His Excellency Ambassador Urs Stemmler, my dear friend Javad Mottaghi, distinguished consultants Mr Chu Pui Hing and Mr Savyasaachi Jain, friends: may peace be with you.
I would like to begin by thanking the organizers of this seminar for this very kind invitation. It is always difficult to turn down an invitation from my friend Javad Mottaghi, partly because sometimes he puts my name down when I have forgotten whether I have given consent or not. Then I find that I have really no choice but to come along and participate. I am actually on my way to my university in Penang and I thought that I would spend a couple of hours here and go on to my next assignment.
Friends, this is a very challenging topic as the Ambassador has pointed out: Media and good governance in Asia Pacific. The Asia Pacific region is a very diverse region. It is going to be very difficult to generalise on both media and good governance because it is so diverse. Which is why I will try to do what perhaps is feasible in approaching a topic of this sort.
One, I shall talk about the ideal situation as far as media and good governance go; the relationship between media and god governance; what the ideal is and why? Number two, I will look very quickly at the reality which is obtained in one part of the Asia Pacific region and that is Asia. I will look at the realities within the Asian region in a very general sense because we can’t really go into great detail. And number three, I’ll look at something which has always been of great interest to me as a person -- how does one move from reality to the ideal? This is the eternal challenge that confronts all of us.
Let me begin with what I see as the ideal. In terms of the media, what would be ideal would be a situation where you have an independent autonomous media. I am referring to not just the print and electronic media as we’ve known them for such a long while. I am also talking about the cyber media that in terms of its role as a disseminator of information, as a provider of analysis, one hopes that it would be independent and autonomous, and that it would at the same time be responsible; the media with a very profound commitment to the truth which is always elusive; and a media which has the courage to convey the truth, however painful that may be. One sees that as the sort of media that one would like to have in the Asia Pacific region -- a media that is free of vested interest, both from the state and the private sector. In other words, it should be free of not just governmental control but also the inordinate influence that business corporations sometimes exert upon the media. It should be free of such interest and if one could add, it should also be free of prejudices and misconceptions and stereotypes which all of us are guilty of at one point or another, to the extent that if it is possible, one should try to free oneself of prejudices and misconceptions because they have a direct impact upon the media and the sort of role that the media would play. Now, that’s the media from an ideal perspective.
Governance -- good governance. For me good governance is the act of ruling, the act of exercising authority, especially on the part of the state. Good governance would mean governing with justice and a sense of fairness that is pivotal to the notion of governance -- governing with a sense of justice and fairness in the interest of the people in this region, since many countries in this region are still part of the global south, and they are faced with problems of growth and equity of development. One hopes that good governance would mean a commitment to uplifting the masses, providing them with the basic needs, basic necessities, and ensuring that there is education, healthcare and welfare. All these are very fundamental challenges. At the same time, good governance should mean the rule of law, it must mean accountability, honesty in administration, and again given what’s obtained in many societies in this part of the world, a commitment to ensure peace and harmony among the diverse communities which make up our countries. Governing in such a way that all communities feel that they are looked after -- I think that is very important -- and ensuring the dignity of the common person, the human beings who are the at the bottom of the society, the least of the least. To quote Mahatma Ghandi, “that one should have the commitment of looking after people who are right at the bottom of the society.’
If one has to summarise all these in a nutshell, one would say that good governance is actually governors, rulers who are prepared to play the role of trustees, of stewards in the most comprehensive sense. You are stewards of the environment and natural resources. You are stewards of the institution of governance and you are the stewards of the future, of the unborn generation. That’s what good governance is. It is good stewardship. It is trusteeship. That’s what good governance is.
Now, that’s the ideal. What about the realities? Especially in the Asian region, the ten countries that make up ASEAN. As I have said a while ago, even this part of the Asian area is actually very diverse. In Asia, you have different types of governments and you have different types of media. Nonetheless, one can sort of generalize to some extent, with all the shortcomings of generalization, that there are, to start with, media outlets which are relatively free in the Asian region, which aren’t controlled by government to the extent to which they are controlled in certain other parts of Asia. Like in the Philippines, the media is relatively free without any doubt at all of executive control. And you have other countries in this region; the biggest country in this region is of course Indonesia. Today if you look at the Indonesian media, there is no doubt at all that their mainstream media is relatively free. They speak up, they analyse, they criticize, and they do all sorts of things, which they were not able to do 15 or 20 years ago. So, you have the Philiphines media, the Indonesian media and then you have the Malaysian media which is not as free as the media in Indonesia or the Philippines, but nonetheless it’s a media which has a certain degree of freedom and operates within the constraints of the situation. And then of course, you have Singapore, where the media is I think controlled to a great extent. I don’t know whether we have friends here from Singapore? Well, this is also a sign of what I am saying. We don’t have any friends from Singapore at this meeting. And then you have of course Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and their different type of media. You’ve got Thailand, which is closer, in a sense, to Indonesia perhaps, or the Philippines. A little freer than perhaps the Malaysian media in some respects but then again here, you have to qualify which groups within the Thai media, but certainly a society which is freer than many other societies in South East Asia. So, you have this very diverse situation as far as the media is concerned.
