COMMENT BY WONG CHUN WAI
NEWLY-appointed Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Chik still stays in an apartment. The Terengganu politician insists he hasn’t changed, and will not.
“I have just told my colleagues at Angkasapuri not to ask me to give away prizes at a radio station music awards presentation,” he said.
“You don’t see the US president giving away Grammy awards. It’s better that a name like M. Nasir be invited.
“Let’s leave entertainment to people who know it best. That would be my last award.”
Shabery has also given another instruction to his staff at Angkasapuri – there is no need for him to be in the news bulletin, unless it is newsworthy.
“My ratings may go up, but the station’s ratings would go down,” he joked to senior newspaper editors at a lunch on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur.
In short, RTM will now focus on news, not personalities, to ensure Malaysians are well informed, and to stop the practice of making the Information Minister the “No 3 Man” in the order of news priority after the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. That’s not all.
He has pressed the right buttons so far, including acknowledging the growing importance of the alternative media by saying he would meet with bloggers.
But the group of seasoned newsmen was also quick to remind him that newly-elected politicians often took office with much promises and enthusiasm but along the way forgot the pledges they made, regardless of their political allegiance.
Shabery has one of the most difficult portfolios in the Cabinet.
As Information Minister, he has control over RTM and Bernama, the national news agency, and other information departments.
But it is Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar who has more clout, as the annual renewal of newspaper permits comes under his purview, while private television stations are answerable to Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor.
Still, at Cabinet meetings, the views of Shabery, who used to contribute articles to newspapers, would be sought when it comes to issues relating to the media. Just like his predecessor Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin.
Shabery is one of the youngest ministers, and certainly one of the most open-minded. It is a plus point, because the old rules are no longer applicable after the March 8 political tsunami.
The Barisan Nasional, especially Umno, and the Government, must realise that it can no longer be business as usual.
It would be foolish for the Barisan to dismiss the electoral setbacks as merely temporary, and to expect a massive swing to the coalition in four years.
Malaysians have not just spoken up, but have made massive changes to the political system, too.
They want the old ways to go. They also want the media to change; and there are options they can turn to, including the New Media.
At the luncheon, Shabery said that one of the reasons the people did not support the Barisan in the elections was that they did not understand issues such as the rising fuel prices.
A better approach would be the way the media disseminates information.
For a start, Shabery should attempt to reform RTM along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is state financed but has maintained its independence.
It would not be easy, and the Cabinet may not agree with him, but he has to try new approaches to change from within.
He must also fight to remove the laws affecting the media such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which has become obsolete in the present time with tools such as the SMS on mobile phones and with the Internet.
The annual permit for newspapers is like a shackle to the print media; and, worse, it makes the Government look bad.
There are enough laws, such as the Sedition Act, and civil suits against newspapers and bloggers. So, let’s remove the ones that impede press freedom.
At a time when the PKR-DAP-PAS coalition are making populist changes in the states they control, the Federal Government must be prepared to show it is more open and ready to make radical reforms.
Removing laws that hinder press freedom is not a sign of weakness or bowing to pressure, but a sign of strength – that the Government listens to the people.
Shabery seems to be ready to adopt fresh approaches, and just as the PKR-DAP-PAS state governments must be given a chance to perform, let’s see how Shabery intends to carry out reforms in an age regarded as the new politics of Malaysia.