After a heated debate in Parliament over the textbook or guidebook for the Ethnic Relations course at Universiti Putra Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s Cabinet decided to withdraw the book. It was a slap in the face of Higher Education Minister Mustapa Mohamed for inexplicably defending what Lim Kit Siang characterised as “the indefensible”. Many Malaysians are no doubt relieved over the Cabinet’s decision.
While Abdullah and the Cabinet should be credited for the move, let’s not forget how this whole episode came to light in the first place. And credit here should go to Malaysiakini for breaking the story on 14 July about what was wrong with the book according to members of civil society like Suaram, Suhakam, and Students’ Solidarity Malaysia (SMM).
As for the mainstream media, they did not give it any attention. Not until Minister in the PM’s Department and de facto law minister Nazri Aziz said in Parliament that the book could be considered seditious, and the public could lodge police reports against whoever was behind it. It is typical of the “cue journalism” that is so characteristic of mainstream journalism under Abdullah
But before the mainstream media could do much to follow up on Nazri’s combative remark, debate on the book in Parliament heated up. The Higher Education Minister was left holding a really stinking bag—so much so the PM and his Cabinet decided to get rid of it (by having the university withdraw the book) than defend one of their own. By then, the mainstream media had kicked into overdrive in slamming the errors and insensitivities found in the book.
The question is why didn’t they bring up the issue in the first place? Surely, they had a lot more resources and reporters than Malaysiakini and yet, the latter was able to show them up. One wonders whether this issue would have ever come to light if not for the online news portal. Or how long it would have taken the mainstream media to come up with it on their own. And how much damage the whole thing would have inflicted on impressionable young minds, the students of Universiti Putra.
The point here is not just to commend Malaysiakini for making good their independence as a media outfit and seeking out news that is not just coming out of officialdom. It also reveals a serious problem with mainstream media despite the resources they have—not to mention the amount of profits they make, especially The Star, given their voluminous ads in every issue of their paper. And that is, they are more beholden to serving the interests of officialdom and their advertisers and “stakeholders” than the general public or civil society. Thus they do not have their ears to the ground, so to speak, until officialdom gives them the green light to speak for and about the interests of the public.
Despite that—or because of that—something else is unsettling. Recall Nazri’s claim that the book could be seditious. While it is one thing to criticise the erroneous, biased and accusatory information in the book, it is another to make the sedition charge because it could open the door for the application of other undemocratic laws such as the ISA, which allows the government to detain people without trial.
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media are not offering any debate on this issue of sedition and the ISA because officialdom has not offered, and most likely, will not offer in the near future, the cue for them to be critical of the ISA.
In the end, while good sense prevailed with the decision to withdraw the book on ethnic relations, the whole episode could be exploited by those who are in favour of keeping undemocratic laws such as the Sedition Act and the ISA. So, indeed, the whole affair has been troubling to those who view such laws as major obstacles to further the advancement of democracy in Malaysia.