Media in Malaysia: The Peculiar Case of Mainstream Media Versus Alternative Media

The Ateneo Center for Asian Studies
invites you to

Media in Malaysia: The Peculiar Case of Mainstream Media
Versus Alternative Media

By Dr. Kokkeong Wong
Associate Professor of Communication
St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, USA
12 August 2008, Tuesday
1:30-3:00 pm
Social Sciences Conference Room 3 & 4
Social Sciences Building
Ateneo de Manila University


This presentation offers a historical overview of the Malaysian media, with emphasis on the news-media situation of the past decade.  Malaysian politics will also be addressed; it is impossible not to.  Malaysian media today are largely divided into two opposing camps: the mainstream media of the traditional newspapers, radio and TV and the alternative media associated with the internet.  Ever since Malaysia became independent of Britain in 1957, it has been ruled by the Barisan Nasional (BN) or National Front that comprises 14 parties. Following race rioting on May 13, 1969 that killed hundreds of Malaysians and then the 22-year authoritarian rule of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the BN government has tightened control of the mainstream media, prompting critics to dismiss the media as merely a BN mouthpiece.  But others justified BN influence in the name of developmental media-media partnering with the government to help grow the economy and unite the country comprising 65% Malays, 25% Chinese and 8% Indians.  However, starting with the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, Malaysian politics has seen major turmoil. The BN now faces unprecedented challenge from three opposition parties that recently came together to form Pakatan Rakyat (PK) or People's Coalition. The mainstream media has lost credibility with many Malaysians, who take to the "alternative" media of online news portals and socio-political blogs.  As of July 2008, political turmoil persists while more Malaysians turn to alternative media and demand fundamental reforms for the mainstream media.

About the Speaker
Kokkeong Wong, a native of Malaysia, obtained his Ph.D. in mass communication at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (U.S.A).  His research interests are media globalization as well as media developments in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Singapore.  His publications include a book Media and Culture in Singapore: A Theory of Controlled Commodification (Hampton Press, 2001), journal article "Asian-Based Development Journalism and Political Elections: Press Coverage of the 1999 General Elections in Malaysia" (in Gazette, 2004), and "Introduction" for the book Constructing America's War Culture: Iraq, Media, and Images at Home (Lexington Books, 2008), edited by Thomas Conroy and Jarice Hanson.  He often contributes articles on Malaysian media to Aliran Monthly, a publication of a premier Malaysian NGO dedicated to social reforms, especially press freedom.

Size (total area):            329,750 sq. km.
There are 11 states in West Malaysia, two states in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, and the Federal Territory.
History:                         A British colony from the 1820s to 1957. Formerly known as Malaya, Malaysia was created in 1963 when the two states in East Malaysia and Singapore joined West Malaysia. Singapore, however, left two years later (1965).
Population:                    About 27.5 million (July 2008)
Ethnic composition:       65% Malays/Bumiputras or indigenous groups;  25% Chinese; 8% Indians (from India);  1% others
GNI per capita:              US$6,250 (2007, World Bank)
Major Religions:             Islam (official religion), Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, & Hinduism.
Major Languages:          Malay Language (national language); English; Mandarin (and other Chinese  dialects); Tamil; and Hindi.
Chief of State:                King, elected from among the hereditary rulers of nine of the states for five-year terms.
Head of Government:      Prime Minister; Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Since 31 October 2003); reelected on March 8, 2008  
                                    but Barisan Nasional (BN) or National Front party lost the much coveted two-thirds' majority control of 
Parliament                    British Westminster-style Parliament: the Senate has 70 members (44 appointed by the King, 26 by state  legislatures) and the House of Representatives currently has 222 members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms.
Cabinet:                        Appointed by the prime minister with consent of the King. Following the March 2008 general elections, there are now 32 full ministers and 37 deputy ministers.
Elections:                      Following a general election, the leader of the party that wins a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives becomes the prime minister. 
2008 Election:               The ruling party since 1957 has been the BN. In the 2008 election, the BN lost two-thirds majority control of Parliament winning only 140 seats in the House of Representatives; of the remaining 82 seats, one came under an Independent candidate and 81 under the People's Coalition or Pakatan Rakyat (PK) that comprises the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (Pas), and People's Justice Party (PKR).
Mainstream Media:        30 plus daily and Sunday papers (most owned by investment arms of BN coalition parties or cronies/supporters of BN, the ruling coalition political party)
                                    46 radio stations (24 funded through taxes, 22 privately owned by cronies of the BN);
                                    5 terrestrial TV networks/stations (2 funded through taxes, 3 privately owned by cronies of the BN);
                                    1 satellite TV provider (ASTRO), privately owned by cronies of the BN.
                                    All media are available in Malay, English, Mandarin, and Tamil.
Internet Penetration       14.3% dial-up internet subscribers; 5% broadband
& Usage:                       internet subscribers; and about 60% of population used the internet (December 2007).  A 2006 survey showed 18 percent of Malaysian respondents logged on to the Internet for more than six hours a day and 41 percent for between one to three hours daily. Blogging was also gaining popularity.
Alternative Media:          Major online news portals are Malaysiakini (the oldest and most popular), AgendaDaily, Merdeka Review, and Malaysian Insider.  There are about 80 socio-political blogs, most of which critical or independent of the BN government.

 Media Laws

  1.     Communications and Multimedia Act (1998)

All telecommunication industries offering broadcast, cable, satellite, internet, and telephony services must exercise self-regulation of content to avoid presenting "offensive and objectionable" material that includes indecency, obscenity, incitement to violence, and threats to national security or public health and safety. 
Broadcasters are to be "sensitive" to cultural differences in Malaysia; news materials and current affairs must be in line with the government's principles to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.
The Act does not permit the censorship of internet. But, if the Complaints Bureau of the Content Forum notifies a person that a link on his/her Web page is a link to "prohibited content," the person must remove the link "within 24 hours of being notified".  Generally, something considered illegal offline will also be illegal online.

  1.     Printing Presses and Publications Act (1948; amended 1984 & 1987)

All printing and publishing ventures must be licensed by the federal government through the Office of the Home Affairs Minister, and the license or permit must be renewed annually. The Home Affairs Minister can suspend, revoke or decline to renew or issue a license without providing a reason, and the minister's decision cannot be appealed or challenged in a court of law. The minister can suspend the import of publications from outside Malaysia and eject foreign journalists from the country, also without the possibility of appeal.

  1.     Internal Security Act (1960)

Allows the government to arrest and detain people without bringing charges. Detainees have no right to challenge the detention for a period of two years, but the two-year term can be renewed by the Home Affairs Minister, essentially allowing indefinite imprisonment without trial. The Act can be invoked against journalists or online content providers if what they make publicly available is perceived to pose a threat to national security.

  1.     Official Secrets Act (1972)

Allows the government to designate almost any document or proceedings as 'official secret' and thereby not open to the public or the press. Business deals between the government and major businesses are usually kept confidential under this act, often denying journalists/public from revealing any alleged corruption.

  1.     Sedition Act (1948; amended 1969)

Prohibits any action that promotes 'ill will and hostility' among the different races in Malaysia. Also prohibits any challenge to the conditions of Malaysian citizenship, the national language, the privileged position of Malays and the natives of Sarawak and Sabah, and the position of the nine Malay rulers.