The Long-waited Freedom of Expression and Poverty Eradication:
CHANG Teck Peng1
Malaysia is a multiethnic society with three main ethnic groups, namely, Malay,
Chinese and Indian, and numerous other ethnic minorities. It has a total
population of 25.58 million, with 15.70 million (65.7%) being Bumiputera (literally
Sons of Soil, a term normally used to refer to Malays and other indigenous groups),
6.07 million (25.4%) Chinese, 1.80 million (7.6%) Indians, and the rest other ethnic
The Malaysian government is formed by Barisan Nasional (National Front), which
is a political coalition consisting of 13 political parties and dominated by
Malay-based United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), Chinese-based
Malaysia Chinese Association (MCA) and Indian-based Malayan Indian Congress
(MIC). Barisan Nasional, or formerly known as Perikatan (Alliance) before 1974,
has held the regime with two-third majority seats in the Parliament since Malaya
gained its Independence in 1957. During the 22 years of administration from 1981
to 2003, the fourth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had successfully made
Malaysia into an authoritarian state where the Executive branch has overriding
influence over the Legislature and the Judiciary, making the separation of powers
Poverty eradication has been one of the main themes on the economic and political
agenda in multi-ethnic Malaysia despite the boastful self-claim by its ruling elites as
one of the most-developed developing countries. A communal riot between ethnic
Malay and Chinese broke out on 13 May 1969. According to official figures, some
196 people died, 9,143 were arrested and 753 buildings were damaged or
destroyed by fire in what popularly known as “May 13 Incident”. Until today, it has
always been depicted it as a “sensitive issue” and been used as a justification to
government’s move to suppress public discussion of ethnic issues.
The government has always attributed the origin of the riots to inequality of income
between Malay and Chinese, in the sense that the Malays, who were mostly
peasantry, suffered excessive poverty while Chinese, who were mostly doing
business, lived wealthily. In the days before the May 13 Incident, the Malaysian
economy could best be described as being neo-colonial, as it still remained heavily
dependent on foreign, particularly British investments. Although the government
CHANG Teck Peng is Editor-in-Chief of a Malaysia-based Chinese news portal, merdekareview.com.
took efforts, especially through financial assistance to encourage and develop
Malay businesses, by 1970s, Malay ownership of shares in all major sectors of the
economy was still very insignificant. Inclusive of shares owned by state agencies,
Bumiputra control of the economy still amounted to only a meagre 2.4% (Gomez,
Hence, after the most severe ethnic conflict, the Malay-led government has
introduced in 1970 the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) aimed at reducing tension
and avoiding ethnic conflicts. The NEP has twin-pronged objectives, namely the
eradication of poverty irrespective of race and the restructuring of society to correct
the identification of race with economic function. In view of Malays were mostly
the poorest community at the time, the NEP had became an economic policy to
breed up Malay entrepreneurs and professionals. The policy’s aim was that within
20 years, 30% of commercial industry and the professions would be in the hands of
However, the ethnic-based affirmation action has somehow become the source of
corruption, as the ruling elites misuse public funds to feed companies owned by
their cronies and families. In fact, the terms of “cronyism” and “nepotism” have
become popular in Malaysia since 1998. The then Deputy Prime Minister and
Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, after his sacking by Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad, had harshly criticized Mahathir for practicing cronyism and nepotism.
However, Anwar Ibrahim’s criticism of Mahathir was nothing new as corruptions as
such have been one of the long-standing maladies in the rule of Barisan Nasional
Although the twenty-year NEP had ended in 1990, the Malay-preference principle
of NEP is still being carried out in the national development programmes. The
government and ruling elites are also always to re-affirm the stereotypical
perception that the ethnic Chinese is richer than the Malays, despite the fact that
Malays entrepreneurs and corporate are now the dominating force in share market.
In other word, the issue of poverty, at certain extent, is still being defined at the
Poverty: who is responsible?
To what extent that Malaysian media could help in poverty eradication? This is an
interesting and arguable question. From the eyes of the government and
functionalist communication scholars, the media could and must play its every role
in helping government’s effort in poverty eradication.
