The Politics and Impact of International Media Agenda-Setting on Nation Imaging:
The Case of Malaysia’s 1MDB Financial Scandal
By Ngan Sue Ven, a researcher affiliated with the think tank Political Studies for Change (KPRU).
On May 10, Malaysians had witnessed the change of government for the first time after 60 years of hegemonic rule under Barisan Nasional. The change has ignited hope for liberalizing part and parcel of the country, including the media that have long been tightly grasped. Within the period of merely a month in power, it is still too early to rush to conclusions on this point if the Pakatan Harapan government could contribute to an atmosphere conducive for press freedom.
Apart from scrutinizing the attitude of the new government towards the media – of which, in majority, were generally less critical towards the former ruling coalition; it is also crucial to keep an eye on the posture professed by the media in dealings with the new government. Bear in mind at the forefront that media, being a well-established institution, is a strategic actor which can play its role as both instrument of the establishment, as well as the agent for change. These roles are not necessarily adversarial, though the tension is inevitable.
This research paper probed into the media coverages, especially of the international coverage, on 1MDB scandal that loomed over Malaysia and the former prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, from 2014 to 2016 (see Chapter 4). The Wall Street Journal and Straits Times were selected as the two primary empirical sources in this research. The rationale for choosing these two international media agencies was to compare or juxtapose the reportage of Malaysian matters from the perspectives of media based within different political systems – the “liberal West” on one hand, and the Asian perspective on the other. The different approaches taken and treatment given to the 1MDB’s controversial graft allegations by the two media agencies are regarded as the manifestation of the intricate and complex interaction between the two intersecting systems within the established international power structure.
By first comparing the approach taken by the local mainstream media in covering 1MDB financial scandal (see Chapter 3) to the reportages of international media, the power relations between local media and the former BN government served as a microcosm of the broader context engaging international media and other sources of power within international arena. Through the analysis of WSJ’s and ST’s coverages on Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, this research paper argued that although media agenda may be varied from one media organisation to another, the media is ultimately firm within the established status quo’s camp and functions in accordance to the fundamental power structure and values.
In addition, this research paper also highlighted the implications of the widespread reportages on the global kleptocratic scandal from the perspective of international relations (see Chapter 4). For instance, Malaysia’s blossoming ties with China and its growing investments poured in under Najib’s administration, had been given considerable emphasis in accessing WSJ’s coverage on 1MDB controversy. Such correlation – which does not necessarily imply causation – is worth examination in the light of the changing dynamics of power relations in the field of international relations.