Tuesday, November 28

Free and Fair?


Everybody believes that the 13th Malaysian General Election is most likely going to be held sometime this year.

However, ongoing, ahem, embarrassments, such as the National Feedlot Centre (NFC) debacle and the new year highhandedness at the UPSI campus, have put quite a big spanner in the works, forcing the BN on to its backfoot, now quite unsure when exactly to call the election.

Call it too soon and such incidents will still be fresh on the rakyat’s mind. And there’ll be hell to pay.

Call it too late and the effects of the world recession will kick in and, yet again, the pesky rakyat will not be too happy, despite all the money that they’ve been given of late to soften them up.

Ahhh, as even my expatriate friend knows by now, this is called ‘money politics’

Whenever the date, it is at this time, when we are on the verge of being asked to make our choices, that Malaysian politicians, especially those in the ruling coalition, love to remind us – and boast to the rest of the world – that we are a ‘democracy’.

And when the flaws and limitations of our ‘model’ of democracy are pointed out to them – such as the many, and increasing,  restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly – they respond by blithely pointing to the regularity of our general elections.

Indeed, they point out that we’ve had twelve general elections on the trot, virtually all within the stipulated time frame of five years each, since Independence.

All of which, they argue, makes us a tad better than all those tin-pot banana republics and despotic states that are, nonetheless, allies of ours. You know, places like Zimbabwe, Saudi and the like.

And, unfortunately, many of us simply buy into this disingenuous assertion, assuming that having a general election every five years means that democracy is well-served.

This is not quite true, of course, unless you are one of those silly and irresponsible Malaysians who don’t even bother to register as a voter, let alone vote, believing that ‘others’ will do that for you.

Only someone like that will not bother to examine the conditions under which our votes are cast, and their implications. This would be someone who has unconditional faith in a human-made system that definitely has problems which need to be addressed and resolved.

Someone akin to that god-serving creature who believes that, at the end of the day, God – or some supreme being(s) – will come to our rescue without us having to lift a finger.

But, such belief, similar to a child’s unshakeable faith in the existence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, simply defies reality.

In our case, for example, yes we do have regular general elections.

But, let’s examine the conditions under which they are held, starting this week with our system of information dissemination.

Do we have a system in place that provides us all with sufficient information to enable us to make informed, intelligent choices?

Of course not, if we are talking about a mainstream media system that is made easily – if not freely – available to us all.

Of course there are numerous daily newspapers, sold quite cheaply, and circulated quite widely on the Peninsular and also in Sabah and Sarawak .

But before we even tackle the question of literacy – like, who the hell in Malaysia reads newspapers these days, let alone read anything beyond the leisure supplements – we really need to assess how many newspapers in Malaysia, with the sterling exception of The Borneo Post, I’m sure, really provide independent, balanced coverage of politics and current affairs.

And this is where two things – legal and economic controls – start messing things up. The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) invests enormous legal powers in the Home Minister to determine what can and will be published.

And we must remember that the Home Minister is also a member of the current ruling political party, Umno.

So effectively he and his ministry decide, through a licensing system, which newspapers can and will publish.  At the same time, they provide the parameters within which these publications can discuss issues.

So, it’s really not a coincidence that study after scientific study of our general elections has shown that certain political parties are valorised while others are either ignored or demonised.

And you really don’t need me to tell you which are the former and which are the latter.

But legal controls are never enough in this sledgehammer country of ours, where total domination is deemed imperative.

So, economic controls are – or have been – introduced. For the Martians in our midst, newspaper organisations don’t run on auto pilot. As someone like Rupert Murdoch would tell you, they are owned by groups and individuals,.

And while Malaysia may not have a Rupert Murdoch, the links between politics and economics are so evident here that we do have political parties directly owning Malay and English daily newspapers and openly declaring such ownership.

And such controlled ownership definitely has negative implications for a variety of viewpoints and, of course, democracy.

Quite simply, if you were to own all the newspapers in town and you were a politician, and your brother or sister were the minister handing out all the newspaper licences without the possibility of any judicial review, do you think you would allow views opposed to yours to be published?

I didn’t think so.

And it’s really no better under current circumstances for the broadcast media.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just check out the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (Act 588) and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act 1998 (Act 589) and you’ll find that, aside from the minister and ministry being different ones, similar powers are invested in politicians.

It should come as no surprise then that all Malaysia ’s free-to-air television stations, meaning TV3, ntv7, TV8 and TV9, are owned (and controlled) by one company. The same company that has controlling shares in leading English and Malay dailies and, surprise, surprise, is said to be the investment arm of a political party.

Now, if that doesn’t tame our print and broadcast media, I really don’t know what will.

So come election time – indeed, right now, as we lead up to the elections – do see what goes around you, especially in your media, and do learn to cut through the myths and mystification.

Fortunately for some of us, these days it’s easier to do that.

All because of the availability of Internet news.