most non-Muslims are not even aware of this. This is the tragedy.


Take Muslim history. The Prophet Mohammad, (peace be upon him) formulated the Charter of Medina, equal rights and responsibilities for everyone.  It is amazing! And if you look at empires and Kingdoms in  Muslim history, they are   a testimony to diversity and respect for the other.  Andalusia was a beautiful home to Muslim, Christian and Jew for centuries.  In the Ottoman empire any attempt to force a Christian or a Jew to become a Muslim was punishable by death. Because Islam prohibits coercion in matters of religion. Most of the Mughal rulers protected the religious rights of their non-Muslim subjects. Here in our part of the world,  80 different languages were spoken in the Malaccan empire in the 15th century. You will see few journalists, academics, politicians talking about this. This is what we have to bring to fore.


I have singled out Islam, partly because of the way Islam is treated in the mainstream media today. But I am sure that this acceptance of diversity is true of all our traditions.  Friends, what we have to do, as media people, is to learn to drink from our own wells. While keeping our minds open, absorbing ideas from the outside world, we have to also understand our own background, our own history, our own philosophy.


Let me conclude with a quote from one of the greatest Persian/Iranian poets of all times. An embodiment of the spirit of diversity.   You have a number of Iranian poets and philosophers who represented this spirit. This quote is from the 12th century poet, Saadi: 


“The human race is a single being created from one jewel if one member is struck, all must feel the blow

only someone who can feel the pain of others can truly be called human”.



Dr. Chandra Muzaffar,


International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

One thought on “Role of Media in Promoting Cultural Diversity

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