Of subliminal indoctrination, inept social media strategies

Summary:In a report I filed a couple of weeks ago, the Malaysian government, through ICT industry regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), blocked the airing of a public service announcement (PSA) urging citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote in Malaysia's next general election.

In a report I filed a couple of weeks ago, the Malaysian government, through ICT industry regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), blocked the airing of a public service announcement (PSA) urging citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote in Malaysia's next general election.

The PSA, called "Undilah", (which means "Please Vote" in Malay), is an attempt by an independent film maker and musician Pete Teo to highlight the need of all Malaysians above the voting age of 21-years of age to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Shot in black-and-white, Teo's video begins with a popular politician, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah narating, among other things, about the problems Malaysians face in the country, and how important it was for citizens to vote in the impending elections because Malaysians should love the country. Malaysia is due to call for election within a year.

The report noted that MCMC had asked two of the largest local broadcasters to pull off the broadcast but at the time of that report, no reasons were given as to why MCMC had been asked to do that.

Since then, several developments have emerged, with MCMC attempting to explain itself as to why it did what it did. Two politicians have also weighed in on the matter, including the minister in charge of communications.

The industry regulator had noted in a press statement that it blocked the broadcast because the four-and-a-half-minute clip had ostensibly "yet to obtain approval from the Film Censorship Board", which is under the purview of the Home Ministry, not the Communications Ministry. "As such, the PSA should not have been aired on TV until approval is obtained," read the MCMC statement.

Later in the week, the Member of Parliament of Kota Belud, a constituency in Sabah, East Malaysia, alleged that the video clip had scenes in which negative innuendos about the government were being shown.

MP Abdul Rahman Dahlan pointed out that certain scenes appeared to be "not so pleasant to BN, the ruling coalition", reported news portal, The Malaysian Insider (TMI). "There are some elements that ridicule the establishment." Finally, the Communications Minister himself commented on, and outright branded the clip as having elements that were against the incumbent government. The video, he said, was unsuitable for broadcast as it contains "subliminal messages" aimed at influencing viewers.

While analyzing these recent developments, one can't help but wonder about the various comical scenarios that have arisen out of this entire debacle.

Firstly, the jurisdictional issue. In Malaysia, the broadcast industry is not regulated by MCMC but by the Home Ministry. So what business does the MCMC has in pulling the broadcast of the clip in the first place is anybody's guess. Perhaps it can be argued that since Teo's clip first came out over the Internet, the MCMC was consulted on the matter.

But even if this were the case, the reasoning doesn't seem to jive with the one given, that is, it's an issue with censorship. If indeed the clip had not yet been given the green light, it isn't within the purview of the MCMC to do anything about it. Should not the Home Ministry be in charge of that?

To make matters worse, Teo, the producer of the video told TMI that he hadn't even applied for approval from the Film Censorship Board in the first place, so why is there a need to overreact? "We haven't got approval because we haven't applied for it. There is no need to apply for it when we haven't even spoken to the broadcasters," he was quoted in local news portal Malaysiakini.

This inconsistency in dealing with the issue shows that the government may have acted hastily and not thought through what should be the appropriate action, thereby, giving the perception that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. 

Secondly is the alleged negative innuendos that exist in the clip, the most significant of which was brought up by Abdul Rahman. The MP charged that Teo had mischievously included the character of Jabba the Hutt, a fictional character from the Star Wars movie, but allegedly juxtaposed it against the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, implying that the scene mocked him.

"It's just a zany thing I do in all my videos. Does this mean that other people sitting at the bus stop are also mocking the PM? I'd like them to explain to me how it insults him," Teo told TMI, adding that he had pears randomly appearing in previous videos he produced.

To me, these missteps by the government--and its officials--only go to show that it is increasingly worried about the power of Internet-media and the reach and impact it has on the electorate.

But perhaps the most damning thing is the fact that the incumbent government doesn't understand how to deal with the new media except to keep applying a previously tried-and-tested technique of censorship in a bid to curb the impact of such a viral video. Case in point: By vilifying Teo's video and suggesting that it has subliminal messages that have been mischievously inserted into the video, serves only to draw more attention to that scene which might otherwise not have happened in the first place.

It's apparent that the battle for the hearts and minds of Malaysia's next general election will be fought significantly more in cyberspace than it did back in 2008, when the opposition managed to increase the number of seats in Parliament by almost four-fold.

With the democratization of the tools new media has brought to the world, more and more people are being reached through the viral ways of the new and social media. And censoring the media isn't going to win the government any favors.

The faster the government learns this, the better it is for the country.

Topics: Asean


An engineer by training, Edwin first cut his teeth as a cellular radio frequency optimization engineer in one of Malaysia's largest telcos. After more than five years, he hung up his radio engineering boots to try his hand at technology reporting at The Star, Malaysia's leading English daily, where he won several awards for Best Online Te... Full Bio

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