Secularisation: Coming To a Malay Television Channel near You
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the future is depicted as one where the masses are controlled – via the use of science and technology – to care only for superficial pleasures, in the process giving up their personal freedoms.
Although Huxley, nearly blind at 16 because of an illness, wrote the novel in 1932, it bears an eerie resemblance to today’s indifferent, modern society: always high on fun and entertainment, always searching for yet more fun and entertainment.
If our era appears Huxleyan, then perhaps our soma is the mighty television. Today, you can surf the Internet on your TV, play a video game with somebody from halfway around the world, or watch from over a hundred channels. You can catch a 3D movie in your own living room, or an entire season of your favourite sitcom.
But I digress. This is not some half-baked attempt to dissect the distraction that is the television. This is a full-blown swipe at that dastardly invention known as Suria, Singapore’s very own Malay language channel. Well, not literally anyway.
If you are not from Singapore, or if Malay is not your mother tongue, then all this must be very confusing for you. In any case, you should prostrate (now), giving thanks to Almighty God for having prevented you from having to watch anything that Suria spews. Your telly-viewing soul has been spared so you can savour something more worthy of your time and taste, like Bachelor Pad or Bridezilla.
The axe I have to grind with Suria is not so much to do with the poor quality of its programmes (let’s face it, there’s never anything good on free-to-air channels anyway). It’s what I’ve noticed to be a not-so-subtle push for a secularist agenda, the replacement of traditional Islamic messages with Western-centric platitudes. If television is seen as the Malay-Muslim community’s great educator, then the lessons being taught on Suria are: you are the master of your own fate, you hold the key to your own happiness, you are special in your own way.
These onscreen lessons, perhaps intended to address the economic gap between the Malays and the other races in Singapore, have inadvertently created a generation that, although richer and better educated, is more skeptical of a literal, traditional understanding of Islam, preferring to focus on religio-ethics and the humanistic aspect of the deen. Narcissism bred from hours of watching reality TV, Malay or otherwise, has led to a preference for an individualistic understanding of the Quranic scripture, rather than deferring to the academic authority of the ulama.
This rise in self-importance has resulted in a spectrum of voices competing for legitimacy in Islam, without considering what Islam truly is. We see feminists, members of the LGBT community, liberals, all clamouring to reform Islam, an Islam they deem autocratic and backward. Once, religion had expectations of you. Today, it’s become a vehicle for fulfilling your dreams.
The secularisation problem is compounded by the fact that Malay dramas on Suria are often, though not entirely, devoid of images of religious practice, like the prayer. The role that Islam plays in the life of protagonists is often a minimal one. Worse, in several instances, the actions of these characters, both real and reel, are contrary to Islamic teachings.
Granted, this secularisation of Suria may have been developed in light of content guidelines from the Media Development Authority (MDA). A recent document released by the local statutory board states that “television as a mass medium should be kept secular” and that “programmes of a proselytic nature should not be broadcast”.
Nevertheless, given that 98.7 percent of Malays in Singapore are Muslims, surely a more flexible interpretation of the guidelines should be allowed. After all, you don’t see Anak Metropolitan following the document’s encouragement of the use of Bahasa Melayu Baku in Malay programming.
One can only imagine the possibilities if Suria took on a decidedly Islamic bent, perhaps along the same lines as recent Indonesian and Malaysian cinema, with their portrayals of practicing Muslims as tolerant and contributing members of society, highlighting the beauty of Islam in everyday life.
Unfortunately, in the short-term at least, such ideas will probably be thrown out by the unforgiving world of mass media. Television is sustained through advertising, and advertising feeds off society’s penchant for rampant consumerism. It’s no secret why the TV ads on Suria revolve around renovation contractors, stores like Courts and Harvey Norman, buy-now-pay-later jewelry and all-you-can-eat halal buffets. A good Muslim, schooled in the importance of controlling his or her lower desires, is not much bang for an advertiser’s buck.
But in the long-term, perhaps advertisers more interested in reaching out for the discerning Muslim’s dollar can be targeted: Institutions of higher learning, travel agencies providing Islamic tourism, eco-friendly companies, and non-profit organisations. This would in turn make it profitable and sustainable for Suria to showcase programmes which – apart from simply entertaining – inspire, educate and engage a more contemplative Muslim populace.
Television programmes that wake them from their ‘slumber’, so that they can reclaim true freedom, giving up the minutiae that smothers and addicts others. Now, wouldn’t that be something worth watching.
- Free-To-Air Television Programme Code, Media Development Authority, 2012
- Census of Population 2010 – Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion
- The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, 2009
Post-script: Although the writer would like to see Suria screening more religiously-themed programmes, he cautions against using TV as a means of teaching religion. As argued by Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves To Death”, television has “a strong bias toward the psychology of secularism”. With a screen very much linked to the commercial and entertainment worlds, it is difficult to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. Given the seriousness of our faith, it is highly possible that a televised version of Islam becomes easy and amusing, thus losing its meaning.
Shahnawaz Abdul Hamid
The writer graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He blogs about football, politics and religion at www.hayatshah.com.