Thursday, October 23, 2014

“Under-Reporting of the Commonwealth: What Needs To Be Done”

CAPAM Media Forum 2014

“Engaging the Commonwealth”

21st October 2014

Putrajaya International Convention Centre (PICC)


Let me begin by saying: The Commonwealth is a non-story.

It has for many years slipped out of the consciousness of editors and journalists. And not to mention the people of the Commonwealth of Nations themselves.

Yes, there are times (which are few and far apart) when we are reminded of the existence of the Commonwealth – the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), the Commonwealth Games, and of course, the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (Capam).

But that’s about it.

Under-reporting? That is an understatement, I must say. The truth is that there is nothing much to report.

The Commonwealth is history. It is about an organisation created for reasons that most people find perplexing today – to remind us of the days of old, of times when we were under the yoke of colonisation. It is about painful remembrance and, to some, an unpleasant history.

It reminds us of a colonialist construct, if anything else – an intergovernmental organisation of 53 member states that comprise the former British Empire. Perhaps it can only be possible with countries once ruled by the British; despite our uneasiness and chequered history with the British (at least some of us), we seem more than happy to embrace the legacy, systems and traditions left by them. And perhaps, we feel proud or even lucky to have been colonialised by the British.   

At a time when discourse on post-colonialism is trendy, an organisation like the Commonwealth is, well, a thing of the past.

It is therefore inappropriate, out of tune with the times, at worst, irrelevant.

Is that how we perceive the Commonwealth today? After all, it is an organisation so unique that it defies explanation and is part and parcel of our nation-building. We still want to belong to it, even if the organisation is more like an old train chugging along the track, carrying lots of history, tradition and baggage.

At its disparate best, there is nothing common about the wealth of the member nations. In many cases, some of the states are not “free and equal”.

The Commonwealth brings together the First and the Third World, from Asia to Africa, from Europe to the Caribbean, from North America to the Mediterranean; it is made up of the most successful and the least successful countries, the most advanced and the poorest. Some are huge nations such as India, others atolls in the ocean. The train is pulling nations of different classes and positions with only one thing and one thing in common – their shared history.

Despite their diversity, the nations are united by the past, sharing similar administrative, legal and education systems, thanks to the British.

You can’t blame the media for “ignoring” the Commonwealth. They have other priorities. In a world that is never short of conflicts, wars, turmoil, natural disasters, calamities, global warming, terrorism, scandals, you name it, the Commonwealth is certainly not in the list of top attention.

In short, in a world where sex, lies and pseudo-democracy dominate, matters pertaining to organisations such as The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Commonwealth and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) are somewhere out there hovering among the not-so-important things that we should dwell on.

I personally have selfish reasons to “appropriate” the Commonwealth in the current media construct. I was a journalist, perhaps still am, and I have my fair share of experience covering the Commonwealth – during the time of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, our fourth Prime Minister. I have covered CHOGM, met many leaders of the Commonwealth and wrote news and commentaries about the organisation. It wasn’t sexy I must tell you, there were many other exciting and tantalising stories to write about.

Today, I am the Chairman of Media Prima plc, the largest media group in the country and the only fully-integrated media company in Malaysia and perhaps in the region. We own the oldest surviving newspaper in the country, the New Straits Times that was first published in 1845 – 169 years ago. We have two other newspapers, four free-to-air TV stations, three radio stations, an online outfit including the hugely popular video portal, Tonton,  and we are also the biggest operator of outdoor advertising.

When the Commonwealth came officially into being 65 years ago, the world was a totally different place all together. Except for the New Straits Times, none of our platforms were in existence at the time.

Today, the media has been transformed beyond recognition. It is no more just a medium to communicate thoughts and ideas, to disseminate news and information or to educate and entertain. Under current circumstances, understanding the medium is critical for Commonwealth leaders. The dynamics of the media realm must be understood together with the eco-system. New ideas – some bold, revolutionary and even out-of-the world – are redefining creativity and innovation.   

Personally I would like to see an invigorated Commonwealth – a born-again Commonwealth, rather than the one chugging along an old track on a one-way ticket, perhaps to the blues.

I believe the media (at least in some Commonwealth countries) are a lot more responsible and accountable than their counterparts elsewhere. We understand the predicament of nation-building for countries in the Commonwealth, as we are not born equal, with some being more equal than others.

We are the Fifth Estate, some would argue – the media as the whole. But we want to be accountable and responsible too. It pains us, the media, when we are viewed as hurtling out of control in our pursuit of righteousness and fairness. Or when we are accused of practising prurient journalism fixated with dubious methods to sell our papers or make people watch our TV stations or listen to our radio channels. We are accused of raucous chauvinism and unapologetic political incorrectness. We have to live with putting “quality profit before product quality” and allowing editorial judgement to be driven solely by market considerations or worse.

