Cabinet meeting tomorrow should end the unseemly and divisive row over Astro’s foreign Chinese and Tamil channels which is against Malaysia’s development as an Information Society and may lead to a new racial polarisation

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): The week-long controversy over Astro’s four Chinese channels and one Tamil channel  initiated by the Utusan Malaysia has gone long enough and the Cabinet meeting tomorrow should end the unseemly and divisive row which is against Malaysia’s development as an Information Society and may lead to a new racial polarisation in the country.

It would be most regrettable if this issue is used by certain UMNO politicians who are worried about their winning chances in the UMNO party elections in May  to try to boost up their political stocks - which would again provide another example that national interests and the nation-building process in particularly are under threat at every UMNO power tussle.

It does not escape notice that among the UMNO Cabinet Ministers who have tried to exploit the political capital from the controversy over Astro’s foreign Chinese and Tamil channels is the incumbent Wanita UMNO leader, Datuk Dr. Siti Zaharah Sulaiman.

As Minister for National Unity and Community Development, Siti Zaharah should be the first Cabinet Minister to be sensitive as to how the Astro controversy could undermine national unity of Malaysians of diverse races, languages and cultures, but at present her Ministerial responsibility is secondary to her  first preoccupation as to  how she is going to beat off the challenge  from her predecessor, the Minister for International Trade and Industry, Datuk Paduka Rafidah Aziz for the top UMNO Wanita post.

What is most regrettable and unhealthy about the Astro row is that it is directed at the four Chinese channels featuring programmes from Hong Kong and Taiwan and one Tamil channel, while no mention was made of the station's  over twenty channels featuring American and European films.

If foreign Chinese programmes are objectionable as being a form of  neo-colonialsm, then this should be extended to all foreign programmes, regardless of language.  If this principle is applied, then Astro will have to close down for apart from RTM 1 and 2 and TV3, there would not be any programme left for Astro to transmit and  nobody would be interested to subscribe to Astro just to watch RTM 1, 2 and TV3.

As the attack on Astro’s foreign programmes is focussed only on the Chinese and Tamil channels and not on the over 20 channels beaming American and English programmes, the motive and agenda of the campaign is highly suspect.

The imputations made against the Chinese and Tamil communites, suggesting that they are chauvinistic and even doubting their loyalty to Malaysia, must be deplored in the strongest possible terms.

So long as the loyalty of the Chinese and Tamils in Malaysia are praised sky-high before every general election, but are openly doubted and challenged before every UMNO party election, Malaysia cannot be said to have succeeded  in the Malaysian nation-building process - and the problem lies not with  the ordinary  people of all races  but in the political leadership of  the Barisan Nasional, particularly in UMNO.

If the logic of those  who are in the forefront of  the campaign against Astro’s Chinese and Tamil channels are to be followed to its logical conclusion, all the other foreign Astro channels must not only be closed down, Malaysia should abandon its "No Interrnet Censorship" guarantee to the world, shut down the Internet  if this is possible,  block foreign influences, films, publications and even  foreign tourists  from entry into Malaysia and even inhibit Malaysians from going overseas - in other words, turn Malaysia into a new "hermit" nation.

In Iran, after the victory of the reformists in the parliamentary elections last month, the reformers have  pledged to end the ban  on satellite dishes to permit a free flow of information necessary for a civil and democratic society.

It is most ironical that in Malaysia, which claims to be more open and democratic than Iran, and which has made a promise to the world of no Internet censorship, attempts are being made by certain quarters to stem the free flow of information which is the very essence of   the  "No Internet Censorship" guarantee.

Complaints and criticisms about the lack of local Chinese and Tamil programmes on Astro are legitimate, but this cannot be used to demand the discontinuation of the existing four foreign Chinese and Tamil channels unless the discontinuation is extended all foreign programmes,  which would cover virtually all the Astro channels.

The suspicious motives and agenda of those behind the current Astro controversy is highlighted  by another inconsistency when they attacked the Chinese channels for transmitting foreign news bulletins - but they not only did not demand that Astro should also cease transmission of English news programmes from other Astro channels, whether CNN, CNBC or  Bloomberg, they had also never supported the campaign that local television stations should telecast  fair and proper Chinese-language news programmes. Up to now, for instance, TV3 has not transmitted any Mandarin news programmes.

The Cabinet tomorrow should end this row which can do no good for nation-building in the new millennium.

In order to make the local television stations more competitive with foreign channels, the Cabinet should direct them to overhaul their television programme policy including the transmission of attractive news programmes in Mandarin and Tamil at proper time slots.

Meanwhile, ASTRO should be directed  to introduce a new channel on local Chinese and Tamil  programmes instead of being attacked for having foreign Chinese and Tamil channels.

Finally, the Cabinet should warn UMNO leaders not to jeopardise the nation-building process and the larger national interests in their campaign for the upcoming party elections in May.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman