In which AJStream tries to cover Malaysia (part 1)

Posted on August 30, 2011 by


The Stream is a new programme by Al Jazeera English (AJE) aimed at talking about the news that were generated by the social media, instead of what was already reported on television almost every day. While other programmes dwell into the typical narrative and direction with a certain story, The Stream takes a different approach, by reporting on the stories driven by social media communities in their respective countries. I was skeptical with the programming at first, simply because  so many broadcast networks have tried integrating social media into their programmes and have failed. But I’ve watched a few shows and I was blown away. It was fresh, it was hip, and it was relevant because they do not try to insert their own narratives, but lets the story flow through via Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. In other words, whatever story that are generated from all the talks from the community.

This is their vision, taken from AJE’s Youtube Channel:

The Stream is a social media community with its own daily television programme on Al Jazeera English. On television and online The Stream taps into the extraordinary potential of social media to disseminate news. The Stream is an aggregator of online sources and discussion, seeking out unheard voices, new perspectives from people on the ground and untold angles related to the most compelling stories of the day.

Little did I know that I was in for, what I thought, was a horrible and careless attempt by The Stream to cover the news about Malaysia.


It was a habit of mine to check  out Ahmed Shihab-Eldin’s Twitter account every morning because as I’ve said, due to his exposure on the Men of AJE ( which I’ve contributed my first post here on what it means to objectify men), that this tweet caught me by surprise:

Of course, you’d expect the idea that by putting my small little country on the international map again I might be excited because, again, how often is Malaysia on the international broadcast network? Yet,  my first thought was “not again! no, no no no, NOT AGAIN!”

Here’s why:

1) Every year without fail, a certain foreign media will enter Malaysia in hopes to find a story angle that will put them onto the big screen, give them a highlight of what they thought was “interesting” and “newsworthy” about Malaysia. And without fail, it is always about the racial composition in Malaysia, particularly about “ethnic tensions” or “policies that favours a certain community”. We’ve seen it in the BBC, we’ve seen it in CNN, we’ve even seen it on Al Jazeera English many times and the narrative never change. When I saw this narrative again, I groaned in disbelief. This topic has been talked about almost to the death by our domestic media, and with the foreign media trying to play the same role, we pretty much give up talking about it again. I thought The Stream prides itself by being out of the norm and bringing fresh insights into a topic, so why this? Why a topic that’s equivalent to flogging a dead horse?

2) When his tweet read “are you witnessing ethnic tensions? send us a video about it”, I ACTUALLY looked around my office cubicle and go “What ethnic tensions?”. Part of the problem with the direction The Stream was trying to go at was they were expecting, I guess, racial clashes that just happened spontaneously at any streets in Kuala Lumpur and we’ll be camera ready for that so that they can show to the world to what extent the racial tension has gone. Again, another dilemma was how do we even explain that it was purely psychological and mental pressures of religious politicking that’s taking its toll on Malaysians, in 140 characters in a Tweet to both The Stream and Ahmed? Also, Malaysians are very frequent users on Facebook. The questions were spammed plenty of times on Twitter  throughout the day, but had they actually did the same on Facebook, perhaps they could’ve garnered faster responses from the community here.

3) The questions they asked were disorganised and disoriented, as if they were trying to fish out as many responses as  possible from various Malaysians, as if they’re trying to cover as many aspects of Malaysia as possible in ONE show. They would tag three individuals completely out of nowhere and ask them questions, and those questions themselves were irrelevant sometimes. I get it if they’re trying to get comments from the most recent incidents like the JAIS-DUMC raid. Sure, this incident is the epitome of what caused the surge of racial, ethnic and religious tensions here and now.

But then it got weirder…

wait, What?

And this one took the cake

Points for creativity. Seriously.

So, in true Malaysian fashion, “How to answer la? All not the same also!”

To an outsider, these questions may relate  to one another because the raid is about religous tensions where Malays are Muslims and majority, and the non-Muslims are minority and/or Christian, and the fact that 1Malaysia is a slogan that tries to bind different ethnicities together. But to a Malaysian, 1Malaysia was an old story that has been talked about for the past 2 years since its introduction, and has been widely acknowledged to be a political tool for the ruling party, Barisan Nasional, among Malaysians, centering almost on policies or programmes or branding slogans aimed at strengthening ties among races and ethnic groups. I don’t know how does that relate to the JAIS-DUMC raid at all. Was The Stream thinking, or trying to imply, that if 1Malaysia was implemented, this JAIS-DUMC raid wouldn’t have blown up into the controversy as we know it today?