We have to live with that. 

But that has got nothing to do with our systematic disregard of the good things you guys have been doing so far. Who are we to judge how relevant or how effective the Commonwealth is as an organisation.

It has been 65 years since the London Declaration that initiated the formation of the Commonwealth. It is a short period in the history of mankind and a long period in the history of nations. Many of you were not even born then and many nations had yet to achieve Independence, including Malaysia. The Commonwealth was born with good intention.

We have seen sea changes of attitudes over those six decades, monumental transformations in societies, incredible progress in almost every aspect of human endeavour and changing landscapes in the capitals of these nations. And more importantly, a revolution in the ways we communicate, do business and socialise. The world has changed dramatically, for the better or for worse  since the Commonwealth was born.

Let’s take a look at the Malaysian experience. We won our Independence without bloodshed from the British, yet our forefathers were fully aware of the trials and tribulations of our fledgling nation – very few countries have the kind of racial and religious mix that can be lethal if badly managed. We are not perfect but we did the best to be where we are today. We have reasons to believe that we are indebted to the Commonwealth in more ways than one – for the air cover, for the understanding, for the assistance.

There were times when we were offered assistance in many forms, such as scholarships for our students via the Colombo Plan, but as we progressed, we seek little of such help. That alone is testimony of the route that we have taken – and a successful one at that.

But the generations familiar with the Commonwealth are being eclipsed by newer ones – the Gen X, the Millennials, the young. They constitute more than 60 per cent of the numbers, which is big. The Millennials are the “Me, Me, Me Generation”, as TIME magazine puts it. This is “the next great generation” after the Baby Boomers. Take notice: They will redefine societies, lifestyles, the economy and politics. They are changing the look and feel of nations. They are cool, hip, urbane and awesome! They are the selfie generation. 

Sadly, they are largely unaware of the Commonwealth or simply the Commonwealth is a term that is not part of the current lexicon. That must change!

Even for people of my generation, the Commonwealth remains a notion that keeps bubbling into our consciousness from time to time. We are fully aware of its existence, yet, unlike the “closer” ASEAN, the Commonwealth is more abstract and “further”. And drifting even further away with the years. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the diversity of the Commonwealth. ASEAN is equally diverse but it is a regional construct. There is little in common for people of Commonwealth nations to associate themselves with others situated in far-flung corners of the world. The Commonwealth is about Richistan (the land of the Rich) and millions of others living on less than RM16 a day.

We do not see much “connection” between the peoples of Barbados and Fiji, or Malaysia and Kiribati, or Tonga and Canada. It is about nations that we hardly hear of, even in today’s era of rampant connectivity.

We have to find a common ground then, a common bond that binds the member states. We have to find the “relevance” again, not just within the conceptual realm but in real, tangible, practical and pragmatic terms. We must find a reason to be relevant again if we believe in the Commonwealth.     

Let us ask ourselves – do we want the Commonwealth? If we do, how much importance are we going to give the organisation in our national consciousness? And among peoples of member nations? How critical is the Commonwealth to us? And how relevant is the Commonwealth?

I support the view that the Commonwealth of Nations must take a position based not on building upon the glory of the past but rather upon the opportunities of the future. I also believe that the Commonwealth must be pro-active in facing the realities of today and tomorrow. By prioritising its activities and not replicating programmes of the United Nations (UN), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and such, and by embracing good governance, practices and transparency, the Commonwealth can be more effective.

We need to redefine what the new goals, if any, are and to reaffirm the shared values among member nations. There are too many expectations of the Commonwealth, but too little resources and commitment to see these through; at least, that is the perception.

There is also the question of ownership. We must own the Commonwealth of Nations. Ownership is critical for its survival. Someone in Mata-Mata, New Zealand, or Muar in Malaysia, or some unheard of places in Pakistan, Zimbabwe or Lesotho must be proud to say that they own the Commonwealth. They are proud to be part of the Commonwealth. Of course, they have expectations and wants and the Commonwealth can’t accommodate every need, but then again, no organisation can. More importantly, being part of the Big Family of the Commonwealth should be good enough reason to ensure some semblance of respect for the organisation. 

These are pertinent questions and issues to ask ourselves for the sake of the future.
I believe we have no choice but to engage in an exercise of “rebooting” the Commonwealth, rethinking, restrategising and reaffirming it.

