Information has become the dynamo of industry. In fact, it has become an industry in its own right and it is going to be the most important industry in the near future. The present economic boom in Malaysia is now almost a decade long and we believe that this momentum can be sustained. With the rapidly growing prosperity of the entire region, the information sector is likely to expand exponentially in the years to come. With our infrastructure as well as the other requisites already in place, it is therefore not wishful thinking that we want to be the prime mover of the information revolution in Asia. And we will do what it takes to achieve it.
But the world of information is not about business and industry alone. It goes well beyond that and exerts a profound impact globally on individuals, societies and institutions. This impact will become increasingly pronounced with rapid advances in technology, rendering almost all barriers to information flow across national borders ineffectual. Some in Asia have been especially nervous about the harmful downside of the unrestricted flow of information. They say it will undermine the moral fibre of society and subvert established social and political institutions. Some of these fears are legitimate, but most of them are largely unfounded.
At the same time some have asserted that there is a fundamental clash between Asia and the logic of technology and the information revolution. They contend that there is an underlying incompatibility between the Asian ethos on the one hand, and political pluralism on the other. This incompatibility has now reached a high point in the purported dilemma facing Asian societies by virtue of the information explosion. What they fail to see is that there is a certain convergence between the internal dynamics of Asia and this phenomenon. In fact, the current revival of Asia is a result of a process which has already spanned two centuries, beginning with the encounter with Western imperialism. Over that period, Asia has had to reinvent itself many times over, reforming its social and political institutions, progressing from feudalism to modernity, from foreign control to national liberation, from authoritarianism to democracy. Just as we had surmounted innumerable obstacles and overcome formidable barriers, we are confident that we shall be able to prevail over our present predicament. The logic of the information revolution is openness and self- control. What better government is it than that which teaches us to govern ourselves. Far from being overwhelmed by others, technology will empower Asia and enhance its claim to true global partnership.
In this regard, the mass media in Asia are in fact inheritors of a tradition of journalism which has always been at the forefront of Asia's quest for modernity, democracy and the establishment of a civil society. Unfortunately, many Asians themselves seem to have forgotten this. Pioneers of Asian journalism included earlier reformers and nationalists who were at the same time litterateurs. They published journals, pamphlets, novels and short stories as vehicles to rouse society from its centuries of slumber and inertia and to agitate against colonialism. Like their counterparts in the West, they too had to struggle with the powers that be. If in the West they had to fight against the absolutism of monarchies, Asians had to resist the combined power of feudalism and colonialism. There is therefore no basis to dichotomize journalism into Asian and Western, as if the two are distinct and diametrically opposed. Thus the pursuit of freedom and justice is not the sole prerogative of the Western Press, as Asian history also bears testimony to no less heroic struggles by Asian journalists in defence of these ideals. Whether in the West or in the East, the Press has been instrumental in checking the abuse of power, "the law's delay, the insolence of office."
Asian societies, in particular, are at a stage of development where they are in great need of a dynamic and vibrant Press, to provide the necessary impetus for progress and to ensure that we do not betray the legitimate expectations of the people.
The Press is not there to disparage and ridicule the government or to subvert the duly constituted order. Nevertheless, it is certainly their function to criticize when criticism is called far. We can cite numerous instances in the history of Asian journalism where the Press became a vehicle for social activism, reform and instilling critical consciousness. The founding of a journal such al-Urwatul Wuthqa by Jamaluddin al-Afghani in the later part of the 19th century marked a critical juncture in unifying the anti-colonial struggles of a vast number of people in Asia and Africa; the journal "Hsin cha'ao" (New Tide) propelled the May Fourth Movement in China earlier this century; at about the same time, in colonial Indonesia, the magazine Pujangga Baru provided the intellectual and cultural foundation for the ensuing war of independence; and decades before all these, there were already in India several influential publications such as Kesari (Lion), the Bengali and Indu Prakash, all literary thorns on the British side. These newspapers became the well-springs of enlightenment for the people, and for the cultivation and contest of ideas. In the process they also became the flag-bearers of the ideals of Asia in the languages and idioms of their time.
Any society in the stage of renewing itself must find new expression and seek reconstruction of its ideals, its intellectual and cultural resources, for its own time. Students of history will notice this in the stages of Western history. And Asia is now at a new stage of its renewal. Thus even as we need to focus our energies to sustain our economic achievements, it has become more urgent for us to effectively articulate the ideals of our traditions for our time. These ideals will serve as a compass to enable our society to navigate its charted course. Central to these are ideals that have universal import, such as the sanctity of the human person and the institution of the family, the free dom of conscience, the dispensation of justice. It is vital for Asians not to lose sight of this fact. To attribute these ideals as being exclusively Western, on the part of Asians, is an act of self-denigration. Likewise, any claim by the West, either to a monopoly or as sole proprietors, of these ideals is nothing but presumptuousness and arrogance.
To deny Press freedom in Asia is tantamount to asserting that there is an inherent incompatibility between Asian values and liberty. The usual contention is that since freedom cannot be absolute the Press must be restricted. This argument is falla cious, because the concept of absolute freedom implies the freedom to speak the truth and not to spread falsehood or undermine public security and corrupt public morals. In any society or country there are laws on pornography, blasphemy, defamation, conspiracy to cause public disturbance, and so on. In addition, the Press is bound by the norms of morality and good taste appropriate to the society in which it operates. Subject to these constraints imposed by virtue of common sense, there is really no case for denying Press freedom.
There are some who contend that Press freedom is a luxury which developing countries can ill afford, their societies being too fragile and not ready for the dissent and conflict generated by a free Press. This effectively ignores 200 years of Asian history. Besides, even if it were true that our societies are as fragile and unprepared as claimed, we are reminded by what Dr. Sun Yat Sen said when confronted with the argument that "the people are not sophisticated enough to practise democracy." He simply countered by saying: "Alas, this is like telling a child that he cannot go to school because he is illiterate." Nor should we be satisfied with the kind of freedom of expression enjoyed by the 18th century French playwright Beaumarchais, who said, tongue-in-cheek I suspect:"As long as I don't write about the government, religion, politics and other institutions, I am free to print anything."
The challenge to Press freedom does not come entirely from those holding political power. Those holding economic power may and do subject the Press to the dictates of their own personal ambitions and self-centered interests. The agendas and priorities of the media barons are not necessarily predicated upon the interest of the general public.
At the end of the day, I believe the question is about responsibility and accountability. Freedom must carry with it the moral obligation to advance the higher ideals of humanity. Therein lies the point of convergence between East and West, where the twain shall meet.