IF newspapers could be judged by their titles like books by their covers, most of the major Chinese-language newspapers in Malaysia would be guilty of not being “national” in character.
Some of their names simply refer to a wider region like Oriental Daily (the East) and Nanyang Press (Southeast Asia, or literally the South Ocean). Some others point to their institutional origins like the Sin Chew Jit Poh (Singapore) or China Press and Kwong Wah Jit Poh (China). Then you have those that theoretically serve only a state or even just a city, like Berita Petang Sarawak or See Hua Daily (Sibu).
Unfortunately, the names of the English-language newspapers are not much better. Some are both colonial and regional like the New Straits Times (referring to the Straits settlements) and Borneo Post. Some are parochial like the defunct Sarawak Tribune and New Sabah Times. And the Malay Mail‘s name is mono-ethnic. Dreadfully, some — like theSun and The Star — are not even loyal to planet Earth.
There are guilty parties to be found in the Malay-language and Tamil-language press too, like Utusan Sarawak and Tamil Nesan.
So, if the name of the paper is a legitimate measure of its “national” character, the champion of “national newspapers” should be Utusan Malaysia (i.e. the Malaysian Tribune), Malaysia Nanban (Friends of Malaysia) and the defunct Sarawak-based Chinese-language Malaysia Daily.
(Pic by nksz / sxc.hu) But if a name is not a good gauge of “national” character, would language be better? Would using a particular language make a paper’s contents more “national”? While “poison” in one language cannot be translated into “honey” in another, would a particular language drive us to talk more about honey than poison?
(Source: fpicn.org) The latest attack on the Chinese-language dailies in Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian in the lead-up to Independence Day is therefore timely. These attacks give us the opportunity to examine a common argument — that cultural diversity is a threat to nation-building. Meanwhile, the radio stations flood our eardrums with those trilingual 1Malaysia anthems — I swear I do not hear Tamil, Dayak or Kadazan-Dusun-Murut lyrics within these songs.
The Oneness fetish
For many (or so we have been taught in official history and civic education), Malaysia would have been a united country if only we had one type of school, newspapers in one language, multiethnic associations, and perhaps inter-racial marriages. That’s what I would call the worship or fetishism of oneness.
We should cheer for the forced cultural assimilation of the Malays — officially only recognised as Thai Muslims — in Thailand, and the Rohingya in Burma, even though such assimilation has produced insurgencies and refugees.
We should condemn the divisive roles of the Muslim Council of Britain or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which hinder the shaping of a single British and American identity.
Now, I am not sure what percentage of Malaysians can sign up to endorse all these positions. To push this logic further, the entire world would be much more peaceful and harmonious if everyone were to speak one common language and profess one common religion. We can then call it 1PlanetEarth. Any takers?
Communities — ethnic, linguistic and national
Back to the question of the “national-ness” of newspapers, there are at least three big questions to explore.
Should newspapers be allowed to represent communal interests?
While the role of the press or media is to build community to enable democratic life, who are we to define the community a newspaper wants to build? A sports newspaper can clearly build only the sports fan community; should it be accused of excluding others who prefer music or literature?
As long as a nation is politically free, what is “national” will constantly be renegotiated and redefined. Hence, any definition would be temporary and arguably communal in another historical context or in the eyes of others.
We may disagree with what Utusan Malaysia represents, just as Utusan may disagree with what the Chinese-language dailies represent. Everyone has the right to debate on what is national. We may demonstrate how flawed or inferior their representation is, but our criticisms should never descend into calls to revoke their licences. Such authoritarian knee-jerk responses would only lower us to the level of Utusan Malaysia‘s recent mudslinging.
Should the community served by a newspaper be defined by ethnicity or language?
The Malay Malaysian community is not equivalent to the Malay-speaking community. Some Malay Malaysians don’t speak Malay, while many Malay speakers are not Malay Malaysians. The same goes for English, Chinese and other languages.
While a newspaper has every right to choose an ethnic rather than linguistic constituency, to do so would forfeit the newspaper’s right to claim to be “national”.
Many non-Chinese Malaysians increasingly speak and read Chinese, both in cosmopolitan centres and the East Malaysian countryside. In this context, should Chinese-language newspapers continue to articulate the interests of only ethnic Chinese Malaysians, including those who don’t read Chinese? Can they call themselves Malaysian newspapers if they conveniently exclude the interests of the Chinese-speaking Malay, Indian, Dayak and Kadazan Malaysians? Sadly, they are still very much ethnic — rather than “vernacular” or minority-language — newspapers.
In this sense, are Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian, which talk about “Malay-Muslim interests” all the time rather than try to represent the interests of all Malay-speaking Malaysians, any better than the Chinese-language press? Are the two Malay-dailies at least multiethnic — if not Malaysian — enough to be considered “national”? And whatever our criticisms, the Chinese-language press at least does not provoke Chinese Malaysians to stage a communal showdown.
How can a newspaper in the national language be so mono-ethnic — even arguably anti-national — in character?
Segment of Lim Lian Geok’s Hari Raya
message, as published in Utusan Melayu
in May 1956 (Click on image for full scan)How can we expect a language to become national if it is fundamentally still seen and used as a tool of a particular ethnic community against others? Getting minority scholars to attack the minority communities is a smart strategy on the part of the Malay-language press. But it does not make the paper any more national in character.
And history can surprise us. On 4 May 1956, when Utusan Malaysia was still Utusan Melayu, it published the Hari Raya message of Lim Lian Geok, the top Chinese educationist, calling for interethnic cooperation to build a new nation.
Sadly, do we need to go further beyond the Utusan Malaysia of today to understand why the National Language Policy has failed so miserably?
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He completely agrees that “yang indah itu bahasa” and laments that Malay Malaysian ethno-nationalists have almost killed Malay linguistic nationalism.