Mass Media and Citizenship Development

Talk delivered by Anwar Fazal at the Seminar on Education for Civic Consciousness organised by the Malaysian Educators Social Action Council in Penang, Malaysia on 7 April 1973. 


  1. Malaysia is undergoing profound changes in the political economic and social spheres. We are seeing the emergence out of the realities of a Malaysian situation a new commitment by our leaders for a better, more prosperous and more equitable society.

  1. A new generation of citizens are in the making who will be born out of the provision of better educational and economic opportunities in this country.

  1. This progress and development is not going to be achieved by apathetic and inert citizens; it is going to be constructed by those who have vision, a deep commitment to this country and a conscience for equity and fairness and the energy to serve the community towards these ends.

  1. Central to this role is the citizens’ understanding of the mass media and his effective use of it for the betterment of society and his fight to protect society against those negative and destructive forces that can subvert and debase the mass media for selfish, puerile and material ends at the expense of the citizens’ interest and the national interest.

The Mass Media

  1. It is therefore necessary for educators to understand clearly what the mass media is. Only with such an understanding can they determine in their own minds a fair and constructive role that the mass media should play in our own country. Only then can we begin to utilise the mass media for a better society for all Malaysians.

  1. The mass media has been defined as follows:

All the impersonal means of communication by which visual and/or auditory messages are transmitted directly to audiences. Included among the mass media are television, radio, motion pictures, newspapers, magazines, books and billboards.” (Gould and Kolb, A Dictionary of the Social Sciences, 1964, page 413).

  1. The Mass Media has certain characteristics that we must understand:

a)      Easy availability to most of the public most of the time

b)      Reasonably cheap to obtain

c)      Involves technology

d)      It is most often institutional or involves large corporate organisations

e)      It is a recent phenomena of the last century.

  1. There is little doubt that the mass media has had a profound influence on the quality of life we lead. It has become the basis for two of the fastest growth industries of the century: (a) propaganda and (b) public relations and advertising.

  1. The effects of the mass media are believed to be subtle, complex and pervading on occasions and yet so little is really known of how it really affects the heart, the mind and the spirit of men. Many myths have developed about its power and it is misused, abused and disused.


Some Quantitative Aspects

  1. a.  Let us attempt to develop a picture of the mass media in this country. What do the

     statistics of mid – 1972 tell us:*

Television         238,357 licensed sets

Radio                322,757 licensed sets

Rediffusion       50,000 subscribers

Newspapers      900,000 copies daily

(There is a total of 53 newspapers)

                        Chinese                        26

                        English              12

                        B. Malaysia      7

                                    Tamil                6

                        Punjabi             2

For 38 dailies the breakup is as follows:

Chinese                        23 (circulation over 500,000)

English              8   (circulation over 200,000)

B. Malaysia      4   (circulation over 130,000)

Tamil                3   (circulation over 40,000)


b.   More dramatically we seem to have, if we are to believe the statistics, one newspaper for every 10 people in this country thereby meeting the United Nations standard for developing countries. 80 percent of the country can receive medium wave and short wave radio. 70 percent can receive television. In 1971 the Government obtained RM3.7 million from radio licences and $5.2 million from television licences.

c.   When we come to advertising revenue for newspapers, it is interesting to note that one

study indicated that about

                                      1/2 of the revenue is spent on English papers

                                    3/7 of the revenue is spent on Chinese papers

                                    1/15 of the revenue is spent on Malay papers

                                    1/90 of the revenue is spent on Tamil papers

You can see where the purchasing power for consumer good lies.

d.   The number of newspaper journalists increased from 300 in 1966 to about 800 in 1971. The number of university graduates amongst them rose from six to 37 during that period.

e.   It has been estimated that there are about 200 magazines in circulation over one-half of them imported. Among the local magazines, the “Movie News” type in English, Tamil and Chinese seem to have done quite well. So have women’s magazines like Her World and Wanita. The most successful local educational periodicals are the Dewan Masharakat Sastara about (10,000) copies and the Dewan Bahasa about (6,000 copies). Among the foreign periodicals we have Time, and Newsweek and Reader’s Digest in many a home.

(f) There is a flood of foreign comics especially in English and Chinese.

(g) Billboards are appearing in increasing numbers over the Malaysian landscape.

