By Dr Ooi Kee Beng | Yahoo Newsroom – March 11, 2013
[Photo by Bazuki Muhammad, Reuters]
Nothing unites a country the way a national crisis does.
But although the Sulu militia intrusion in Sabah has indeed made Malaysians want to put aside differences—at least for a while—the seriousness of the situation brings some realisation about faults in the national culture. In being sensitive to the external threat, they have also been sensitive to the lack of professionalism in their journalists, their military, their politicians and their leaders.
This is good, because it will encourage Malaysians to ponder the state of their nation building, for the country’s situation is common to developing countries.
Now, the ability of new communication technologies to break the information control exercised by governments has been impressive, to say the least. In Malaysia, for example, past attempts to block sites like Malaysiakini invariably failed.
During the electoral campaign in 2008, the refusal of the mainstream media to provide information on opposition rally time schedules had little effect because the social media provided alternative channels for spreading such information.
Malaysia’s armed police inspect a vehicle outside Lahad Datu in the state of Sabah on Borneo island February 16, 2013. About 100 armed men holed up in a village in the Malaysian state of Sabah are … more
The demonstration for electoral reforms which was held in 2011, known as Bersih 2.0, reached its high participation rate thanks partly to social media like Facebook, through which “friends” were encouraged and coaxed to take to the streets.
To know brings with it the responsibility to act. But a comradely nudge is sometimes needed to get things going.
The era of information suppression, news distortion and limited freedom of expression is therefore clearly coming to an end. All the excuses that governments of new nations in the decolonised world have been using to control social discourses and to silence criticism are rendered ineffectual in one fell swoop by these new information technologies.
When a dam breaks, there is certainly a welcome release of pent up energy. But what follows is not always pretty, however. The sudden possibility for free expression also reveals the great damage that has been caused by prolonged thought control.
If the right to debate freely, to think freely and to write freely is denied for an excessive period of time, people become bad at formulating their thoughts and at expressing themselves, not to mention at thinking. And this inability adds to the frustration of being suppressed in the first place.
So, quite a things go wrong when information distortion and suppression of thought have been going on for too long. First, the unaccountability of the powerful breeds arrogance and corruption. Second, the standard of journalism deteriorates drastically. Thrid, the quality of the language used drops to the point of becoming a national embarrassment. The credibility of news and information follows suit.
Bad effects all round, really.
Now, I do not advocate complete transparency in all matters, but it is hard to deny that transparency does keep people on their toes. It keeps them sharp. And since transparency in Malaysia has been low for a long time, professionalism has suffered broadly.
We saw all that on display during the Lahad Datu crisis in Sabah. The lack of coordination and coherence in the flow of information—from the authorities all the way to the newspapers and the news sites—was quite undeniable.
My point is not to dwell on specific aspects of those involved, be these with regards to politicians, generals or journalists. What is more interesting is to remind ourselves through such occasions that in limiting free speech, we limit ourselves.
This ties in directly to the issue of education, understood broadly. Education is a lifelong process, and therefore the goal of a good government should be to stimulate thought in its people.
It does that through a school system that believes that children are smart; it does that through encouraging the study of literature and philosophy, and not only maths and science; it does that through facilitating access to information and cutting edge knowledge for citizens of all ages; it does that by permitting free flow of information through good journalism and good laws; and it does that by allowing free debate.
Curtailing freedom of expression and suppressing information may be necessary in times of crisis or in early years of independence, but keeping the lid on for too long and as a matter of habit encourages abuse of power, and retards the development of the citizenry and of the economy to a much greater extent than one would suppose. Much of the damage may in fact be irreversible.
Citizens of a society that does not treat them with dignity and respect cannot possibly compete with citizens of a society that does. An empowered people is a formidable force for development.
Let us hope that the new media and the liberties they can provide will lift the cultural and professional level of all, and that the healing of minds that ensues does not take too long…or take short cuts.