Longing For A Free Mind (Part 4 of 13)
[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]
[In the first three parts I asserted that for Malaysia to achieve her Vision 2020 goals, both her leaders and citizens must have free minds. Those cooped under their coconut shells are unlikely to achieve greatness. To topple that shell we must first be dissatisfied with our present situation.]
Liberation Through Information
Education and information are among the key tools in helping us emerge from underneath our shell. Once we are aware through education and information that there is a wide world out there, then we are not likely to be satisfied with our own confined dark space, no matter how comfortable it seems to us at the time or what a paradise it is as per the repeated assurances of our leaders.
In the past, this problem of stirring people out of their comfort zone is compounded by their physical isolation. Today, those coconut shells can be penetrated by WiFi! Even the remotest villages now have access to the Internet. While in the past the expression was, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree!” today, Gay Paree comes to them, via the airwaves and the Internet!
Apart from leveling the playing field, the Internet opens up a limitless world of news, information and viewpoints. Exposing oneself to this treasure trove is the most effective way of opening up one’s mind. That is the good news.
This leveling effect also means that in cyber world David can have the same presence as Goliath; likewise the village idiot and Einstein. This too could be construed as good news.
There is however a dark side to the Internet. At its crudest level, we have the clumsy attempts by UMNO to influence public opinion by paying bloggers sympathetic to its cause. Then there is China, equally clumsy, paying those who post pro-government sentiments especially on anti-government websites. More sinister is the use of the Internet to spy on citizens. At its crudest there is Iran using images posted on Facebook to trace anti-government activists. On a more sophisticated level there is the data-mining software used to track the activities of private citizens. This is a penchant of not only authoritarian regimes like China but also by such champions of democracy as America.
The other bad news is this. Yes, the Internet brings forth an abundance of news and information. However, to sift through this abundance demands some critical thinking lest we be taken in by the fluff. Lacking this faculty we would then end up focusing only on those viewpoints and information that support our preconceived notions. Thus UMNO supporters would read only The New Straits Times and Utusan Melayu, while those in the opposition opt only for Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini. This “confirmation bias” is the bad news. It contributes to deepening polarization, potentially disastrous for a plural society like Malaysia.
The solution is not to have a single source of news; those in power would love that so they could control it. Instead we should encourage as many news sources and viewpoints as possible, and teach our citizens to think critically and have an open mind.
We should encourage the development of an independent and professional media, with the emphasis on the professional part. This cannot simply be wished upon; the government must actively nurture and be committed to this development instead of thwarting it, as is the current bend of the Malaysian authorities.
Simply having the media in private rather than government hands is not the answer. American media are privately held, and through that they have successfully projected a facade of independence. It is only that, a facade. In reality, they are beholden to their owners’ private agenda and or special interest groups, in particular their advertisers. In their coverage of the Middle East for example, an area of vital interest to Americans, American media have been particularly myopic and subservient to the interests of their owners and advertisers.
On the other hand, Al Jazeera, BBC, and the CBC, all government-owned (Qatar, Britain and Canada respectively) win hands down over the established “independent” American media in the coverage of major international affairs including and especially the recent uprisings in the Arab world.
Even in America, the government-funded PBS trumps the venerable privately-held CBS. What is obvious is that ownership is not the secret; what is critical is the professionalism of your journalists and editors.
I have no problem with the major Malaysian media being government-owned (Bernama and RTM) or controlled by major political parties (NST, The Star, Harakah). My only wish is that their personnel from the lowly cub reporters to senior editors are aware of their awesome responsibility to inform the public and thus the need to be independent in their thinking (having a free mind). Again, this cannot be simply wished for; instead we need to have the personnel be professionally trained. I am no fan of “J” (journalism) schools, but I wish that our reporters and editors go beyond being “Form Five” journalists (middle school graduates). They should have broad-based liberal education.
Only with an independent and professional media could we prepare our citizens to appreciate the Jeffersonian wisdom: Every difference in opinion is not a difference of principle. Or as we say in my Adat Perpateh, “Arang tosonggeh, baro paneh” (Crossing wood in the hearth makes the fire glow). It is this accommodative philosophy that makes my matrilineal Adat Perpateh be in harmony with male-dominated traditional Islam.
Leaders have a critical role in fostering this harmony and tolerance of divergent viewpoints. They must set the example. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear Prime Minister Najib labeling opposition leaders as “traitors” and “anti-nationals.” Najib dishonors himself and his office when he resorts to such childishness. His followers are only too willing to ape him; monkey see, monkey do.
We must demand a higher standard of personal decency from our leaders. We should not tolerate them when they descend to the gutter. More importantly, we should not follow them. Instead we should expect more displays of civility and cordiality as demonstrated by this picture of Prime Minister Najib and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim enjoying teh tarik in the lobby of Parliament.
Modern technology, the Internet specifically, brings us to the outside world and it to us. Thus access to it should be a basic public service, made free or affordable. Presently this vast trove of treasure is predominantly in English. To take advantage of this new digital world of information we must be fluent in that language, in addition of course to our national language. Many non-Malays have already achieved this; indeed many are trilingual, their mother tongue being the third. Malays could be likewise, with Arabic as the third language.
To achieve English fluency, the subject must be taught daily in our national schools, and by competent teachers. Additionally, other subjects, in particular science and mathematics, should also be taught in English. It is not enough for leaders to profess endlessly their commitment to enhancing English fluency among our students; our leaders must bring forth effective policies to achieve this.
Knowing another language also helps open our minds. While we have come a long way from the earlier brash assertion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language controls our thoughts, nonetheless the way we look at reality is conditioned by the habits and attributes of our mother tongue. When hunting with an Australian aborigine, telling him that there is a deer on the left would not be terribly helpful as he would first have to figure out whether it is his or your left. It would be more meaningful, and with less chance of a stray bullet hitting you, if you were to say that the deer is to the west or east. The aborigines are more adept with cardinal signs.
Learn another language, experience a different culture, and expose yourself to diverse viewpoints; these will open you up to the wider world and appreciate its wondrous diversity. These are also the path towards a free mind.
Next: Liberation Through Education