Some Qualitative Aspects     

  1. Let us look at some of the qualitative aspects. These concern ownership, control and content

a.       Radio and television are government controlled and directly serve the major role of nation building, many citizens feel that it does not adequately present views of the different political groups.

b.       The newspapers are very commercial minded, their first interest is commercial viability and they have vested interest in the protection of the type of climate that will be conducive to promoting commercial viability.

c.       The newspapers are also undergoing a transformation in ownership. A significant portion

of the newspaper industry was owned/controlled by foreigners from abroad. Strong political agitation has led to some changes and this is reflected somewhat in the content as those addicted to the “straits Times” may notice.

d.       The press is constrained to discipline thorough a strict licensing system and it is generally viewed that the newspapers are timid and “cautious”

e.       The all pervading Sedition Act prevents the discussion of certain aspects of certain sensitive issues.

f.        Financially the press are doing extremely well. Joint advertising expenditure in Singapore and Malaysia has been estimated at about $5 million monthly.

g.       Ownership of the major local newspapers is in the hands of those who are politically committed to the party(s) in power but Malaysian plurality and the partnership arrangement at the national levels permits a spectrum of views, however narrow/lacking in colour some may think they are.

h.       There is a very high foreign content in our television programmes particularly in English:

Bahasa Malaysia     English              Chinese                        Tamil                Total

Local                36.9                      4.6                     4.7                  2.8                    49

Foreign               -                       46.1                     1.9                  3.0                    50

i.         Much of our foreign news comes for “Western” news agencies. There is a great deal of concern in third world countries regarding what is termed provocatively “information imperalism” – the West controls the information technology, runs the worldwide national news agencies.

j.         It is a sad reflection of our local press that many citizens find the only intelligent objective and penetrating political and economic comment about Malaysia is a foreign journal.

k.       Many people are of the view that there is whole lot of rubbish being hurled at the Malaysian population by the mass media and people have a right to read the rubbish just as much as you have the right to call it rubbish.

l.         The motion picture industry is practically completely foreign-controlled and the monetary sweep done by the “spaghetti” cowboy films, the one-armed, no-eyed, springy swordsmen and now the adult films with their pink certificates which are titillating the uninitiated should perhaps be one of our greatest concerns.

m.     Advertisements in our mass media have only now attempted to develop a Malaysian flavour.  Still despite the Trade Descriptions Act we permit an unreasonable amount of exaggeration bordering on misrepresentation, we permit the mass media to promote hopelessly irrelevant goods to the unsuspecting consumers or encourage them to buy goods that can so obviously be hazardous to their health. No developing nation can afford this sort of waste. Cigarette advertising should be completely eliminated from the mass media, as an example. The advertising of medicines and health food should be much more disciplined.

An Agenda for Action

12.   Those of you attending the seminar represent a breed of citizens who can be referred to as the “catalysts or the “activists”.

To you, may I suggest for your discussion an Agenda for Action.

a.       It is paramount that you have an unwavering commitment to Malaysia and I can think of no better frame of reference than the Rukunegara; the Rukunegara can be described as the Malaysian way and purpose.

b.       Fight for a new ethics in the mass media, both in the private and public sectors; we need more truth and less “puffery” in the mass media. We need more frankness and greater objectivity. We need less superficiality and greater in-depth analysis.

c.       The mass media can contribute far too much social and cultural pollution, it can contribute significantly also to noise and visual pollution. For one thing, billboards should be banned from the Malaysian landscape.

d.       Call for a better and much more effective use of television for schools and adult education. It shocked me that in spite of the introduction of educational television, only a couple of schools in Penang have so far obtained a television set.

e.       Ask for greater teaching about the mass media in schools. The school leavers are an easy prey for the mass media, so we must help them analyse advertisements, compare films and television. Support active civic education in schools about the mass media and relate it much more effectively to society. Highlight bad advertisements, unfair comments, poor reporting and encourage your school to write letters to the press.

f.        The schools must develop their own newspapers and their own radio systems and have an active and co-operative film society not only to give experience to our young people but also to provide alternative sources of information. More teaching about the mass media and its utilisation must be done in teaching colleges and universities so that teachers can play an effective role in this process. Greater educational efforts are needed so that people can discriminate and choose and reject bad mass media output.

