Opinion

Seeking lessons from the star-studded debate

FEB 20 — Saturday’s much-hyped debate, “Chinese at a crossroads: Is the two-party system becoming a two-race system?”, between Democratic Action Party (DAP) Secretary-General (and also Penang Chief Minister) Lim Guan Eng and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) President Dr Chua Soi Lek captured the attention and imagination of many concerned Malaysians and predictably made it to the front page of the MCA-owned Sunday Star. 

Starting from the front-page story, headlined “Raising the bar”, the Sunday paper took the readers through to the inside pages, particularly pages 6, 8, 10 and 12, with everything that to do with the debate.

This ranged from news reports to interviews with individuals who had intensely watched the debate to commentaries by the paper’s usual columnists. The common thread that tied these items together was generally a positive slant towards the MCA president, i.e. the purported protagonist, which is really not news at all to mainstream media-weary Malaysians. 

But if there’s a lesson to be learnt from all this excitement it is that Malaysians from all walks of life, as also observed by the Sunday Star, do crave for, nay demand, good debates and level-headed discussions about things that matter to their collective political, economic, social and cultural life. Debates test the oratory and argumentative skills of the politicians concerned. 

But more than that, debates and discourses inform the ordinary rakyat that there are always two, if not more, dimensions to an issue, which eventually can help them make an informed decision or choice. This is also true of media coverage of issues and events. Papers like The Star would raise the bar if they allow sufficient space for a diversity of voices other than that of the Barisan Nasional (BN) folks. 

To be sure, consumers of Malaysian mainstream media have over many years invariably received information and opinions primarily coming from BN politicians. The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance has been relatively under-reported by the mainstream media.

If anything, PR often gets to the front pages of the mainstream press only for the “wrong reasons.” This is, of course, not to say that the misconduct of the PR shouldn’t be highlighted. What we’re saying is that misdeeds such as corruption and poor governance (as well as good policies and measures) are not the preserve of certain political parties, and thus the mainstream media should report accordingly as journalistic ethics would demand so. 

Ordinary Malaysians do not like to be browbeaten or, more so, lied to, especially by politicians and their elected leaders because obviously it is so insulting to their intelligence. Hence, for example, in major financial scandals such as the ones surrounding the recent National Feedlot Centre and, not too long ago, the Port Klang Free Trade Zone, and controversies such as the proposed 1 Care project and the Lynas plant, readers and viewers would expect the mainstream media to provide details from various sources of information — and not just those coming from the authorities and the ruling party. 

Let the readers be the judge after reading the news. This also applies to Saturday’s debate. It would do the readers justice if this Sunday newspaper had given Lim Guan Eng more editorial space rather than a brief inclusion in the “What they said” box on page 6.

In a sense, there isn’t a need for a deliberate dumbing down by the country’s mainstream media for many Malaysians are capable of thinking critically and don’t, as some politicians would insist, become easily confused or duped. 

Incisive commentaries are also most welcome but they shouldn’t be, as it is the SOP (if not the DNA) of most mainstream press these days, focused only on the misdeeds of politicians from Pakatan. For instance, when it comes to personalities like Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng, certain Star columnists become visibly animated and livid in their so-called analyses. 

And this brings us to the Sunday paper’s editorial, headlined “Public entertainment is no sin and cinemas are no vice.” The paper’s opinion revolved around the issue of PAS’s  Selangor assemblyman Dr Shafie Abu Bakar who apparently wanted to ban cinemas in the area of Bangi.

While one may disagree with the said politician pertaining to his questionable argument about cinemas leading to vice, in the interest of journalistic fairness and democracy, Shafie deserves a right of reply from the paper as he is indeed the maligned party. 

In this editorial, the Sunday paper also went on to rightly argue that it was about time PAS’s partners in PR stated “clearly where they stand on these public interest issues. Let the public know; elections require people to make informed choices, so failure to inform people of their options amounts to gross neglect and wilful negligence.”

True, as mentioned above, the rakyat can make informed choices and decisions only after they manage to get as much information as possible. However, most mainstream media, particularly those newspapers that claim to be championing the voice of the ordinary rakyat, have neglected their social responsibility to impart vital and adequate information to the general public. 

Public debates involving politicians, to be sure, aren’t the be-all and end-all in a democracy because the rakyat as citizens can — and should — take their discourses up to another level instead of just being mere spectators to debates. They can, for instance, participate in petition campaigns, public forums, and street demonstrations. This is what is meant by participatory democracy. 

In a democracy, dissenting voices are part and parcel of societal life just as opinions in agreement with the government have their rightful place. So is it asking too much for an equal space in the media for dissent? After all, to quote big chief of The Star Wong Chun Wai, “dissent does not make one subversive and anti-national.” 

It is hoped that The Star — and the rest in the journalistic fraternity — walks the talk, and not leave some ordinary Malaysians starry-eyed. 

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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