SINCE I’ve been back I have not been reading the news. Partly that is because I have so much work to do. But I have to admit that I am also very disinclined to read the news because, well, most of it is dreadful. There is absolutely nothing cheery about it, nothing that makes me feel that there’s light ahead or anything to look forward to.
In this, despite the age gap, I am not different from young people in the UK. According to a report in The Guardian recently, young people in Britain have almost entirely abandoned television news broadcasts while half the country gets its news from social media.
If anyone can be bothered to do a similar study in Malaysia, I will bet anything that they’ll find the same results here. People get their news, if they were so inclined, online from either the websites of the mainstream papers or from the online-only news portals.
When it comes to television, I’m sorry to say that I don’t think anyone actually watches news on TV anymore. They may watch FB livestreaming of some events but actually watching someone drone on about what miserable thing has happened today in some part of the country has become an activity that you would only do if you’re really masochistic. There’s increasing competition from numerous cable channels not to mention online movie sites and Youtube.
In Britain, the average person aged 65 and over watches 33 minutes of television news per day. Young people aged 16-24 on the other hand watch no more than two minutes a day. Some news sites have even introduced reading times for their articles, most not exceeding five minutes in order to try and keep the short attention span market. Writing clickbaiting headlines has become the norm because people don’t read anything more than the headline. They may spend hours on their laptops, tablets and phones watching programmes but none of that is news. I’m sure young Malaysians aren’t much different.
What is happening is that we’re getting a generation of people who don’t watch the news, don’t know much about current affairs and don’t care. And we expect them to vote in the next elections.
I’m all for reducing the voting age to 18 and the automatic registration of voters. But registering voters does not automatically mean they will vote, nor does it mean they will know who to vote for. It is really imperative that we educate our young on how the government works and what their role in it is. That has to be done in school, probably from age 16 onwards. When I did my A-Levels in the UK many years ago, one of my exam subjects was the British Constitution. We were taught about the origins of the UK’s unwritten constitution, the role of the monarch, Parliament, the judiciary and all the important government institutions that contribute to the running of the British government.
Over here, all we know is that our Parliament is modelled after Westminster and we choose our MPs once every five years or so. I remember once asking a tableful of otherwise mature, educated and experienced adult Malaysians how our Dewan Negara is formed, and no one knew what the answer was. Today we have Wikipedia to consult but surely it is something that every citizen should know. Perhaps we should introduce the Malaysian Constitution as a school subject so that every Malaysian knows how to talk about the workings of their own country in an informed way.
But returning to the consumption of news by our young, if everyone agrees that this is an important issue, the question is really how does one deliver it to this audience? The usual ways, newspapers and television don’t quite cut it anymore.
Today everything is about social media. People, young and old, now consume news through Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and whatever new platform is being rolled out every year. If anyone can reach back in their memory to just fourteen or so months ago, they might remember that they were almost exclusively receiving news about the election campaign via Whatsapp and Facebook. For those who voted this
government in, the mainstream propaganda channels were the news sources best avoided.
This is the challenge for the government. Our leaders need to remember that where once they were seen as cool because they were in the Opposition, they are now no longer so because of the simple fact that they are now the Establishment. Using the old ways of communicating news and information only underscores their unhip status. This is why the current Opposition, or maybe it’s just one person, can do a totally vacuous campaign basically rebranding himself as some hideous saviour and people lap it up. What else is there for free entertainment?
No government is going to be perfect. But they don’t also have to be clueless about communicating what they are doing to the people who will vote in the next elections. It might be too much to expect civil servants to suddenly become well cued into the zeitgeist of young Malaysians but there are people out there who know how to advise them. All the government needs to do is to ask and I am sure a lot of people would volunteer to show them what needs to be done and how.
While the means of communicating is important, the content of the communications is even more so. For heaven’s sake, nobody wants to know what anyone is doing in the privacy of their bedrooms unless they truly have empty lives. There are seriously more pressing issues, like how to get an affordable quality education that would prepare young people for an unpredictable future, or how to afford a decent living in increasingly costly times. Economic issues are very real for most people but if anyone is doing anything about it, and monitoring whether their measures work or not, they are also not telling us, in the way that we now consume such information, about them.
If we don’t fix this communication problem, assuming that very real policy is being implemented, then young people will simply not turn on and tune in, they’ll just switch off. And that should spell danger to any aspiring future government.
Marina Mahathir doesn’t think that anyone’s invented a mind-reading machine yet. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.