And if you look at governance, the realities of governance, here again you’ll find tremendous diversity. Like the Philippines, where the media is quite free, but if we’re to look at the standard of governance in the Philippines, one could argue without perhaps any fear of contradiction that in terms of accountability, honesty and administration -- caring for the poor, the people at the bottom of society, the Philippines for a long, long while has not really measured up to the standards which most of us would regard as ones that we should hold on to when it comes to governance. It has not really measured up in that regard. But we have a media that is relatively free in the Philippines, which is something that we have to keep in mind. I will come back to this.
And then you have Indonesia, where governance -- in some respects accountability, has improved quite a lot; that is true. Caring for people at the margins of society, I suppose you have a state that is struggling to achieve this goal but nonetheless is trying hard. And in terms of holding its diverse communities together, I think that the situation has become more challenging after 1998, after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. There are more diverse trends and tendencies in terms of religion, and understanding how religion should be practised in Indonesia today compared to the past. Partly because of the freedoms, partly because there is more space and scope for that sort of expression in Indonesia, but nonetheless I think that Indonesia has done a fairly good job in maintaining a certain equilibrium. They have done a good job which is not recognised by a lot of people, people who are not familiar with the Indonesian situation. So, you’ve got Indonesia and its attempt at providing good governance.
Now if we were to take a country like Malaysia and to a very great extent Singapore. But let me first deal with Malaysia. I think that Malaysia has also done fairly well in terms of governance. If you take a longer term view of the society over the last 52 years, the fact is that this is perhaps together with Singapore the only country in this region that has maintained civilian rule all along in the last 52 years. Look at Philippines, look at Indonesia, look at Thailand and of course you know what Cambodia has gone through, and other countries in the Asian region, I think that it’s remarkable that in Malaysia where we have had a more dynamic opposition than Singapore has ever had, you still have this distinctive achievement that we have maintained civilian rule all along for the last 52 years. And that to my mind is central to good governance. Being able to maintain civilian rule, where you keep the military within the barracks; we have done that. And also with that exception, the short exception of 18 months when parliamentary rule was suspended in Malaysia, from May 1969 to February 1971, with the exception of that short period, Malaysia has also maintained parliamentary democracy. Not just civilian rule, but parliamentary democracy and that is yet another attribute of good governance and there has been a certain degree of accountability. There has never been a situation in Malaysia where the opposition has commanded less than 35% of the popular vote since 1957, which means we have always had an opposition that counts in this country. And today of course -- this I think is yet another very positive development -- the opposition is much stronger than it ever was in Malaysian history.
And at the same time you find that in terms of social justice, the fact is that in 1957, at the time of Independence, something like 64% of the population was living below the poverty line. And today if you look at statistics in Malaysia, at the end of 2008, less than 5% of the population lives below the poverty line. And all the other indices that you can think of: education, literacy rate, 93%, healthcare facilities, they reach almost 95% of the population. If you look at piped water, electricity, even if you take Sabah and Sarawak into account, where the situation is not as good as in Peninsular Malaysia, it is still between 85 to 90% of the population that has access to piped water and electricity. So, in terms of good governance from the point of view of the mass majority, of the people, I think we have done fairly well. And in maintaining a certain degree of inter-ethnic harmony -- peace if you like, even if there is unease and tension from time to time, the fact remains that on the basis of one of the most objective criteria for inter-ethnic harmony in any society in any part of the world, Malaysia is right at the top. This country has kept communal violence to the minimum. Communal violence is a ready indicator of whether ethnic relations are good or not. Compare Malaysia to Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and if you look at Indonesia, Thailand or any number of countries: Ireland, Lebanon, etc, I think Malaysia has done very well for a multi-ethnic society in minimising communal violence. So, good governance to a great extent is done quite well.