For government, a person’s attitude decides how her living conditions will be. If
Gomez, Edmund Terence (1996). Changing ownership patterns, patronage and the NEP. In Muhamad Ikmal Said &
Zahid Emby (Ed.), Malaysia Critical Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Syed Husin Ali, p.p. 132-154. Petaling Jaya:
Malaysia Social Sciences Association.
you are hard-working, innovative and austere, you will have a good prospect in life.
Otherwise, the poverty will always be part of your life.
Hence, the typical perception is that media can do its best to persuade the general
public of the need to change their “attitude” and lifestyle as a necessary move to
escape from poverty. The former Prime Minister had frequently made such
remarks during his long-term service.
Although Abdullah Badawi swore in as the new Prime Minister as Mahathir retired
from the office in 2003, the government’s tone remains the same. For example,
after the Abdullah Badawi Administration unexpectedly announced the petrol and
gas price rise by RM0.30 per liter effective from 28 February 2006, the government
has urged the public to change their lifestyle, by practicing austerity and using
public transportation. Nothing is told about how government can help the poor to
deal with the increasingly burdening living cost.
In reality, the poor should not always been blamed for their poverty. In today’s
Malaysia, poverty may no longer be an issue of personal attitude but an issue of
wealth distribution - the political and economic elites has utilized their
advantageous position to accumulate capital while the poor has been increasingly
marginalized in the sharing of the economic pie.
Despite Mahathir Mohamad’s retirement in 2003, the practices of cronyism and
nepotism have never faded out in the Barisan Nasional government. The present
Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, has been extolled by mainstream media as “Mr.
Clean” at the moment he was named by Mahathir as his successor. However,
within two years in office, the active involvement of his son and son-in-law in the
business and made a huge of monies has put him under criticism of oppositions.
When the government decided to reduce its petrol subsidy and allow an oil price
hike at 30 cents per liter, the people were told that a sum of RM4.4 billion would be
saved and used to upgrade the public transportation system. Soon afterward, a
company owned by Abdullah’s son, Scomi Engineering, was rewarded a RM120
million project involving the fabrication of body parts for 400 buses for a
government-owned company. Scomi Engineering has also obtained a RM50
million contract of repairing wagon and railway of national railway company.
Such cases are just like a drop in the bucket during Barisan Nasional’s half-century
rule. However, the general public, especially those less educated rural
populations, might not be able to obtain such information as the mainstream media
failed to lift the lid. Even the opposition politicians always expose scandals and
wrongdoings of the government, the issues raised hardly get sufficient attention
from the media, let alone to alarm the general public.
The mainstream media in Malaysia are controlled by a number of draconian
legislations as well as ownership and control of the media companies. Two of the
most-criticized media laws are the Official Secrets Act 1972 (OSA 1972) and
Sedition Act 1948, both are blamed for the mainstream media’s lack of courage to
check the government’s wrongdoings and to allow public to voice out their
discontent regardless if the issue is ethnic-related.
OSA, Sedition Act and FOIA
The OSA 1972 was originally a British law enacted in 1911 aiming to hit at
intelligence activity. It had been introduced to and enforced in British Malaya
almost word by word. After the Independence in 1957, the Malayan/Malaysian
government inherited the law and since 1972, the secrecy laws enforced in West
Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak state have been uniformed as Official Secrets Act
The OSA hampered the working of journalists and dampened the development of
investigative journalism, perhaps more than any other legislation, after the 1986
amendment introduced by the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Since then,
all ministers or any officers authorized by them are empowered to classify any
documents as “official secrets” – four classification as Top Secret, Secret,
Confidential and Restricted. Those who have access to, obtained or published
so-called “official secrets” are subject to a mandatory jail sentence of minimum
The amendment received criticism from oppositions and NGOs but the Mahathir
administration has taken the move to cover-up the barrage of financial scandals
during the first decade he came into the office, particularly the Bank Bumiputra
Finance (BMF) scandal which has cost not only a loss of RM25 billion swindled, but
also led to the murder of an investigation officer.
