The Journey of a Journalist (Part 5C) -GLOBAL CITIZEN: FROM PENANG TO DOWN UNDER
Posted on September 29th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

On the last Sunday of November 1974, just after my parents had left Malaysia to return to Sri Lanka, an incident that occurred at the beachside garden of Rasa Sayang Hotel in Batu Ferrenghi devastated me””‚a clear reminder that exceeding the middle path would rebound in accelerating dukkha.

 Leslie Allen, an avuncular New Zealander teaching on USM campus, and I used to frequent the northern coastal strip of Pulau Pinang (Penang Island) to relax and enjoy sumptuous food at the Lone Pine Hotel or the Rasa Sayang on Sundays. I was relaxing on an easy chair in the company of many European tourists, oblivious to my “Weligama Podda” cultural heritage, when “a discourteous attendant” asked me to vacate the chair because I was not a hotel guest. Allen was spared such embarrassment because he was white.

 Stirring public opinion

Apparently, my skin color did not please the attendant. I realized that the “color bar” I experienced in Houston, Texas, in the summer of 1966 raised its ugly head in unexpected places  

I reported the incident to the hotel manager. I also expressed my displeasure through Malaysian publications so I could stir up public opinion.

The Asean Review (March 8, 1976), edited by Errol de Silva, published my version of the episode under the title “There was this camel …” The Bintang Timur (March 31) daily   carried a translation of it under the heading “‘Apartheid’ di Batu Ferrenghi?” Columnist Khor Cheang Kee of the New Straits Times (March 13, 1976) commented on the same incident in his Penang Perspective headlined “East meets West on Penang’s tourist beaches.” The column dealt with discrimination against Asians at beach hotels in Penang, particularly my experience at Rasa Sayang. [In an earlier Penang Perspective column (Nov. 8, 1975), Khor had commented on the points I raised in a letter on traffic, queues and banks.]

This incident provided raw material for my public relations class to explore “discrimination” against coloreds by the coloreds in tourist hotels in Penang. The “brainwashing” or avijjƒÆ’-¾ resulting from the cluster of co-arising factors associated with colonialism and imperialism has done irreparable damage to the Asians’ image of fellow Asians. I also talked about it in my Public Opinion course recalling the exclusively European swimming pool in Colombo during my Lake House days.

I stirred Malaysian public opinion on another issue: the abnormally high fares the taxi drivers imposed on airline passengers for transportation to and from Subang Airport in Kuala Lumpur. Only air-conditioned taxis served the airport thereby raising the fares. The Star published my letter under the headline “‘Vultures’ preying upon airline passengers (Jan. 2, 1976) while the Straits Echo published it the same day under the headline “It’s a farce! Subang’s taxi “ƒ”¹…”vultures’ are having their way.” Five days later, the New Straits Times also published the letter under the heading “Where are the poor man’s taxis?”

Within a week, the Straits Echo carried a news story (Jan. 7) about action taken by the Ministry of Works and Transport to increase the number of non-airconditioned taxis at the airport.  The Echo (Jan. 9) and the Star (Jan. 12) also published a response to my letter written by Tan Beng Hoe of the Road Transport Licensing Board. He advised that a fleet of 20 non-airconditioned taxis would be added to serve Subang.

Happier Days

Late June 1975, I made a presentation on “Cultural and religious symbols and the diffusion of new ideas” to the participants of a communications seminar organized by USM and the Ministry of Information. I received M$150 for the presentation.

From my perspective, things on campus were getting better. Under the new contract (based on Harun Commission recommendations), which I signed, my salary would go up but not exceed M$1,900 a month. [On Dec. 6, 1974, Sharom Ahmat, our eccentric dean, had sent me what I inferred as “a discourteous” memorandum asking me to give written notice if I planned to leave in June. I sent a reply to the dean, with copies to the registrar and to the communications coordinator, that I did not plan to leave my position in June. It was the tone of the letter, not the substance, which created my negative impression. I do not know whether he used the same wording in similar letters to other expatriate faculty. All I know is that my fellow lecturer Marvin Bowman decided to give notice of his intention to leave.]

UNESCO consultant Leslie Sargent was a good coordinator. He succeeded in restoring faculty goodwill and cooperation.  Sargent gave the Bowmans a farewell at his (Sargent’s) Tanjong Tokong home, and welcomed two other expatriates””‚Ronny Adhikarya, a brilliant and ambitious young Indonesian (who later joined  the World Bank after getting a doctorate from Stanford); and Richard Baker, a visiting professor(for one term) from Columbia U School of Journalism””‚to teach in the communications program.

Ranggasamy Karthigesu, an Indian Malaysian, had also been recruited for a lectureship. Karthigesu (who obtained a doctorate in mass communication from the University of Leicester in 1991 and served as professor and head of the department of film and television) often joined me to play badminton.

In early July, Adhikarya, Baker and I conducted interviews with students who wanted to major in communications.

In May 1975, the Association for Education in Journalism published my work titled “The Taming of the Press in Sri Lanka” (Journalism Monographs No. 39), which updated and expanded on an earlier article, “Government-Press conflict in Ceylon: Freedom versus Responsibility” (Journalism Quarterly, Autumn 1970).

Leader, the Malaysian Journalism Review (Vol. 3 No. 2, 1974) carried my analysis of style errors in Malaysian newspapers. [In retrospect, this was a silly attempt on my part to reify the Associated Press wire-service style as the standard for the entire world.].  IPI Report and Media were also publishing my articles on the press. Amic in Singapore was taking steps to publish in 1976 a condensed version of my dissertation as a communication monograph.

The New Straits Times published a story headlined “NST Group’s edge for local news in English” with the kick-off “Analysis of news content by university expert” (Jan. 10, 1976). I was the expert in question. The story reflected the NST’s slant on an article I wrote for the November 1975 issue of IPI Report titled Malaysian press content analyzed.”

 An Asian contagion

An essay titled “An Asian contagion” published in the summer 1976 issue of the Index on Censorship articulated my evolving philosophy on press-government relationship. I saw a connection between in-family power concentration (e.g., the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, the Bhuttos in Pakistan) and press censorship. I deplored the prevalent censorship in Malaysia and Singapore that marred the principles of democratic governance. I urged Asians who had faith in democracy to cultivate “public opinion in their countries to stop the spread of this contagion.”

On reflection, I have to concede that rights cannot exist without concomitant responsibilities within the framework of Asian philosophy. The notion of (human) rights sans responsibilities is a Western philosophical construct based on a transcendental faith in individual sovereignty. Asian philosophy reflects the ti-lakkhana“”‚impermanence, interdependence and unsatisfactoriness. Press freedom is a “right” that Asian press barons misused, as in Ceylon, to achieve their political ends thereby provoking retaliation and censorship. They did not pay attention to the responsibilities built into the exercise of that right. I will dwell on this matter in a later sketch analyzing my scholarship.

 Drifting to Oz

 Although I was getting cozy with Penang enjoying a level of middle-path bliss, I knew that the Malaysian law would not permit me to hold my job beyond the contract period even though I was to get married to a Malaysian citizen. I was a mere stop-gap for a bhumiputra in training. I could not avoid anicca. Thus, I decided to move to Australia for my next job””‚a lectureship at the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education (later Central Queensland University) in Rockhampton. The CIAE sponsored me for Australian residence.

I submitted my resignation to USM on Feb. 16, 1976. The registrar accepted it on Feb. 19.   I completed my duties by the end of the second term.   The day before the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda, the three monks at the Mahindarama Temple blessed Yoke Sim and me with pirith chanting before exchanging rings in an informal engagement ceremony.  

I left Malaysia on April 22 and reached Sydney on May 1. I explored Jakarta, Bandung, Jogjakarta, Denpasar and Kuta Beach in between. After two days each in Sydney and Brisbane, I landed in Rockhampton on May 5. 

 Post Script 

Let me give a synopsis of the evolution of the USM communication program to which I had the privilege of making a modest contribution thanks to the free education I received courtesy of the people of my motherland and the special training I received in America.

 Communication Studies began at USM in 1971, three years before my arrival. It evolved from a major in the School of Humanities to a bachelor of communication degree in 1985. Thus, I became a pioneer player in the dynamics that produced the evolution of the program.

Two decades after my departure, USM established a School of Communication in 1995 and implemented a new undergraduate curriculum offering three areas of specializations: journalism, film and broadcasting, and persuasive communication. In 2000, it expanded the postgraduate programs to offer a Master of Arts (communication) via mixed mode, master of communication (screen studies) and master of communication (science and environmental journalism) via coursework. These taught programs complemented the research-based Master of Arts (communication) and doctor of philosophy.

 Next: Part 6A Phase of Oz””‚Orientalism and Eurocentrism

[The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He dedicates this installment to the memory of his father, the late Don William Abeywickreme Gunaratne (1909-1975).]

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