The Journey of a Journalist (Part 12B) – EXAMINING IN BANGI AND OBSERVING CHANGES
Posted on November 14th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

As the external examiner in communication studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in the summer of 1997, I agreed to perform two tasks:

  1. To submit a report evaluating the UKM communication studies program based on criteria relevant to Asia in general, and Malaysia in particular.
  2. To teach a three-hour graduate class in International Communication on Saturdays, and to participate in other activities benefitting Malaysia.

Safar put me up in his old office because he was enjoying the office facilities of the department chair. He also gave me daily rides to campus and return rides home almost every work day. On days when our schedules clashed, I would either take a bus ride or hitchhike.

During the first few days, I got to know many of the faculty, mostly female. On the first day, I met Asiah Sarji, an outgoing lecturer who spent much of her time in the main office. The next day, lecturer Faridah Ibrahim, whom I had met before, dropped by for a chat. Safar also introduced me to lecturer Umi Malika Khattab, a Sri Lankan married to an Algerian. I also exchanged greetings with Rahmah Hashim and deputy dean Samsudin Rahim. Subsequently, Safar introduced me to Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences.

About a week after my arrival, Safar and I spent some time to discuss the applicability of the criteria used by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications for evaluating the UKM program. Following a communication department meeting on July 2, Safar conveyed me the news that the faculty had decided not to accept the ACEJMC criteria for evaluating the UKM program. On July 4, I interviewed deputy dean Samsudin Rahim, a PhD in communication from Wisconsin, to ascertain his views on the UKM program. On July 9, I attended a departmental meeting (with Asiah, Faridah, Safar and Umi participating) to discuss the UKM communication course structure. The next morning, I had a conversation with Syed Arabi Idid, a senior communications professor, to pick up his views. I also wanted to know the student opinion on the UKM program. On July 21, I interviewed two Indian students.

I tried to make sense of all the interviews I conducted when I assumed the role of journalist-scholar and started word processing my report to the vice chancellor on Aug. 2. I finished writing my report on Aug. 10. I invited Safar to visit me that evening and offer suggestions. He did. I spent Aug. 12 afternoon refining my report. In its final form, the report turned out to be a 5,000-word document””‚23 pages, double-spaced.

On the last Friday (Aug. 15) of my stint at UKM, Safar joined me in the afternoon to meet with Dean Shamsul to discuss my external examiner’s report. The next morning at 7.30, Safar and I visited the vice chancellor, Dato Mohd Sham Mohd Sani, to whom I formally submitted my report. We spent about a half-hour discussing the report.

The UKM communication faculty held a lengthy meeting Aug. 20. Later, Safar told me that “the reception to the [external examiner’s] report was positive.” I do not know what impact my report had on the subsequent developments in the UKM communication program. But I do know that UKM elevated the department of communication into the present school (pusat pengajian) of media and communication studies (PPMK) with Latiffah Pawanteh as its first chairperson when it restructured its faculties in 2001. The school offers three undergraduate programs””‚media and communication, which combined two major sequences””‚print and broadcasting; communication and information management, which combined elements of PR and advertising with courses of ICT faculty;  and communication and public policy, which combined development communication with part of political science. The post-graduate program was revamped and renamed  communication management at master’s level. PhD is still full thesis.

The current chairperson of the school is Faridah Ibrahim.

In a recent letter, Safar asserted that the restructuring hit the department “like a tsunami; we were almost swept away for good.”

 Teaching and Lecturing

I enjoyed teaching the graduate course in International Communication though my mature-age students were not dedicated to attending class on Saturdays. The class attracted eight students on the first day, but two dropped out before the next meeting; and the class size remained at that level. Safar joined me to listen to my lectures and enliven the discussions.

The first class meeting was on June 21 (2 p.m. – 5 p.m.), the day my family arrived in Malaysia to join me. [My family””‚Yoke Sim, Junius and Carmel””‚were shopping in Kajang while I was teaching.] Safar helped me to conduct the laboratory component that preceded the lecture at the second class meeting on June 28. [After the class, I joined my family to visit Yoke Sim’s mother and siblings in Petaling Jaya. Incidentally, this was a rare occasion that my children were meeting their Chinese kith and kin.]