g.       We must rapidly expand the alternative information resources for the citizens. There must be a very rapid expansion of a free public library system throughout Malaysia and a cheap and effective system of further education for both school leavers and adults. Books are far too expensive.

h.       You can activate your communities to greater action for a better media. There are far too many people in this country who prefer to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil because whatever happens to others will not matter to them; as long as they live happily ever after.

i.         You can upgrade your own ability to ascertain the media to be a successful activist. You must attempt to be proficient in at least two languages. The one language person in this country will be an obsolete person; it is going to be like standing on one leg.

j.         Encourage efforts at greater professionalism among the staff who work in the media. You can promote and support the courses of the media now being conducted at the University Sains Malaysia, at the MARA Institute of Technology, the mass media group at the University of Malaya and the efforts of the Journalist Unions, the Press Foundation of Asia, the South East Asia Press Centre and the National Broadcasting Centre.

k.       Be an active letter writer or feature writer to the press. Support projects in the press to remove social inertia, fight inefficiency and exploitation. Do not allow letters to the editors to be dominated by grumblers and dissatisfied people. Speak out to congratulate, to support and to thank as much as to criticise and seek remedies.

l.         The Authorities must also be made to realise that over exposure of portraits and meaningless activities of political figures on television has a backlash effect as much as for the seemingly unnecessary over-use of screaming outriders for certain dignitaries who seem always to be late for appointments in spite of speeding themselves and slowing everybody else. So beware of the backlash effect.

m.     Encourage much more cross cultural interaction and joint effort in the mass media particularly in the promotion of music, dance and other fine arts that can break through the language barrier that separates and divides so many of us. We must agitate for more news about East and West Malaysia in each other's territories. (These two places, if greater efforts are not made may well suffer the situation of the couple which has married but has yet to consummate their marriage).

n.       Be alert and vigilant to multinational and foreign companies controlling mass media and  manipulating it against the national interest.

o.       Encourage the mass media to develop greater ability to explain difficult concepts of modern day living, of modern day politics and economics in simple language.The generality with which some of these difficult topics are discussed in our press sometimes leads one to suspect whether the writers themselves really understand what is involved.

p.       The mass media must also go beyond the simplicity of human interest stories where they pick on one poor student without financial means but choose to ignore the large numbers of other people who fall into the same category. We need much more aggressive and relevant reporting in this respect and you can help to provide the type of climate where such hypocrisy or superficiality is removed.

q.       We need to eliminate from the mass media any type of racial discrimination and prejudice or even hints towards it and avoid the degradation of any culture or race or language. The Red Indians of the U.S.A. have perhaps been the most abused and badly represented to our young people many of whom think of them as savages. The reporting of the 2nd battle of Wounded Knee has not helped to put in focus the issues confronting the Red Indians.

r.        There must be greater understanding about each others’ cultures and more and more articles and programmes must appear about other people’s cultures in the language that the audience can understand. There are also too many Malaysians who are like ducks out of water even about their own cultural heritage.

s.       Develop a critical faculty in our young people and encourage them to express their criticisms in a constructive way.

t.        Ask the mass media to support actively local art, culture and talent and play down the aping of Hollywood and the spreading of its frivolous gossip.

13.   These are some of the ways I see that you as activists can work for a better mass media in this country and for a better society. I think also we should be proud of Malaysia. We have been a success and we have achieved a quality of life in this country which very few developing countries can boast of. However, no society can stand still. It must move, it must constantly evaluate its own action critically and improve on that; it must constantly question many assumptions that are taken for granted. Only then can we be assured of a free, democratic and progressive society based on logic and conscience. It is in that spirit that I have made my suggestions.

14.   In conclusion, I like to quote an Arab saying:

“Men are four:

·         He who knows not and knows not he knows not, he is

a fool – shun him.

·         He who knows not and knows he knows not, he is

Simple – teach him.

·         He who knows and knows not he knows, he is asleep – wake him.

·         He who knows and knows he knows, he is wise – follow him.”


* The Statistical Information in this Talk is obtained exclusively from an excellent little booklet – “The Print and Broadcasting Media in Malaysia, December 1972” co-authored by Howard Coats and Frances Dyer of the South East Asia Press Centre, Kuala Lumpur and is available at RM3/-. The booklet also contains useful and concise pen sketches of each of the major newspapers.


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