It is uncommon to find an English-speaking foreign diplomat serving in Malaysia who is proficient in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Iban or Kadazan.
They can get by, by speaking English. A possible exception is the Malaysian specialist at the Japanese Embassy, who is not only proficient in Malay, but also able to read and write the Jawi script. It is rare for an Australian journalist writing and reporting on Malaysia to have a full command of, or write Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Iban or Kadazan.
Consequently, they have to depend on English language sources, oral and written, including syndicated news, or cameramen-cum-field assistants.
A belief that almost everything is available in English in Malaysia is somewhat true. But there is much, much more in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Iban and Kadazan that are rich, complex and newsworthy.
Arguably, being dependent on English sources means that what is offered to the Australian public, at best, is a compromised representation about Malaysia, or, at the other end of the continuum, a manicured distortion.
In contrast, for those diplomats and journalists working in and reporting from Indonesia, a proficiency in Bahasa Indonesia is almost mandatory.
Some can even converse in Javanese, Sundanese and other local dialects – an impressive achievement indeed.
Therefore, it is imperative for Australian journalist, and embassy staffs, covering Malaysia to acquire the language proficiency skill in Malay, comparable to that of their colleagues, in Bahasa Indonesia, who report on Indonesia.
Indeed they also have to acquire proficiency at least in one other language, either Mandarin, Tamil, Iban or Kadazan.
Without doubt, such linguistic proficiency, a fundamental skill in communication, is necessary to provide not only accurate, up-to-date and quality reporting, but also nuanced and sophisticated analysis.
The yawning gap of quality and sophistication between Australian media reporting on Indonesia and Malaysia will never be able to be closed, in view of the fact that journalists from major Australian news outlets are based in Jakarta, Bangkok, and/or Singapore.
This could mean one or two things: first, Malaysia is of a secondary interest to Australian media; or, since English is widely spoken in Malaysia, access to locals and local news sources aren’t as difficult as in Indonesia, where a good command of Bahasa Indonesia is a must.
As such, those reporting on Malaysia inevitably have to depend heavily on urban middle-class English-speaking Malaysian, most likely, those who are among the 300,000 Australian university graduates, about ten per cent of which are bumiputeras.
It is not a surprise, therefore, since the historic 12th General Election of 2008, in which the opposition coalition with the support of urban middle-class had inflicted the heaviest lost ever to the ruling party coalition, namely, the National Front, news on Malaysia in Australian mainstream media, based on content analysis, has increased noticeably.
The run-up to the 13th General Election of 2013 was well reported, with views from both sides of the political divide given almost equal attention.
However, the report centered around political activities in Peninsular Malaysia, especially in the highly urbanized Klang Valley region, and very little on what happened in Sarawak and Sabah.
Not surprisingly, the peak of the reporting reached its height when Senator Nick Xenophon, a known supporter of Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysia opposition leader, was refused entry into Malaysia and deported back to Australia on February 13, 2013.
Reaction from Australian and Malaysian media was widespread up until early April.
In spite of this, Anwar was still unhappy over Australia’s refusal to send observers for the May 5 elections.
This news of the refusal was widely covered in mainstream media in Australia and Malaysia.
But, Anwar was not happy because the Australian media didn’t put enough pressure on the Australian government to support his request.
He believed his coalition could win the election, but predicted it would be prevented from doing so at the polls, by what he claimed as “massive fraud.”
The opposition lost the election. A series of protest rallies, ala-Arab Spring against the “massive frauds” was immediately organised throughout major cities in Malaysia.
Around the same time, major rallies led by educated and disorganized middle-class protesters took place in Brazil, China, Turkey and in Egypt.
But such a protest in Malaysia quickly faded away, when the opposition party leaders and their Members of Parliament were sworn-in at Parliament, willingly, without any protest or the issue of the “massive fraud” being raised.
It could be argued that a lack of language skills of the main vernacular languages including Malay resulted in poor coverage of the May Malaysian election by the Australian media.
That Malaysia is relatively stable and peaceful, and really not an ideal source of sensational news could be another factor.
Bluntly put, news on Malaysia doesn’t sell as well as news from the ‘troubled’ islands in the Oceania, especially, if the news relate to the implementation of Australia’s contested immigration policy, namely, about the ‘boat people,’ which has now become an important issue in the campaign for the forthcoming Australian elections.
Shamsul AB, a Monash University alumnus, is a professor and media commentator on Malaysian current affairs, for local and international media, as well as a keen observer of anything Australian and also Australia-Malaysia relations since the 1980s.