- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — In 1991, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, seeking to convert this resource-rich agrarian country into an export-driven manufacturing one, set the goal of creating a fully developed country by the year 2020.

Around the capital are reminders: “2020” carved into highway hedges and flickering from neon signs. Now it is clear the country is well on its way to the goals proposed by Mr. Mahathir, who earned a degree at the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore and practiced the healing arts before entering politics.

The evidence includes a multibillion-dollar administrative capital, clean, new rail systems snaking around glass-encased office towers and a growing middle class flocking to suburbs with names like Cyberjaya. Malaysia even boasts Southeast Asia’s biggest shopping mall.

This, however, is but one dimension of the plan. Mr. Mahathir, who stepped down in October after 22 years in power, also called for orderly “social, spiritual, psychological and cultural” growth, which many analysts say has not happened.

Some blame the deteriorating public education system, which incorporates an affirmative-action program that favors the majority Muslim Malays and other bumiputras, or “sons of the soil.” Others say Malaysians have become complacent, basking in the symbolic glow of new skyscrapers instead of tackling the important work ahead.

But an overlooked impediment to the realization of Vision 2020, some analysts say, is Malaysia’s state-controlled media. All the major news outlets are controlled by the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, whose leaders have smothered dissent. Last year, Malaysia ranked near the bottom of the press-freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.

Jomo K.S., a professor of political economy, advises against equating development with press freedom. “The fastest developing country in the world is China, and their press freedoms are among the worst in the world,” Mr. Jomo observes.

But Edmund Terence Gomez, a political and economics analyst at the University of Malaya says: “You can’t develop properly if you can’t have real dialogue on important issues.”

By most accounts, Malaysia’s news outlets consistently sidestep the nation’s most pressing issues — rampant corruption from the judiciary to the private sector, occasional police brutality, a growing sense of disenfranchisement among rural Malays, and strained communication among the various races.

Others are concerned with how lack of press freedoms affects Malaysians’ mental and intellectual development.

“The intellectual tradition in this country is very weak,” said Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World. News outlets, he said, deserve some of the blame.

“They are not helping to create an environment for a thinking generation to develop. They are making sure people don’t probe and don’t analyze.”

Malaysian press opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has delayed confronting these issues and has abetted the ruling Muslim party’s grip on power, said Khalid Jaafar, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lumpur.

“What you’re seeing is self-serving anti-Americanism, which is intended to divert attention from the problems here — it props up the government,” he said.

Indeed the government is concerned about losing support to the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which promises to bring about a more Islamic country, governed by a strict form of Shariah law. In the last general election, PAS won control of two states, and by some estimates, 50 percent of Malays younger than 30 now support the opposition.

Editors at Malaysian newspapers say they do not intentionally promote intolerance and are dedicated to getting at the truth. The problem, they say, is government pressure. The government maintains the right to revoke printing licenses and has seen to it that several journalists have been fired.

The latest casualty came in November, when Abdullah Ahmad, editor in chief of the English-language New Straits Times group, was fired for a report he wrote on the policies of Saudi Arabia.

“We push the boundaries where we can,” said a political columnist at the New Straits Times, “but we live with reminders of the consequences, so the process is slow. … Our best chance at freeing the press is through legal channels.” By most accounts, however, that is likely a long way off, even with the changing of the guard.

While new Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is thought to be more receptive than his predecessor, Mr. Mahathir, he has yet to issue a comment on press restrictions. His recently appointed deputy, Najib Abdul Razak, endorses the draconian Internal Securities Act, which allows for violators of the act to be jailed indefinitely without charge.

Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters of Islam, a women’s advocacy group, said that if editors truly want to see a more liberal press, they will have to stand up.

“It’s the responsibility of the media to push the parameters of press freedoms,” she said, “and our journalists and editors have not done that enough.”

But some are.

Malaysiakini.com, an independent online daily, consistently brings the ruling elite to task. It has encountered resistance, most notably last year when the police raided Malaysiakini’s offices and confiscated 19 staff computers — despite Mr. Mahathir’s promise that he would not tamper with online content.

The virtual newspaper continues to operate and boasts a daily readership of 50,000. Its boldness and vigor, some say, has caught the mainstream press off guard and finds it scrambling to practice “real journalism,” as Mr. Jaafar of the Institute for Policy Research put it, or risk losing readership.

Ahirudin Attan, editor of the government-backed Malay Mail (“The Paper that Cares”), said online publications like Malaysiakini debunk the myth that Malaysia has no press freedom.

In a column recently published in the local state-controlled Nuance, he wrote: “When they invented the Internet and Malaysians started surfing and polluting the websites, the whole issue about press freedom was settled … surf some individual websites run [by] ex-journalists and journalist-wannabes. Tell me if that’s not absolute press freedom.”

Steven Gan, Malaysiakini’s editor, said: “The Internet alone cannot bring about democracy.”

The opposition PAS party has its own print newspaper, Harakah. But after its upset election victories, the federal government forced it to change from a biweekly to a bimonthly, vitiating its ability to weigh in on issues. Mr. Gan’s staff frequently is barred from press conferences, “for asking the relevant questions,” as he puts it.

The average Malaysian, though, said Azizah Haji Hamzah, associate professor of media studies at the University of Malaya, has “no problem with the press the way it is.” Many Malaysians say they think a free press would destabilize society. Moreover, they say, the country is not mature enough for a liberated press — an excuse held over from British colonial days, and propagated by the ruling elite ever since.

Some Malaysians point to a difference in values. They contend that a free press, as defined in the West, would not work here, and that the docility of the local press is not out of tune with what the public wants.

Mr. Muzaffar of the International Movement for a Just World disagrees:

“The need for transparency and accountability are not exclusive to [any particular] culture. And if you believe in justice and care about the disadvantaged, one needs to go and write about it.”

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