In fact, I seriously believe in resurrecting the Commonwealth. I hate to use the word rebranding – probably the most used and abused word in the English language today. But yes, for the sake of continuity and survival, we need that too.

We have to relook at what unites us despite our diversity. We have to acknowledge the cultural differences and the political realities. It is a tall order to suggest “thinking as one Commonwealth” but we certainly need that tagline to bind us, at least symbolically. Symbolism matters.

To say “we are one” for one-third of humanity can be presumptuous. To say we are “Commonwealth wallahs” for more than two billion people is astounding. To say that we need each other for a combined GDP worth RM32 trillion is an understatement. To say that the nations’ combined landmass covers a fourth of the world’s area is redundant. We are dealing with superlatives here.

The Commonwealth can be a force to be reckoned with. The Commonwealth combined can be a political, economic, even military superpower. But as I have said earlier, there is nothing common about the wealth and there is no reason for the Commonwealth to think as one. Or to act as one - except for the obligatory biennial CHOGM, the Commonwealth Games and the biennial conference of Capam. That must also change.

Nonetheless, just think of what we can do together! Take the case of Capam. I must take this opportunity to congratulate the Chief Secretary of the Government of Malaysia, Tan Sri Dr Ali Hamsa, for being appointed the President of Capam. This year’s conference coincides with the 20th anniversary of Capam, and this year marks the biggest Capam event ever held.

What is important is the networking for senior public servants within Capam. I believe the theme of this year’s conference, “Public Service Transformation: A New Conversation”, is apt, timely and appropriate. Mind the word: Conversation. Malaysia’s mantra of “transformation” initiated by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak, is contagious and seeing good results.

Transformation is needed for the Commonwealth to be more relevant and successful. In rebooting the Commonwealth, frankness and openness are required. The report by the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group in 2011 clearly stated the obvious, that the organisation had among other things “lost its relevance and was decaying due to lack of a mechanism to censure member countries when they violated human rights or democratic norms.”

The Group made 106 urgent recommendations. But the Commonwealth being the Commonwealth, these recommendations were relegated as annexes to meetings. A foreign minister intoned that the problem with the Commonwealth is not hostility or antagonism, it is simply “indifference.”

The media can have a field day pointing out that “indifference”, if we choose to. But then again, the Commonwealth is too exclusive a club to warrant the attention of the mainstream media or even the alternative media, on anything it does or decides. No one cares, or so it seems. 

With ASEAN harping on three pillars, that of security, socio-cultural and the economy, the Commonwealth has to find new areas of collaboration for now and the future.  These should be areas that are acceptable, beneficial and worthwhile. The Commonwealth must be realistic in its goals and pragmatic in its operations. It can’t promise the world.

Let’s try to shape at least a Commonwealth mindset. The Commonwealth is in dire need of an identity, I believe. Working towards Commonwealth ideals and understanding the dynamics is a good start.  We must put aside historical and cultural baggage to achieve this.
We understand the difficulties in asserting Commonwealth-ness. This is where the media can help:

  • . To contextualise and create Commonwealth consciousness;
  • . To ensure higher-level and quality interactions (people to people) that go beyond the    leaders;
  •   To provide the “trickle-down” effect to communities in the Commonwealth;
  • . To create Commonwealth bonding;
  • . To break cultural and political barriers in achieving its goals.

I reckon there is a need for People Power in the Commonwealth, of people reasserting the agenda, communicating and, as the case of Capam this year, having a “conversation”.

People matter in the Commonwealth – just like any supra-organisation. The Commonwealth have always been portraying itself as a people-centric organisation – kind of “People First” approach. So much have been done to ensure that over the six decades of its existence. But as usual, the “selling” part is always problematic. Despite having great narratives to tell, the Commonwealth have not been able to showpiece its achievements effectively.

From the media perspective, it is not at all surprising that organisations like the Commonwealth are notorious for vigorously launching great programmes, that even if it achieved the desired results, footnoted in the files of its implementers. And worst, articulating great slogans and concepts with little thought of how to follow through and make them relevant over the long term.

Key messages are lost in space, the 3Cs – Command, Control and Communication are never given serious attention. Consistent messaging – the hallmark for any plan – is not observed. In many cases what should have been the people’s movement became nothing more than key personnel doing all the rituals replete with photo-ops and TV cameras.

The Commonwealth leaders are in dire need to learn how to handle the press. Manage the press before it manages you. But besides pushing for events to be covered  by the media, very little planning on the overt and covert sides is done. The public acclaim and ownership are left to be desired. An opportunity to showcase an effective programme is lost. To be effective and to realise the full potentials of the plans, they need to discard a top-down approach and instead adopt a bottom-up methodology.

Having said that, all in not lost, at least not yet. Comparatively the UN is a league of elites and specialists talking in diplomatic mumbo-jumbo, trying to assure things that seldom work, work.  There is no veto power in CHOGM. There is no super power to tilt the equation. Yes, the wealth is not common, but at least we can speak on the same wavelength and on a level playing field. The European Union (EU) is bound by economic necessities more than anything else, thus the survival factor plays an important role.  

While I believe the EU is more effective, I personally have more hope in the Commonwealth than in the UN.

I believe the media can play a more constructive role to help “sell” the Commonwealth mindset and consciousness by having conversations with one another. We are too diverse – and too far away. We need to talk. I believe in the need for media practitioners of Commonwealth nations to have an association of its own – the Commonwealth Editors’ Group (CEG) or something like that. We must be one phone call, one SMS, one whatsApp, one FB away from each other. This is to complement the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) that has been in existence since 1978. And of course there is the Media Trusts of the Commonwealth Press Union (CPU), which I believe needs to be sustained and resuscitated.  I must stress an editors’ association to make a difference here.

There is a need, I believe, for inter-media dialogue. Mind you, it is a tall order considering the diversity of the media realm in member countries. Again, we need common ground and understanding here because the media is never created equal and the differing approaches in assessing their relationships to democracy and free press can be contentious. But on matters pertaining to improving democratic traditions, I am sure they have no quarrel.

In fact, I am suggesting a Capam-type conference as a platform for Commonwealth editors and journalists to start a healthy dialogue – not as a pressure group but to help promote the Commonwealth mindset and consciousness.

There is another area that has to be addressed – the realm of social media. It is a brave, yet scary, new world. Again, the Commonwealth is so diverse that there are places where people do not have access to the cyber world. Those who have, have a new arsenal of communication. It can be wisely used or otherwise. It can be a lawless world – where the worst of humans are manifested. Many take to the cyber world as a conduit to vent their anger against their leaders, their governments, and each other. They can be vicious, contemptuous and uncouth.

Humanity has never been this “enlightened” or “informed” in history, yet we have problems with the idea of enlightenment and information in trying times like these. The social media platforms are at times, sadly, not used wisely or judiciously as required of them as responsible citizens of the Net.

But we need the space too.

We need the media practitioners and the Netizens to be part of the Coalition of the Willing to bring us closer.

Media convergence can help us in promoting Commonwealth-ness.  Again, we must ensure that the notion of Commonwealth-ness should mean something for everyone, something that is not a matter of interpretation, conjecture and clever guesswork.

We, members of the media, want to help and we can. I speak on behalf of my colleagues here in Malaysia. We believe in the Commonwealth, but of course with understandable reservations and obvious caveats. We understand the challenges of an organisation such as this. And yes, we are living through a time of change, threats and challenges too.

The phrase used here is “under-reporting”, which means to report something that is less than it actually is. In our business, good news is bad news. The good news is that the Commonwealth must have done good things that elicit little negativity in reporting. The bad news is that it is largely being ignored for inaction, irrelevance or worse, thus very little news.

In Malaysia, one retires at 60. In other countries, the retirement age is 65. When the Commonwealth reaches that threshold, should it retire or withdraw from the international scene? Should we look at the Commonwealth, to quote a prominent figure, “as if standing around the bed of a mortally ill friend?” Let us admit that there are flaws and problems within the Commonwealth.

But let’s make it work.

The media would certainly want to see more activism, more reforms and transformation within the Commonwealth.

Bring us the exuberance of comradeship, the voices of real people and programmes that are changing their lives. Keep it vibrant, with new excitement and hopes. Prove the critics wrong – this is not a super organisation that can solve all the woes of nation states but an organisation that can help make the difference.

It should be what it was intended to be – yet to be resurrected and rebooted from being merely part of the statement of the past to the intention of the future.

We must vigorously pursue collaboration and cooperation in the true sense of the words. This pursuit should not be seen as merely a diplomatic obligation to get things done. It must be done with the best of reasons and results.

Bring back the ingenuity and aspiration that gave birth to the Commonwealth. Bring back the grit, determination and commitment of the forefathers who created this organisation. Show the spirit and the diversity that binds.

People have selfish reason to ask, “What is there for me?”, and that is unavoidable. Address that too.

More importantly, make the Commonwealth appealing, interesting, hip, even cool and sexy for the young.

I assure you, with those initiatives in place, under-reporting of the Commonwealth will be the thing of the past.


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