Now, how does one rate a country like Thailand in terms of good governance? I think if you look at Thailand, at different times, it has done quite well and some people would argue that the time governance was best in Thailand over the last five and the half decades was when it had a non-elective Prime Minister, who had the full support of different segments of society. This was when Anand Panyarachun was the Prime Minister of Thailand; he was the former governor of the Bank of Thailand and he was the Prime Minister for a while. They established a very good constitution and they implemented a lot of programmes, partly because, as some Thai analysts would say, you didn’t have the military interfering, you didn’t have the political parties interfering and things were quite good. I mean this is one of the ironies that we must always keep in mind and we must try to understand. But whenever we have other forces at play in the Thai society, you would have quite a lot of chaos. And you are seeing a bit of that today in Thailand. Major political actors involved in unending squabbling in Thailand -- and the consequences have been disastrous for the Thai society. So again, a situation that is quite mixed if you look at Thailand.
In Vietnam, one could argue that since the revolution and the establishment of United Vietnam, the Vietnamese seemed to have done quite well in terms of governance. In Vietnam attempts at providing health care facilities are quite good, so in some aspects it has done quite well in governance; but you know what the media is like as far as Vietnam goes. Now, this leads me to what I think is the most important issue that I would like to raise in this talk.
Let us not believe for one moment that there is a simple one-to-one equation between free media and good governance. This is one of the misconceptions. This is not true and this region is an example of this, which is why I wanted to give you the example of Singapore at the end. In Singapore, you have a very controlled media, controlled in every aspect. Civil society hardly exists in Singapore -- we know that but you have good governance in Singapore. You can’t deny that either. Good governance in Singapore in terms of certain criteria not all the criteria of governance. Singapore has done a good job looking after its people in terms of their social economy needs. Public housing -- an amazing achievement as far as Singapore is concerned, amazing as very few countries in the world have succeeded in providing their general populace with public housing the way Singapore has. And education and health care accessible to the poorest segment of the Singapore society. They have done a very good job. Infrastructure, very good job. And in terms of accountability from a certain point of view, because you’ll find in Singapore, whether it is financial accountability or accountability related to other aspects of governance in Singapore, there is a lot of information and they do account. And in fighting corruption, domestically at least, within the boundaries of this little island state, Singapore has done a very good job in curbing corruption, which is why consistently over the last ten years in Transparency International ratings, Singapore has always been amongst the top ten. So, good governance but a controlled media. On the other hand you have the Philippines, free media but poor governance. So, let us not assume that you must have a free media to ensure good governance. There is no one-toone equation here. Look at the realities and you will come to a different conclusion.
This brings me to the last part of my presentation: “Moving Realities to the Ideal”. For me the most important thing in any society is to ensure that you have good people at the helm. People who are honest, with integrity, people who are passionate about serving their fellow citizens; this is what really counts. But this is something that you can’t guarantee. How do you guarantee that this would happen? Maybe one can argue that what one should do is to ensure that society as a whole continues to uphold certain values. That these values are transmitted from generation to generation through the school system, through the media and other channels, and these values are absorbed and assimilated by the people who live by these values. Perhaps that is what we have to do. And as a result of that you’ll find that you’ll get good governance and good rulers. What Singapore does for instance is that they have a training institute in Buena Vista in Singapore which for a few decades pays a lot of attention to the training of future leaders. The civil servants, the politicians and the people in the private sector; they all go through this institute.
But perhaps that is something you could only do in a very small place. And how do you do it in a larger society where you have all sorts of forces at work, which is what a real democracy is? Singapore is not, we know that. They are able to control the various indices more effectively than other societies but nonetheless I think the lesson that we can draw from Singapore is this: that you must focus upon producing good people who in the end will play some role in managing the society. In other words, values, good ethics are very, very important. They don’t come automatically. It may be true as very recent scientific studies have shown that these values are in us. They are already in us, all these good values. There is a very interesting book called “Moral Minds” written by a Harvard Professor, Marc Hauser. And his argument is that we are genetically coded with good values, so they are there. It’s almost like language. You know the finding of the great linguist who is a very famous public intellectual: Noam Chomsky. Chomsky in his younger days discovered this very important theory in linguistics -- that there is a universal language, a universal brand. Likewise, this man Marc Hauser says there is a universal moral mind at work. This means all of us, which is why human beings automatically react to certain situations in a certain manner; that is his argument.
