Schizophrenia and Malaysia: A Response to the Search Engine Podcast Reply

Friend and colleague Bryan Person turned me on to a new podcast (new for me) called Search Engine.  Bryan asked about my thoughts, so I listened to the podcast twice in hopes of finding some small nugget to add as a reply.  I found Search Engine to be a well produced and thoughtful podcast, but I also see a larger opportunity to perhaps reframe this specific episode not in terms of mental health but instead as part of a larger socio-political shift which may better explain Malaysia’s Internet.

The Podcast
Jennifer Pak offers us a nice introduction to social media in Malaysia, specifically from a political perspective.  Since the 2008 elections, significant shifts in Malaysia’s political media landscape have developed.  The authorities significantly underestimated the the impact of censorship during an election when the public also had immediate access to alternate channels via the Internet.  Censoring opposition parties in the mainstream media drove people underground and online where they were able to communicate frequently and develop quite a bit of political support.  The rest is history, the political landscape was dramatically changed, and now even Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak is on Twitter (and here on Facebook with 100,000+ followers).  You will also find retired Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir blogging (and here on Twitter) in addition to many other political figures. 

The episode interviews bright people such as Niki Cheong and Jeff Ooi.  Overall, this episode is definitely worth listening to.  Well done.

Reframing Social Media in Malaysia

Unfortunately, the show’s title and opening comments framed the entire story with the mental health metaphor of “schizophrenia.”  The argument is that Malaysia is both banning and discouraging social media while adopting and using social media.  At face value, the frame seems fair enough.  The frame, however, invites us to overlook the deeper dynamic at work.  The issue is not about free vs not free (if you prefer, democratic versus authoritarian).  The issue is about what journalist and author John Kampfner has called “the pact.”  In Freedom for Sale Kampfner describes the pact in the following way.

“New authoritarians came to a pact with their people.  The specific rules varied between countries, but the template was similar.  Repression was selective, confined to those who openly challenge the status quo.  The number of people who fell into that category was actually very few–journalists who criticised the the state or published information that cast the powerful in a negative light; lawyers who defended these agitators;  and politicians and others who publicly went out of their way to ’cause trouble.’  The rest of the population could enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as they wished, and to make and spend money….for many people this presented an attractive proposition.” 

Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson has made very similar arguments from the other side of the Atlantic. 

Through the mental health metaphor, host Jesse Brown invites us to interpret Malaysia’s use of the Internet and social media as a tension between democratic and undemocratic.  This is unfortunate.  Being raised as a middle class American I can fully understand why this narrative was adopted and used as the title and introduction.  But if we are understand the organizing principle found in Malaysia’s Internet and social media adoption, then we need an alternate frame which comes from current practice.  Kampfner and Ferguson are spot on with their descriptions of modern authoritarianism and pacts (in my opinion). 

Understanding Modern Communication Contexts
So why do I feel it is so important to reframe this podcast?  In my mind, the Kampfner-esque pacts and authoritarian capitalism are the real challenge to democratic capitalistic systems found in the west. These powerful narratives guide how so many view and interpret a globalized world.  So long as we try to explain world events and communication systems with mental models that are decreasingly less in tune with the world around us (i.e., the polarization of democracy and authoritarianism), the harder it is for everyone to better understand world affairs, politics, and communication differences.  The systems we see through Kampfner’s eyes are hybrids of constructs which we have traditionally held as necessarily being polar opposites.  Our traditional narrative discourages a non-polarized view. 

So I commend Jennifer Pak for reporting and Jesse Brown for sharing.  I really enjoyed this podcast.  My only addition is that maybe we can all understand the communication differences in Malaysia if we put aside the mental health metaphor–and the classic polarization of democracy and authoritarianism–and instead consider how early in the 21st century authoritarian capitalism has emerged as a powerful alternative.  If we can understand that, then Malaysia’s Internet space begins to make a whole lot more sense.

And if you have some time, check out the podcast over at iTunes.

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