MEDIA, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN MALAYSIA | BOOK REVIEW

Edited by Yeoh Seng Guan

Published by Routledge (London & New York, 2010), 234 pages.


It is almost cliché to argue that media has shaped our contemporary society; and Malaysia is no exception. As Malaysia strives to be modern nation, media has played an important role to construct modern imaginaries and accelerate the state-sponsored developmental project. For instance, in 1996 Malaysia has been recognized for the ambitious blueprint called “Multimedia Super Corridor” (MSC) launched by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad (1981-2003) to transform Malaysia into a modern society by 2020 within a knowledge-based society framework.

This edited volume entitled Media, Culture and Society in Malaysia presents a full-length analysis of contemporary media landscape in Malaysia and their uses by different social actors. Unlike conventional approaches in studying Malaysian media such as “political economy” or “freedom of media,” this book focuses on the ways various media forms constituted cultural practices among particular subsets of the audience and the public.  The central argument of this volume is that various media have potent power in imagining and imaging the contours of cultural economy and social power in Malaysian society. In addition, diverse social actors mobilize media for their different purposes (economic, political, social, cultural and artistic) in the nexus of power relations in contemporary Malaysia.

Originating from the Fourth Malaysian Studies International Conference in 2004 entitled “Media, Culture and Power in Malaysia, this volume consists of ten chapters on multifarious media: mainstream and independent films, television programming, black metal music, community rituals, political advertising, the Internet and artistic visual installations. With diverse formal training backgrounds, the contributors of this volume provide interesting and detailed descriptions as well as thoughtful analyses of the objects under study. This will give the general readers without prior knowledge of Malaysia rich and nuanced picture of contemporary media landscape in Malaysia.

Contemporary media in Malaysia is a fascinating topic, particularly during the recent general election in 2018. As signaled by Yeoh Seng Guan’s introduction the contestat between ‘big’ and ‘small’ media has resulted in a so-called ‘political tsunami’, which swept ruling (incumbent) political candidates. In Mustafa Anuar’s chapter, there was a shift in political campaign in the 2004 General Election to mimic a more American-type presidential election campaign. This is understandable since Malaysian public, as Wang illustrates, are quite receptive to foreign entertainment imaginaries flooded on television screens.

The emergence of new media, particularly Internet, has boosted a new hope for both government and civil society. Whereas the government attempts to use Internet to upgrade the services delivery to people and make effective governance (as illustrated in Postil’s chapter), civil society groups struggle to use Internet in mobilizing the citizen’s involvement in decision-making process (as detailed in Randhawa’s and Venkiteswaran’s chapter). However, the potentialities of Internet for political empowerment are simply an empty promise without real social interactions on the ground.

Beyond the ‘conventional’ media, musical performance and artistic visual installations play interesting role in reconfiguring public desire and fantasy in contemporary Malaysia. Azmyl Md Yusof’s chapter on the popularity of black metal among urban Malay youths and the recent government crackdowns of black metal music across the country highlights the anxiety and disruption of the ethnicized political culture premised on the primacy and integrity of Malay-Muslim identity.  As cultural recourses, black metal music helps to make sense of unfamiliar material condition and facilitates new subjectivities. By the same token, Ray Langenbach’s chapter discusses the works of three prominent Malaysian avant garde artists (Wong Hoy Cheong, Simryn Gill and Liew Kungyu) to foreground the strategy combining the potent media forms of state iconography and consumer capitalism which resonates postmodern culture conditions and launch critical commentaries on Malaysian society and cultural politics.

It is noteworthy that the recurring topic in this volume is censorship (both social and political). Generally the Malaysian government exercises political censorship to silence dissenting voices and protect public morality or traditions.  Meanwhile, some social groups exercise their censorious power to secure their communal identities and protect a so-called ‘public morality.’  In Malaysia, as Gordon Gray states in his chapter, “the censorship policy has been ‘proscriptive’ (must not show) than ‘prescriptive’ (must show)” (128). This highlights what will be censored out rather than legislating what will be included in the film. For Gordon, film censorship is inseparable from the idea of public/private spheres or ‘shame’ in Malaysian society; hence, the codes of censorship are based on what is ‘publicly’ acceptable and little way for a diegetic ‘private’ space.   As is well known, censorship has hindered creativity, but for independent documentary filmmakers, as Khoo’s chapter illustrates, maintaining integrity and being true to their subjects are the main concern rather than censorship.

Ultimately, this volume contributes to identifying and mapping out new political agencies beyond confined formal political institutions in Malaysia, such as: netizens, underground musicians, visual artists and independent filmmakers. On the surface, these political agencies seemed dormant under the authoritarian or repressive political regime. Yet, they have actually been active underground and involved in political changes (Reformasi) and its aftermath. Moreover, various media have articulated and channeled political impulses in the complex power relations within contemporary Malaysian cultural economy.

Although this book has provided a full view of multifarious media, regrettably, the discussion about radio as popular media, particularly in rural areas, is absent or neglected. While the number of independent or community radios in Malaysia perhaps is insignificant compared to Indonesia and Thailand, commercial radio are still very much accessible and omnipresent for a larger audience. In the remote areas, despite the presence of television, radio retains an important role in disseminating information and a source of entertainment compared to internet which is urban-centered, technologically literate and costly.

While some articles were accompanied by interesting illustrations (such as visual installations and community ritual), articles on independent documentary films (Khoo Gaik Cheng); Amir Muhammad’s essay films (Benjamin MacKay); contemporary Malay-language feature film (Gordon Gray) and political advertising in television (Mustafa K Anuar) are not supplemented with cinematic and televisual images.  These visual images unquestionably will help the readers, who are unfamiliar with Malaysian cinema and television landscape, to extract some insights from the dense (textual) presentations.

As is well known, the common problems of edited volume are a loose connection among chapters and repetitive descriptions in some chapters. Although this edited volume does not face this typical problem, the readers hardly find a conceptualization of ‘media’ from the editor in introductory chapter since media is a central concept employed by most contributors. This may help to redefine the media and their location in changing socio-political landscape in Malaysia. Putting aside some minor weaknesses, this invaluable volume should be welcomed by the media and cultural studies scholars or students, especially to those who wish to get a better understanding on both the mediated politics and new cultural politics in contemporary Malaysia.

Image source: crcpress.com 

 

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