29 August 2005

Wednesday August 24, 2005

Another take on reality shows


The other day, while reading the newspaper, a light bulb went off in my head (not a common occurrence). It dawned on me that there must be no stupid people in Malaysia.

How did something so profound occur to me so suddenly? I figured that everyone who merits a quotation in our papers must be very smart, no matter what they said, because surely otherwise the media would not quote them.

It occurred to me that if a person with some sort of title says something, and the papers actually take them seriously, they must have at least some modicum of intelligence. Otherwise surely the appropriate reaction is to fall down laughing. But there they are, all over our papers, taken very seriously indeed by our media as if they were founts of genuine wisdom.

Is it only me who thinks it is supremely ironic that while various government types are denouncing reality shows as unIslamic and should be haram – especially because there are open demonstrations of affection between people – those on the other side of the political fence are happily wooing the winner to their state to give concerts to his fans there? How weird is it that someone who spouted a government slogan (albeit unconvincingly) on the show should then accept hospitality offers from the Opposition?

I am not one of those people who cannot go out on Saturday nights because I have to get my weekly dose of tears. But I did take a belated interest in this show because I think it is something of a phenomenon with all sorts of social implications. It is a show about dreams where ordinary people, the kids of the average Malaysian with the slightest glimmer of talent, can become famous. People of all walks of life follow this real life drama every week, willing their favourites to make it (and of course helping them along with millions of SMSes.)

One look at the audience every week will tell you that to cast aspersions on any of the contestants is to risk alienating a substantial portion of the population. Not only the mothers and aunts in the audience adore these kids but also thousands of others at home. Witness the tumultuous welcome they received when they went home, even the ones who didn’t win.

Has someone forgotten that these are voters? Why on earth do we alienate them?

I think we need some perspective about reality shows. By all means, we should not copy everything blindly especially the more useless ones where one has to find the perfect man or woman from a selection of pretty dubious candidates. Or the ones where they test couples’ fidelity to each other by putting all sorts of temptation in the way.

But what exactly is the harm of these talent shows? Oh sorry, there were some wise words about how cavorting on stage with the opposite sex makes one want to take drugs. (Personally I think you need to take drugs to be able to watch some of the cavorting.) Does everything lead to bad stuff? Does everything have to be immoral? Aren’t our people able to simply have fun?

I’m sorry, I refuse to think that the makciks in the AF audience are participating in immorality. What are we saying about their darling Mawi? He likes nasyid and girls who wear the tudung, after all.

I think it’s not a bad thing to have reality shows that have some educational value beyond the purely voyeuristic appeal. It would be interesting to have a Malaysian version of The Apprentice though I’m not sure I can think of a local Donald Trump. Besides what are they going to teach besides needing to know all the right people?

Would it be too much to ask that we read about really smart people in our media? Or aren’t the really smart people saying anything? Are we afraid that that old saying about keeping your mouth shut when you don’t know anything rather than opening it and confirming to everyone that it’s true actually holds water? But then there are any number of people who are happy to spout off on everything, while at the same time denying other people the right to say anything about their so-called area of expertise. Why on earth should we treat them with such reverence?

Unless they are right, we’re too stupid to tell the difference.

12 August 2005

Wednesday August 10, 2005

Let them speak


I’ve always thought that Malaysians are disinclined towards self-reflection and analysis. Why this should be so could probably be blamed on an education system that does not encourage independent thinking and questioning, as well as a dislike for confronting anything unpleasant. This is all very well if you never have to face it for yourself. But lately I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to witness this and you want to just curl up in embarrassment.

First I was at an overseas conference where a Malaysian government official was presenting a paper on a subject that was controversial and has few supporters in the international community. I was surprised that he had accepted the invitation to speak in the first place but having done so, I thought he must have worked out a convincing argument. To the utter bemusement of everybody, he presented a paper more suited to a high school student than a senior government official. Not only was it devoid of any scientific justification, it bore no logic at all.

It made me realise that some officials must live in an insular world where they have no idea what the rest of the world thinks and therefore naively present arguments that they don’t even realise will not hold water among well-informed people. Then they are shocked at the strong reaction they get. Now if they can then respond by presenting cogent reasons for their viewpoint, they might have saved a modicum of respect. But instead they simply give up and refuse to take the challenge of engaging in a debate. Everybody is then left dissatisfied.

I thought this was just an aberration until I witnessed the same inability to read an audience and present an intelligent analysis of a situation from an even more senior official. Perhaps when we are used to an uninformed unquestioning audience, we tend to underestimate the intelligence of every one we face.

It wouldn’t have alarmed me, if I thought that there was a new generation of Malaysians who could be different. So I went to a seminar hoping to listen to more interesting viewpoints. I did find some but not from anyone I didn’t already know. In a panel where university lecturers spoke and students asked questions and ventured opinions, I was struck by how some supposedly highly-qualified academicians had the same inability to provide a rational analysis of real situations and instead resorted to vague generalisations and illogic. Unsurprisingly the students were no better, asking unoriginal questions and spouting well-worn phrases that elicited applause from their own crowd. Not a single student asked any questions which were at all provocative or revealed some real thinking.

I suppose we should not blame our students’ lack of thinking skills when people who don’t have them either are teaching them. (And I know it isn’t just me saying this; some visiting academicians have embarrassingly mentioned the same thing). Students are also not going to stand up and say anything different for fear of attracting derision both from their lecturers and their peers. This is not a country that values original thinking and difference much after all.

The sad thing is, when you get young people by themselves, away from adults that they depend on, they can be very different. They can express opinions that don’t imitate others and you can appeal to their common sense and inherent goodness. But how much opportunity do we give young people to do this safely and without attracting some sort of punishment?

Yet if we expect the next generation to compete on an international level, we have to nurture their ability to speak and stand up for themselves. The types that I’ve been listening to will only be laughed at overseas.

I know what I speak of. As a young university student overseas, I was shocked to find that not only did people have vastly different opinions than me, they were more than willing to tell me exactly why I was wrong. The first few times I would retreat wounded into my room and cry with frustration at my own inability to defend my views. I also wondered how much of my views were in fact my own or just regurgitation of someone else’s. In time I got better at thinking out issues and putting across my opinion. I also learnt that it isn’t the end of the world if everybody disagreed with you.

We have to do something concrete about nurturing the thinking skills of our young people because otherwise they will not survive in the larger world. For a start we could be more stringent about the intellectual abilities of those who teach them. We can also create an environment that would be safe and encouraging for our young people to express themselves. Only then can we hold our heads high wherever we are.