I used the lab period of the next class meeting to teach how to produce tables and graphics with Microsoft Word to illustrate the data discussed in scholarly essays. The fourth class meeting (July 12) attracted only three students probably because our meeting clashed with the Convocation. The fifth class meeting (July 19) coincided with the departure of my family back to the United States. Four attended the sixth class meeting (July 26).

 To ensure that I could cover all the needed content before my departure, I conducted two sessions of the class on Aug. 2″”‚seventh meeting from 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., and eighth meeting from 2 “”…” 4 in the afternoon.  The class met for the ninth meeting on Aug. 9 afternoon, when we discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the related covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights. Asiah, who attended part of the class proceedings, expressed regret that she failed to attend my public lecture on “News values versus social responsibility” Thursday afternoon. I concluded my lectures to IC class at their tenth and final meeting Aug. 16. Safar helped me grade the papers submitted by students who completed the IC course.

I had the opportunity to participate in the “World views on human rights” symposium on Aug. 15 morning. I drew on the U.S. Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the constitution) to illustrate core human rights. My current view, however, is that no rights exist without reciprocal responsibilities.

On July 23 evening, I addressed a gathering of more than 80 communication students at the neighboring Universiti Putra Malaysia, Serdang. My topic was “News values versus social responsibility: A conflict arising from Occidental cosmology.” I gave the speech on the invitation of Mohd Salleh Hassan, chairman of UPM’s communication department.

 Grateful old students

I was delighted to see a handful of Malaysians who introduced themselves to me as my former USM students. I ran into three of them at a digital photography exhibition at Renaissance Palm Garden Hotel, Putrajaya, on July 19 evening. One was Abdul Rahman Suleiman, then MP for Parit Buntar, Perak. The second was Dr. Azmudin Ibrahim. The third was Nayan Ahmad, managing director, Incas.

Fatimah Saad, who introduced herself as a USM student of mine at the Amic conference, invited me to visit her office on July 31. A vehicle from the National Population and Family Development Board took me to the LAPKN Building in Kuala Lumpur. Fatimah, who retired as director-general of NPFBD in 2006, introduced me to another of my former USM students, Azman Amin bin Hassan, an official of the Department of National Unity.

Brenda Marshall, another former USM student of mine who worked as a marketing support executive for the New Straits Times (before she became the chief operating officer of Scicom Academy) invited me for dinner (Aug. 17) with her family and a few other visitors at her home in Petaling Jaya. Brenda’s husband Vishwa gave me a ride back to Bangi.    

Mohd Safar Hasim of UKM and Eric Loo of the University of Wollongong were the only two former USM students who kept in touch with me after becoming journalism and communication educators. Safar paid his dues by inviting me back to Malaysia and devoting a lot of time and attention to my needs. On Aug. 21, Safar and the rest of communication faculty at UKM gave me a sendoff luncheon at Hotel Equatorial.

To enjoy the nostalgia of my adventures  in Penang more than two decades ago, I and my family took a train trip to Butterworth on July 13 and stayed a couple of days in Batu Ferrenghi at Rasa Sayang, the very hotel that “discriminated” against me (see Part 5C). My long-standing American buddy Jim Bowers and his wife Kathleen were our companions on this trip. The next day, I took my son Junius and daughter Carmel to show the USM campus where their dad, the erstwhile “Weligama Podda,” worked in the mid-“ƒ”¹…”70s. Khor Yoke Lim, an associate professor who was a student of mine at USM, showed us around the campus in her car. I could hardly recognize the building where I had my office. The day before we left Penang, we visited the Mahindarama Buddhist Temple. The monk we met was a stranger, and the temple premises had changed. The truth of anicca reverberated again.

 In the Public Sphere

 I documented my impressions on Malaysia at the end of my second sojourn in a letter published in the New Straits Times (Aug. 28, 1997). It highlighted the following points:

