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Chinese dialect news reading, a public broadcasting service

COMMENT: What is the role of the media? At its most basic, it is used to disseminate information and to inform the public about the issues and events that will affect them.

Although Malaysia’s media environment is not as free as one wishes it to be, the state media provides the very basic service of informing the public of the latest developments.

The task of carrying the government’s message to the masses is a very important one, which is why the government has been funding its own Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) since the 1940s.

RTM carries news broadcast in several free-to-air channels and transmits news through several radio frequencies in various states.

However, one service was almost closed down; it was reported that the government-owned Chinese radio station Ai Fm was going to stop airing its news in Chinese dialects.

It was first reported in China Press that the management of Ai FM may shut down its Chinese dialect news reading service in 2014 as a “cost-cutting” measure.

The news was read out in four main dialects spoken among the Chinese community in Malaysia -- Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka at 8pm, with each dialect taking up a 10-minute slot.

This attracted immediate reaction from Chinese community leaders as the service is deemed important for several Chinese elders who relied on news read out in Chinese dialects, the only language they can understand.

Sin Chew Daily, in its editorial, said it does not cost much to maintain the programme, and therefore it is illogical to close down the news reading service on the pretext of cost reduction.

“The newscasters are hired on a part-time basis, earning RM60 for a 10-minute slot. The total cost for a 30-minute programme is just RM180, which is insignificant for a government-run radio station and is not expected to impact the overall operation of the station,” the editorial stated.

The editorial then lamented the decline of Chinese dialects being spoken among the younger generation due to changes in family structure, whereby parents communicate either in English or Mandarin to their children.

Following that, newly elected MCA deputy president Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong reportedly said the Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek had agreed to let the operation continue to run.

“Perhaps, it may be true the demand for news in Chinese dialects is low, but the news reading needs to continue so we can promote the dialects in Chinese culture, especially to the youths,” he was quoted as saying.

“I, for one, would prefer to view the Chinese dialect news reading service as a public broadcasting initiative that should not be taken away for ‘cost-cutting’ purposes, especially because Ai FM is funded by the government and theoretically, does not operate on commercial demand,” Wee said.

According to the United Kingdom’s Broadcasting Research Unit 1985, public broadcasting service should, among others, embody principles such as universal access geographically, pays particular attention to minorities, contributing to sense of national identity and community, and distancing themselves from vested interests.

In a multi-ethnic country like Malaysia, the term “paying particular attention to minorities” is an uphill task for public broadcasters as they have to cater to multiple types of audiences who speak in various languages.

It is important to point out that RTM radio stations broadcast news not only in Mandarin and various Chinese dialects; they also have news reading services in Bahasa Iban, Kadazan, Dusun and Murut to cater to the radio audience in Sabah and Sarawak.

It is also difficult to argue that there is decline in Chinese dialect speaking among youths; Hong Kong television dramas, which are in Cantonese, have successfully gripped the hearts and minds of the overseas Chinese community for decades.

The cultural impact was so huge that Cantonese remained widely spoken in certain sessions of major commercial Chinese radio stations, while Hokkien is making a comeback following the rise in demand for Hokkien language soap operas, whereby its programming originated from Taiwan.

Learning a new language or dialect is also a skill picked up by some later in life; just because one does not speak the language in the early age, it does not mean they will not speak it ever.

So, while we can keep arguing about cultural preservation, the crux of the matter is that RTM should always try to fulfil its duty to provide information to its audience as a public broadcasting service, no matter how small their audience may be.

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