Review of my book by Dr Sankaran Ramanathan

Inserted on 1 Aug. 2010 for the benefit of a reader who wanted to read a review of the book.

The Journal of International Communication
Book Reviews in Vol. 4 No. 1 (1997)

Safar Hasim, Mohd. 1996.
Akhbar dan Kuasa: Perkembangan Sistem Akhbar di Malaysia Sejak 1806 (Newspapers
and Power: Development of the Press System in Malaysia Since 1806). Kuala Lumpur:
Penerbit Universiti Malaya (University of Malaya Press). xviii+417 pp.

(My comment: the title of the book should have been translated as The Press (not Newspapers) and Power: Development of the Press System in Malaysia Since 1806)
Siebert, Peterson and Schramm’s (1956) treatise Four Theories of the Press has shaped discussions on press systems of the world for the past 40 years. Apart from being prescribed as compulsory reading for courses in international communication taught worldwide, it has become a constant and steady source of reference for scholars and students of mass communication. In short, it has become a revered piece of writing, somewhat akin to the religious texts of yore.
Hence, it takes a special kind of courage to take a tilt at these revered theories. The brand of courage needed is even more special when the person attempting the joust is a relative lightweight from the Third World who is brave enough to write in his own national language. Such is the case for the theoretical discussion that underpins the approach to the study of the press system in Malaysia in Safar Hasim’s book.
A former journalist with Malaysia’s national news agency BERNAMA, Hasim has moved gracefully into academe, with this book serving as adequate testimony to the smooth and easy transition. Hasim’s book is based on his 1993 doctoral dissertation. Malaysian legal expert Professor Ahmad Ibrahim notes in the preface that the book analyzes the development of the legal framework within which the Malaysian press has operated, going back to early colonial times and encompassing a time span of nearly two centuries. Not only does Hasim dissect the Four Theories, he also proposes his own typology applicable to the different periods since 1806, when the first English newspaper, The Prince of Wales Island Gazette, was published in the Straits Settlements.
Beginning with an overview of the press system in Malaysia, Hasim discusses various degrees of freedom and control over the press, focusing on the legal framework within which the press has operated (Chapter 1). He devotes Chapter 2 to a theoretical discussion from the perspective of power. Borrowing the ideas of Locke and Montesquieu regarding the doctrine of separation of powers, he utilizes the integration/power separation approach to analyze the press system. He sees power as one dimension that encompasses and affects five power elements in the state, viz., the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, the press and the people. Rejecting the approach dictated by the Four Theories, he zooms in on the varying relationships between the executive and the other elements. Thus, he proposes a nine-point typology of power relationships, ranging from absolute integrated power (wherein the executive totally controls the other four elements) to dispersed power (wherein the five elements are independent of each other and no single element controls the others).
It is this classification that merits Hasim’s study to be regarded as exploratory in nature. One has to commend him for attempting to steer away from the Four Theories model and suggesting the new typology. Regrettably, he fails to refer to the typology again in the concluding section of the book. Such reference would have definitely strengthened the book’s theoretical component.
Hasim divides the history of Malaysian journalism into four periods:
* 1806 to 1867: The beginnings of the press system
* 1867 to 1941: Power based on laws and regulations
* 1942 to 1957: The period of changes
* 1957 to 1990: The period of independence
Sections 2 to 5 of the book constitute a discussion of these four periods. They provide details various events and developments affecting the press system in Malaya/Malaysia.
The last-named period refers to the time span that followed the Malayan/Malaysian nation’s independence from Britain. The word “independence” has little relevance to the state of the Malaysian press, which is far from being independent. Here is where one can detect a weakness in the book: In Part 5, Hasim fails to make a clearer distinction between the independence of the Malaysian nation and the independence of the press. One would have expected a more lengthy and in-depth discussion in the opening chapter of that section (Chapter 18), which is a rather skimpy four pages.
Other weaknesses are more technical in nature. Instances of inadequate proofreading, especially relating to English quotations and titles of laws/articles in English, stand out. For example, Ahmad Ibrahim’s article is erroneously listed in the bibliography as “Communication and Law from Malaysia Viewpoint” (p.385). In another instance, Cheah Boon Kheng’s Red Star over Malaya is listed twice (pp. 388 and 389). Inconsistencies in style, particularly in the bibliography, also become noticeable. A third technical weakness is the contents page, which does not list the chapters and their headings. However, the overall quality of editing and proofreading, particularly when compared with other academic books in Bahasa Malaysia, is good.
All in all, this is a good book that makes a useful and lasting contribution to the study of mass communication in Malaysia. I recommend it for students and scholars interested in this field who are literate in Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia. In addition, other students and scholars of international communication interested in taking a tilt at the Four Theories can benefit from Hasim’s foray and, in turn, challenge his nine-point typology of power relationships.

Sankaran Ramanathan
Coordinator of special projects
Asian Media Information and Communication Centre
Singapore

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