Engaging the Commonwealth: Role of Media in Creating Awareness among the Young Malaysian

Remarks delivered by the CEO of MPI, Datuk Chamil Wariya for Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) at CAPAM Media Forum 2014 Putrajaya International Convention Centre PICC, 21st October 2014.

First and foremost, I would like to congratulate the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management or CAPAM for taking this initiative in organizing CAPAM Media Forum 2014.

Congratulation to Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, Chief Secretary to The Government of Malaysia who was elected as CAPAM’s new president last weekend and I am pretty sure his appointment to the number one position in CAPAM is a boost to promote the Commonwealth among Malaysians, not only in the public service, but also private sector; and also among the young Malaysians.

We are given two questions to deal with in this session, namely:

1) How can the Malaysian mainstream and social media promote the Commonwealth?

2) What lesson can we learn from the current lack of awareness among young Malaysians on the Commonwealth?

I will answer the second question first. And in order to do that, let me highlight some of the responses given by a number of young Malaysians about the Commonwealth that I have spoken to prior to this forum. Their background: they are under 30 years old; well educate and some have the British connection in that either they have been to England for visits and holidays or they had their tertiary education in the UK. At a glance these are some of their takes of the Commonwealth and their answers will guide us on what to do to increase their awareness of the Commonwealth:

1. They knew that The Commonwealth is the legacy of the colonial era between the British Empire and Tanah Melayu or Malaya, as it was known then. After the independence of the colonies into nation states, the relationship between those ex colonies and the British Empire transformed into a specialized diplomatic ties of independent states.

2. What they remember most of the Commonwealth is its Commonwealth Games, which is held every four years and the last one was held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2014.

3. Others agreed that membership of the Commonwealth has a well-known benefit: that is the established relationship in immigration. They, especially among the cosmopolitans, appreciated the opportunities given with regard to education and career in the United Kingdom.

4. One particular respondent has a suspicious view of the Commonwealth ‘machine’ – he suggested that the Commonwealth is a continuing and new form of the Western hegemony that is about influencing ideas on our governmental policies. He illustrated his point further by saying that while the British Empire pursued our naturalresources; the current organization is indirectly trying to influence the shape of our identity, education system and our criteria for governmental decision making.

From the answers given, one may deduced that the awareness of the Malaysian youth concerning the Commonwealth ranges from ‘popular trivia’ to cross-country, career opportunities and finally to international politics. Without truly knowing, one participant tried to analogize the relationship between the member states of the Commonwealth with other international organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union. Resulting from this, one might concluded that he could not see the importance of the Commonwealth in it specific aims. He made a generalizing remark on the lack of progression of the organization in the contemporary era. He expressed that the organizations’ value is in its historical and nostalgic aspects.

The immediate lesson from this brief survey is twofold: one concerned the lack of general knowledge of the youth about the Commonwealth, the other relates to the misconceptions conceived surrounding it. While not everyone is interested or trained in international politics, one can expect to raise the awareness of the Commonwealth to the wider younger audience through the ordinary modes.

Whether it is through the traditional media or the electronic, the modes of dissemination is well known and practiced by the public relations department. There is no secret recipe for communication success. The struggle is real while the result varied. The only emphasis here is that the younger Malaysian shares the same exclusive mode of communication as any other urbanized youth: they gained information and developed opinion through the social media. Starting the day through smartphone and spending the rest of it through the Internet is common behavior of our youth. In addition to this, one of the participant of the above survey suggested that the main unifying source for the youth are arts and entertainment. It is interesting to see how the Commonwealth will approach these two creative aspects of culture towards raising general awareness and deeper discourse in the youth section.

Misconception is the deeper discourse. This discourse resembles a slippery path—even with honorable intention. Topics of justice and identity retracing history back to the colonial era have unfortunately produced much dissatisfaction or confusion between the young nationalist and the former British Empire. It is one thing to adopt an oppositional stance against the content of history and it is another to take radical measure to bring forth retribution against the unfairness of the past. One cannot evade these controversial topics: from the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the claims of the nationalist revolting against the phantom neo-colonialism conspired by the wealthy west. Suspicion runs deep among the unyielding youth. Whether these claims are the truth or not is an even deeper discourse.

