Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Viewspapers: The Malay Press of the 1930s

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Viewspapers: The Malay Press of the 1930s

Article excerpt

There was a tremendous acceleration in newspaper publishing between 1930 and 1941 despite the onset of the Great Depression. The period is remarkable for the enthusiasm with which literate Malays took to press activities but also for the marked change in the structure and content of newspapers. Through newspapers, new forms of developing public opinion--such as the editorial (a new form), increased participation in the media through letters to the editor and contributors' articles, public readings of newspapers, and the expansion of newspapers into classrooms--extended the reach of public discussions in ways not seen before. The Malay press was evolving into a site for discussing and debating the circumstances of Malay life in the 1930s. Opinions, commentaries, leading articles and editorials rather than news made up the bulk of column space in Malay newspapers and magazines of the 1930s. The typical publication was increasingly becoming a 'viewspaper' rather than a newspaper.

A.C. Milner's sophisticated work on the development of a political discourse through the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere among Malays has broadened our understanding of press activity as it operated among literate Malays. (1) However, it was not only the bourgeois class that was involved in newspapers. Certainly, they were by far the most active group by virtue of their literacy, but by the 1930s a wider range of Malays from different parts of the Peninsula had the ability to communicate with each other through the press. This included a community of writers and readers who helped spur the growth of newspaper and periodical publishing, but it is equally important to look at a hitherto forgotten group--the listeners to the Malay press--as equally contributing to the discussions within that press. The widening scope of participation in the press also contributed to the rise of new forms of public opinion making which saw newspapers increasingly filled with public views of the situation in Malaya, including Singapore.

This enlarged participation in a burgeoning Malay press was largely a response to what Malay writers perceived to be the changing circumstances of life in Malaya. Demographic changes that were reducing the Malays' majority status, as well as an increasing sense of vulnerability because of Chinese and Indian political demands, were given voice in the Malay press. Exacerbating the situation was the onset of the Great Depression, which created a heightened sense of consciousness about the relative weakness of the Malay community in the economic arena.

The trauma of the economic downturn made economic concerns all the more immediate and ensured that economic issues were at the forefront of public discussions across the different ethnic groups. The Depression meant different things to different communities. English-language newspapers such as The Straits Times and The Malay Mail carried news from Europe and America about the increasing desperation of people abroad in the face of this worldwide economic crisis. Locally, the European community was focused on protecting their businesses from further deterioration, but as a community they were intent on making sure that unemployed Europeans found jobs. Chinese and Tamil-language newspapers, while similarly concerned with the Depression in their respective homelands, were increasingly worried by governmental action in Malaya aimed at reducing unemployment through the repatriation of immigrant labour. Malay newspapers regularly published local and overseas stories about the Depression. It could have hardly been far from the mind of the newspaper reader, with daily reminders of troubled economic times found in the press. The tables of declining rubber, tin and agricultural prices published in the Malay language daily Warta Malaya stood as a reminder to the onslaught of the economic crisis. For Malays, the Depression created a great sense of introspection about their economic condition and their position in the economy, which prompted active and sustained discussions that filled the pages of a burgeoning press. …

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