The point I am making is that even though it is there in our genes, even though you are wired in this manner, you still need to create institutions that will bring out these values and that is why we must continue to emphasize on good values. That is what I think we have to do. This also means that these good values will have an impact upon the media, and not just upon the people who govern, and this is equally important. The Ambassador referred to the former Soviet Ambassador to Washington who has said that the media is not checked. I think that you need very responsible people in the media too. You have to learn to check yourself. No amount of external checks would be able to ensure that media people are responsible so that a high sense of responsibility is very, very critical and important. How one reports, what one highlights and one has to keep on questioning oneself. This is what is needed amongst media people. We are not angles, we are all human beings, we have our weaknesses and I find that in my own profession as an academic, we are as guilty as anyone else of prejudices and misconceptions, and in this regards I think the media is no different. So, we have to check ourselves as human beings all the while and say, “Look, why am I doing this? Is this the right thing to do?” When I report on ethnic situations, am I being biased? Unconsciously perhaps? I think we have to keep on asking these questions, all the while. And I can think of any number of situations, if we look at the relationship between media and governance. On occasion the media in different countries in Asian have failed. And on many, many occasions those who govern have failed not just the media but the people. There are a number of examples of this.
Even in recent times when I look at controversies in our own country, in Malaysia, there was this controversy over the word “Allah” and there was quite a bit of debate about it and so on. It is unfortunate that a certain point of view became very prevalent in cyber space. It was picked up by a lot of people in the middle class and the upper class. And they felt that this was the view that they should hold on to. There was this speculation that the desecration of houses of worship -- Churches, Sikh Gurudwara and a couple of Mosques -- that all these things were happening because the government was manipulating the situation and a lot of people believed in this, that the government was behind it. Now, there was no one in the main stream media, in the print media and in the electronic media, who was prepared to take on this very prejudiced, stereotyped view. And I say that it is prejudiced because it does not stand up to analysis at all. There is no reason why the government would want to do a thing like this. Number one: why would the government want to do this when the government of the day is bending over backwards to try to win over the non-Malay or the non-Muslim support in the Peninsular after the last elections. Why would they want to do this when they know that a very big percentage of the voting population in Sabah and Sarawak are Christians? And it is that voting population that keep them in power in Kuala Lumpur. Without the support of Sabah and Sarawak, the government in Kuala Lumpur would fall. Why would they want to do this because it just doesn’t make sense? Politicians know power, it is instinctive. They know what it takes to remain in power and perpetuate their power. Why would they want to do it? Why would they want to do it when they are so actively involved in trying to re-brand the government in terms of transformation, and with the various indices of how they have succeeded and so on? All these things have been done on a massive scale and then they want to go and desecrate churches and a Sikh temple? It just doesn’t make sense at all. But you see how quickly this thing spread within the middle class, and people believed it. People in the diplomatic service were regurgitating this because you know diplomats pick up these things from the people they meet, that is what they do most of the time. And academics and the NGO’s activists -- now they were all saying the same thing, but in reality it just didn’t make sense. And when individuals were arrested, it was so clear that this was the work of individuals who were very angry that this had happened, that the court had made a certain decision. And this didn’t surprise me at all. I was overseas when the decision was made by the High Court. And I told my family who were with me then that there would be trouble because I know what the psychology of this society is. They would not take easily to a court decision of this sort.
It is unfortunate, again coming back to the media, that the main stream electronic and print media was not able to respond to this situation. There are many other cases where somehow you find that the media is not able to play this role in this country. The same thing goes with the government of course which messes up things every now and then. And since the media is not as free as it should be, you’ll find that certain government leaders are not put in the dock, they are not questioned, they are not challenged, which I think is also unfortunate.
So for both media and the government, if we had greater courage, greater integrity, if we were more responsible, if we had the values that I had talked about a while ago, then I think things would be very different. And Malaysia is just one example, I can think of other examples in other parts of Asia. My Thai friends, academics and NGO activists, have told me that a segment of the media has really failed the Thai people in the present situation; which is what is happening now in Thailand. Of course the people in power are also to be blamed for what is happening but the media has contributed to the mess partly because the media just sensationalizes issues without analyzing the situation in depth. It says, “Look, if we did all these things, there would be consequences. So let us be careful”. They don’t play that role. They just sensationalize because maybe that helps to sell newspapers and bring more popularity. We don’t know what the real reasons are. So a sense of responsibility and accountability is very important not just for governments but also for people in the media.
The Philippines: for many, many years I have interacted with activists and academics in the Philippines, and they tell me the same thing about the role of a segment of the media in terms of sensationalizing, in terms of playing “footsie” as it were with certain segments of the establishment or certain segments of the opposition when it suits their interest. So here again integrity becomes a very important issue and that I think is the central point that one wants to make here this morning. It is values, and it is integrity that determines whether there is good governance or not. And these values, with integrity being central to them, also decide whether you have a media which serves the larger interest. And what we can do at a time like this, on an occasion like this, is to perhaps reflect on ourselves while looking at the larger society and saying this is wrong and that is bad -- yes, we should do that but at the same time let’s also reflect on our own role and ask very searching questions about ourselves as media practitioners. Thank you very much.
(Dr Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Movement for a Just World.)