The Sedition Act 1948 is also a colonial heritage and the Act places tight limitations
on freedom of expression, particularly on so-called sensitive political subjects and
issues such as the questioning of the Bumiputra privilege, the status of Malay
Language as national language, the status of Malay Rules and the citizenship of
non-Malay citizen. The law states that any act, speech, word or publication is
seditious if it has a “seditious tendency”. The definition of “seditious tendency”,
which is illustrated in the law, is extremely broad and open-ended.
The former has made journalists and researchers shilly-shally in exposing the fact
that might has been classified as official secrets. Hence, lots of truth about the
one-after-another financial scandals involving government agencies and high-rank
officials are still covered up. The latter put people under legal threat should they
question if the NEP has really been helpful to the Malays rather than been misused
by a small group of elites to make their fortunes
Instead of OSA and Sedition Act, the civil society groups in Malaysia call on the
government to pass a comprehensive freedom of information law in accordance
with the ten minimum standards. However, government has snubbed their efforts.
In 1999, the then deputy minister of powerful Home Ministry (now Ministry of
Internal Security) made a shocking statement, at the United Nations Development
Programme's National Conference on "The Future of the Media in a Knowledge
Society: Rights, Responsibilities and Risks", that a Freedom of Information Act was
not suitable for Malaysia. Abdullah Badawi holds the portfolio as the Home
Minister (now Internal Security Minister) since 1999 but he has never shown a sign
that he is positive towards making the law.
Commercialization and Commoditization of Media
Over and above, I would like to raise an alert that the legal control is not the only
factor that restricts the media from doing their part in poverty eradication. One of
the worrying trends in Malaysian media industry is that the mainstream media is
becoming more and more commercialized and commoditized. Nowadays, almost
all major media groups in Malaysia are public-listing companies and profit-making
have become the most important mission.
To make money, they will have to obtain maximum gain in advertising revenue. In
the first half year of 2005, the advertisement expenditure spent on media reaches
RM2.5 billion, with 63% of it went to newspapers while 28% to TV. In order to
make a bid for maximum advertising revenue, the mainstream media do their best
to strive after the readers or audiences who have strong consumption powers.
One of the initiatives taken by the newspapers are introducing supplement sections
of promoting consumer goods like computer products, mobile phones, traveling
and vocations, housing and decoration, fashion, cosmetics, etc.
In other word, pages and human resources are now allocated to produce such
middle-class enjoyment and lifestyle to attract middle-class audiences as an
advantage to sell their advertisement space. The trend is disadvantageous as
those news having been stereotyped as “unmarketable content” and “valueless
public” would be further marginalized.
It is not fair to say the local media do nothing in helping the poor. In fact it has
became a traditional practice of local media to allocate some space for rising public
awareness of disadvantaged individuals and families, such as TV3’s “Bersamamu”
(Together with you), ntv7’s “Finding Angels”, as well as Chinese newspapers’
coverage of the story of those who are seeking public donation to pay their medical
fees or living expenses.
However, the good will of media brings only little help in poverty eradication.
Since the poverty in Malaysia is a structurally social and political phenomenon,
helping every single individual and family would never bring a big change as you
are impossible to do fund-raising for everyone and for long run.
What is important would be making the governance of national wealth subject to
tightened enforcement of law and ensuring a more just distribution of wealth. This is
a big social re-engineering but the first step must be launched. Not only the
draconian media laws should be reviewed, amended and even abolished, the
making of the Freedom of Information Act would be another vital step to ensure the
freedom of expression and the origin of poverty could be discussed and debated in
comprehensive and rational way.
In the context of Malaysia, the Freedom of Information Act brings, at least, two
significances to the efforts of poverty eradication. Firstly, it could make the
general public aware of that the poverty is never a communal issue by exposing the
classified data and documents. The inter-ethnic misconception is always the
outcome of mutually unacquainted of the real state of each other.
Secondly, if the Freedom of Information Act is in place now, the mismanagement of
public wealth would have been discovered at the earlier stage, preventing public
assets from being feathered into the nest of corrupted politicians.
Since the making of the Freedom of Information Act would be an unfavorable move
to a government who has a lot of scandals that yet to be revealed, it is expected
that the struggle for making Freedom of Information Act would be a lengthy journey
in view of the weak civil society and oppositions. But it would be a meaningful
step that is worthy for Malaysians to make a bid for.