THE 21ST COMMONWEALTH BROADCASTERS ASSOCIATION GENERAL CONFERENCE, Kuala Lumpur, 26 August 1996
We are living in the age of knowledge explosion, where access to and control of information will determine the success or failure of a nation in its march towards progress. Quantum leaps in technological innovation and advancement means that we have little choice but to adopt, use and master the engines which power the information revolution. A few decades ago, it was safely assumed that if a developing country could make the transition from an agriculture-based or resource-based economy to that of manufacturing, it was well on its way to achieving parity with the developed world. Alas, that assumption is no longer true. The developed countries have already entered the post-industrial stage, and unless we anticipate further developments, we risk not just being left behind but completely abandoned in the quest for advancement.
No doubt this transition from the old ways to the new requires a paradigm shift, which may meet with resistance from those opposed to change. Nevertheless, we have to grapple with this challenge. Most developing countries have to overcome an even greater obstacle, in that the majority of the people do not as yet have access to the basic tools of information technology. To make matters worse, we have regimes which, instead of facilitating the acquisition of such technology by the people, actually restrict and even deny, for political reasons, the use of what is becoming a basic necessity.
Thus, whilst the provision of the hardware of the information technology poses a serious problem for most developing countries, an even greater issue is the question of the software. Government control of the media and the flow of information is a stark reality in most of our societies. We recognize the role of government in bringing about an informed citizenry as well as being the guardian of public morals. Yet over-zealous censorship and tight control of the airwaves is not only intellectually unsound but also economically unhealthy. It betrays a form of xenophobia which insults the intelligence of our people. Further-more, in this day and age, indiscriminate censorship may well turn out to be counter-productive, if not altogether an exercise in futility.
It must be recognized too that control of the media is not in the hands of governments alone but also in those of conglomerates and individuals whose overriding objective is to make profits. Their ability to exert influence over our society and culture cannot be underestimated. These conglomerates and individuals, indigenous or otherwise, would sometimes pursue their private interests at the expense of the interests of society as a whole. We need to impress upon these media moguls, conglomerates and those who manage the media, of their obligations to society and to be accountable to certain standards of objectivity, fair play and propriety.
In recent times, governments have also to consider the onslaught of the media invasion through satellite television and the globe-girdling Internet. Knee-jerk reactions include attempts to jam the airwaves, banning the sales of parabolic dishes and commissioning "cybercops" to police the Internet. But to my mind, the answer to this media invasion lies not in crying wolf and slamming the door, but in preparing ourselves mentally, intellectually and psychologically for the impact of the invasion. This can only be realized through cultural empowerment, and by this we mean empowering the people to have their own set of values, know their own identity and recognize and nurture their own intellectual tradition.
To achieve this goal, we must first provide the means for the society to access information. We must induce cultural vi-brancy and the flowering of creative and artistic works, works of a calibre which transcends philistine tastes and inclinations. We must also put the relevant infrastructure in place, and this is a task not just for governments: both the public and private sectors must together collaborate in building such infrastructure. A society empowered in such a manner will be able to fortify itself against being culturally drowned by the flood of media invasion. It should be able to absorb the impact, and synthesize its influence, subsuming it under its own culture.
Quite often we discover that the obstacles to such empowerment are put up, not because of any real threat of foreign cultural invasion, but as a result of fear of the people's cultural reawakening on the part of certain governments. Thus, the bogey of the western media should not be used as a justification for denying the people one of their fundamental liberties.
The media has a tremendous potential to bring people together. Our concern is how the globalized media today achieves this feat. Films and television made for the international market specialize in minimal dialogue and slam bang pyrotechnics which is deemed to be the international homogeneous bottom line of how the world comes together. There must be a better way to achieve Lord Reith's famous broadcasting adage: that "nation should speak peace unto nation."
In truth, the ability of the media to serve this cause requires the application of capital and human resources. This is essential so that no single world view dominates the air waves. By virtue of the economies of scale, the Western media industry is able to churn out products that are subsequently dumped in our home markets. There is an urgent need for us to collaborate in building up other networks for sharing costs, exchanging programmes and sharing ideas. The Commonwealth represents one quarter of mankind and by a common fund of experience and shared facility in English, it can become a focus for new and innovative arrangements between media professionals.