4) The timing. It was truly bad timing. I saw the tweet asking for Malaysians to pitch in their thoughts at 10am in the morning, and the show isn’t going to start until “1930GMT”, and I just checked what time exactly is 1930GMT. It’s 3.30am on the next day. My eyes, literally bulged. I can’t possibly give any good or proper feed feedbacks in such a short time. And apparently, neither do other Malaysians.

Yeah, what he said.

Couldn’t they have pitched this story earlier? Say, two days earlier, since we’re on the opposite end of the time zone? (The Stream does not start recording until 3.30pm ET, 12 hours before our time). If given two days instead, plenty of Malaysians coming from the world of TwitterJaya (fun fact: we combined the word Twitter and Putrajaya, the Federal Territory where all the governmental buildings are located to become Twitterjaya), could’ve given enough response even though Malaysians are not happy talking about it (see reason no.1).

Nevertheless, it was a courageous effort by The Stream, and I tried to help them as much as I can. I sent them a small comment via Tweet, and they asked if I could post a video. I DID intend to post a video of me commenting about the situation in Malaysia. But I got confused as well by the barrage of questions The Stream was asking, so I tried again, asking what EXACTLY do they want to see on the show.

Well that didn't get through to him.

I gave up in the end. I was tired, it was almost 12am by the time I thought I could give some feedback and I couldn’t get any the direction of where The Stream’s headed. I did some small help for their favour because they were trying to get Malaysians into the conversation. After all, in order for The Stream to be successful, you need a myriad of opinions coming from the very community you wanted to find out the story from.

Of course, I have that sense of foreboding that this will not end up well, just like any other stories of Malaysia by other foreign media that focuses so much on race, I can’t imagine if this is a story worth retelling.

Present show

I was right. With all the four points above, coupled with a few more mistakes that happened DURING the show itself, what was produced was a shallow and skeletal episode coupled with really bad research from The Stream’s team:

To summarised this properly, I’m splitting it into Brownie Points and Boo Points, just to illustrate, to what extent has this episode got the whole Malaysian context wrong:

Brownie Point 1: Derrick Ashong mentioning that Malaysia consists of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Indigenous groups. Many other broadcast media never got that right. They just go for Malay, Chinese, Indian. Kudos to that.

Brownie Point 2: Engaging and asking young and/or modern minded Malaysians: Khairy Jamaluddin, Marina Mahathir and Nik Nazmi. They can give pretty moderate views, so I guess that’s fine.

Boo Point 1: They’ve actually been featured many times in the Malaysia mediasphere. I was hoping for some new faces, but I guess this is as good as it gets.

Boo Point 2: The tweets featured were not in sync with the topic. okay, so you want to talk about JAIS-DUMC raid, then you tried to relate it to 1Malaysia (getting away from the topic there…), and then on education (very AWAY from the topic by now). What was it you want to feature again? Race/ethnic tensions or the policies based on race/ethnicity?

Boo Point 3: Derrick and Ahmed should NOT have interrupted Marina.  She wanted to say “non-Malay” students, not “non-Malaysian” students, before they even let her finish, they just suddenly play this video about this foreign student who was complaining that he could not get any jobs due to the foreign policies implemented, which by now, had gone COMPLETELY out of line from the so-called JAIS-DUMC raid and racial/ethnic tensions as they have intended to discussed.  Marina had to chip in and brush that off as something that this student has to deal with the “Immigration office”.

Boo Point 4: You just HAVE to include the Australian swap with its unverified report*. If you noticed, they wanted to intervene because they were not expecting the Australian swap to come up and they are not experts at this issue but again, Both Derrick and Ahmed stopped them from interrupting. If you would look at timecode 20:23 onwards, all three of them had that “What did I sign up for again?” face.

Needless to say, by the end of the video, in honour of using the Internet language, I “facepalmed”. The Stream, with its ambitions and in its haste to make this story in time for recording, got the Malaysian context wrong.

To be continued. Stay tuned for part 2

*I call that an unverified report because I believe Chris Kenny was the one who planted the idea that the refugee swap between Australia and Malaysia will cause racial and religious divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. As much as I’m inclined to believe his report since the Malaysian media does have the habit of censoring themselves, I found out that it’s HIS word against no one else’s. No one else claimed that the refugees were between 400 Muslims and 6000 non-Muslim refugees, nor do they say that these refugees will be granted the status of citizenship. Also, that was never asked on Twitter whether it’s true. Perhaps like many others, The Stream just assumed that since this came from a journalist it has to be true. But again, wasn’t there a window of doubt that his claims were perhaps just HIS claims? He didn’t attribute any source, he didn’t get it from government data. He just went to Malaysia for one week and came back with a story like this. Can I just justify that perhaps he was looking at this through a coloured lens?