  • Malaysia has features of both the First and Third World. The North-South Expressway, the Petronas Twin Towers and the Multimedia Super Corridor, among others, are indeed features of the First World. The rush-hour chaos at the Pudu Raya bus station and the vicinity reflects the Third World at its worst.
  • The automobile toll from Kuala Lumpur to Bangi via the Kajang exit, a distance of about 35km, is a hefty RM3.20 (return). How exactly PLUS worked out the hefty toll rates may remain a mystery to the ordinary motorist. Its reasoning could have been: If you are rich enough to own a motor vehicle, you certainly can afford to pay the toll we demand. This is a classic case of monopoly. I hope that a review of the toll rates will be held soon.
  • The world’s tallest twin towers now happen to be in Kuala Lumpur. Some Western observers have turned sarcastic because of jealousy and envy. Occidental cosmology dictates that progress is limited to the Centre (First World), not the Periphery (Third World). Asia at the end of the 20th century is ready to prove that progress is not the prerogative of the West, which has dominated the world through a series of historical accidents.
  • Westerners have also turned sarcastic about Malaysia’s attempt to leapfrog into the Information Age through the multi-billion dollar Multimedia Super Corridor and Indonesia’s attempt to do the same through Nusantara 21. These initiatives are required in order to be competitive in today’s world. However, as Occidental cosmology has it, only the Centre has the God-given capacity to lead the world. Let us not fall victim to this conceited viewpoint. Malaysia should make every effort to make the fruits of its technological achievements available to its ordinary citizens instead of giving in to the extravagant profit motivation of private enterprise. What we need is a humane capitalism consistent with Asian religious beliefs, not the greed of Occidental capitalism.
  • The boarding area at the Pudu Raya bus station and similar terminals elsewhere in Malaysia should be improved. It’s a shame that the air-conditioned express bus station suffers from poor planning. After descending the staircase to board a bus, a passenger has no fume-free area to wait in comfort. Also, why is it so difficult to get passengers to queue up at clearly designated bus stops? I suggest that each bus stop have a signboard carrying the bus number and the various stops along the route and, if possible, a timetable of departures. No out-of-town passenger should have to guess which bus stop will lead to where. Let there be facilities to queue up so that no one can jump the queue.
  • Malaysia, which wants to attract tourists and foreign investors, may have to concede that, like it or not, English is the global language. Intense nationalism in the last three decades has resulted in the exclusive use of Bahasa Malaysia for various public signboards. We should take steps to provide bilingual signboards wherever possible to make matters easier for everyone. Malaysians need not follow the example of the French, who refuse to recognize English as the global language. We should be astute enough to understand that English is no longer a language exclusive to the occidental imperialists. The people of Malaysia, India and China have developed their own versions of English as well.

I quoted this letter almost in full because much of it is pertinent to contemporary Sri Lanka as well, particularly with regard to public transportation and the new expressways.

 Excursus

I received the following letter from Mohd Safar Hasim on Oct. 4, 2009:

Your writings brought [me] a nostalgic feeling about Sri Lanka.

I went to Colombo, if I am not mistaken in 1995, to present a paper on Press Council.

I stayed at Oberoi Hotel in the town centre (not far from [the] Malay settlement called Slave Island). The day I arrived, a human bomb exploded in front of the Defence Ministry. Otherwise, everything was normal in Colombo.

The thing I remembered most was when a five-piece band played “ƒ”¹…”Negaraku’ in a very melodious way. You would remember that “ƒ”¹…”Negaraku’ [My Country] is Malaysia’s national anthem. I enquired from the band players how they came to know about the music. They said it was a song taught to them [by] Indonesian sailors in the 1960s. It was a love song. I told them it was Malaysia’s national anthem. I took some pictures, and wrote a letter to editor (New Straits Times).

One more thing. The first Malay newspaper (in Jawi script) was Alamat Langkapuri (alamat is address, Lanka is Sri Lanka and puri is town). This could mean Dateline Sri Lanka (or Colombo?) was published in Sri Lanka in 1862, some  four or five years earlier than Jawi Peranakan published in Singapore.  Another publication called Wajah Silong (The Face of Ceylon) was published at about the [same] time. 

I made a copy of the Alamat Langkapuri ( complete series). But the words are difficult to decipher. Although in Jawi, it was not all in Malay. There was a mixture of Indonesian words. Many of the Malays living in Slave Island came from Indonesia, especially from Islands east of Java, Amboyna. Some were from Malaysia. They were supposed to be banished by the Dutch to Sri Lanka. (But why the Dutch when Sri Lanka was under the British? Got to check this).

 Next””‚Epilogue: “The Journey of a Journalist.” 

“Travels of a journalist” will appear from time to time.

[The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.  He dedicates this installment to the memory of the villagers extraordinaire of Pathegama who nurtured him (“Weligama Podda”) as a promising child but did not live long enough to see him grow into a global citizen.]

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