Regardless, it is a duty for the Commonwealth to educate and negotiate these misconceptions. Such an important duty must not be handled by the untrustworthy. Experts apart, the wider and younger audiences are always in search for a trustworthy source. Although not a guarantee, part of being trustworthy is to commit thoroughly to the opposite views. It is generosity manifested through complete intellectual honesty. Such an act of generosity will be duly appreciated especially with the continuing rising of the Islamic contemporary scholarships or the alternative east.

A proper discourse of misconception would not be whole if the Commonwealth relies exclusively on the strategies and interests of its diplomatic allies. A proper discourse of misconception includes learning the formation and the crystallization of alternative worldviews strives by the younger civilized society. In attempting this, the Commonwealth and its representative will be appreciated by younger audience. Ultimately, the discourse of misconception is a great challenge for the Commonwealth: one that concerns international stability and security.

On the topic of the role of Malaysian media in the promotion of the Commonwealth:It is a practical insight to realize the limit of the media. In fact, there is only so much or so far onhow one should push the media as an instrument for public promotion.In this sense, what is truly expected by the representative of the Commonwealth from the Malaysian media is not mere promotion but effective promotion.

As such, it is in my humble opinion that the shift of the discussion should emphasis the audience of the media instead. Rather than simply pursuing aggressive promotion or widespread publication, the representatives of the Commonwealth ought to reflect on themselves instead. One may begin this by asking the question, what attracts the audience to the media? Generally, the relationship between the media and its audience is of two kinds:

a) Habitual interest;

b) Unexpected news.

The Commonwealth and its representative should not even dare to talk about effective promotion if their contents do not enter the scope of these two tendencies. Impliedly, the representative of the Commonwealth should question the nature of their contents and its significance to the Malaysian audience. This was what one meant as ‘to reflect on themselves’ earlier on.

As far as habitual interest is concern, it is unlikely that the wider Malaysian audience would consider the Commonwealth as a daily diary. Frankly, the Commonwealth has more weight on its members during the earlier days of their independence. It is not an exaggeration to say that the days of international organization in its current form are diminishing. One may observed on the constant criticism met against other international organization such as the UN to draw a conclusion.

While this is not an attempt to deny the good and benefits conferred from these international organizations (the Commonwealth included), it is equally important for one to able to come to terms of the ‘natural decay’ inclusive in any man made agenda. A good deed is possible without it being widely known. However, the point of concern at this moment is making connection. In my perspective, a renewal in its aims is a necessity for the Commonwealth to reach the wider audience of its members. Intuitively, I would say that part of this renewal requires the resolution of few issues relating to international political struggle between the Euro-centered states and the emerging Asian-African states.The absent of such groundbreaking agenda would not reach the empathy of the weary and cynical social media audience.

Without digressing furthermore, I perceived that it is only in the realm of unexpected news that the Commonwealth would be able to pursue the full strength of effective promotion. Howeverin both tendencies, the argument is constant: the Commonwealth should revise their contents to suit and attract the localized interest of the Malaysian audience. Ideally, such a convincing attraction is unlikely without a kind of renewal, or a reform, or as cliché’ as it is, a revolution of the Commonwealth in its vision and aims.

Following this premise, an effective promotion by the Commonwealth is also only possible through understanding the nature of news in the eye of the Malaysian audience. There is an assumption that the representative of the Commonwealth should able to learn and accept that news is culturally defined. What is considered to be important to a nation does not necessarily continue to another nation. Any internationalized agenda or rhetoric desiring deeper connection to the locals would not be effective if it is not shaped in correspondence to the ‘localized form’. In fact, an effective promotion by the Malaysian media is also practical when the representative of the Commonwealth engages the local media with a ‘localized’ insight.

Thank you