The media, a challenging profession

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Left Brain
25 January 1998


I was lucky. Perhaps, I was good. Hardwork, independence and intellectual honesty, I believe, did it.

My scores of the 1959 general election were almost a perfect score sheet. The editor-in-chief of the Straits Times, Leslie Hoffman (later Tan Sri, and after leaving the Straits Times, he migrated to Australia where he died; his son Hoffman Jr., also a journalist, works in Melbourne), was impressed.

Although I was a junior journalist, editors and senior journalists took kind and keen interest in me. People such as Felix Abisheganaden (chief reporter), Chang Yen Fool, Tan Tock Salk, Nelson Rutherford, Ng Yook Yoon (editor of Sunday Mail), Martin Hutton (editor of Malay Mail), Lee Siew Yew (now Tan Sri), Samad Ismail (now Tan Sri), Wahab Zain (editor of Berita Harian), Norman Siebel (sports editor of Straits Times) Ronald Chalis (editorial writer, who later become BBC correspondent in Cairo), Khoo Teng Soon, (chief sub-editor), Dahari All, who was also an Umno Member of Parliament for Kuala Selangor and many others gave me new dimensions and pushed me into new frontiers and realms.

I was lucky to have these people to look up to. Generally, I had good assignments because, as Abisheganaden told the Malaysian Business magazine several years ago, I had entree. He had said: "Abdullah has fantastic contacts."

I need to caution aspiring students and graduates that only those of enormous selfconfidence, intellectually and socially, should contemplate working in the media because I expect journalism will be one of the most challenging and toughest, if not the prickliest, professions in the new millennium.

If you want to be a socialite, a celebrity and be rich do something else like being a publisher or owner of a media empire.

Writing for newspapers and the electronic media is fun and if you are any good it will guarantee you a ringside seat on the Malaysian national and even international public life.

Matching your cynicism and the motives of politicians and diplomats can also be an exercise of considerable reflection, if not fun. As I am fortunate enough to enjoy the combination of three lives, journalist, politician and diplomat, I admit that I cannot be right or wrong all the time. The fact that I am still around, I suppose, is because I am right most of the time.

And to those fault-finding fellow Malaysians, I like to say this: you need to work harder to understand politics if you want to be wisely governed, otherwise keep your silence.

You get only the politicians and administrators your indifference deserves!

As a matter of interest, my three concerns are closely linked.

Soon enough students at home will be asking themselves what can they do with Malay, Indian, and Islamic studies degrees? Or, a degree in Southeast Asian Studies and philosophy? I wonder, like their parents do I suppose, what will happen to them?

My youngest son, Fuad, is doing a post-graduate course in International Studies - Asia-Pacific after having gained a second class degree in Southeast Asian Studies.

Noraini Othman, described as a Muslim intellectual, told Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist that, "the Malaysian government is not educating a generation that can indigenize real information technology authenticate it and reproduce it themselves. Students learn by rote, like a bunch of robots."

Is it as bad as that? If it is as Noraini claims, one thing is certain: the employment prospects for Malaysian made graduates would be limited, even more so now with the economic meltdown and austerity drive. And worse for those graduates who are monolingual.

Last summer when I was home I spoke to students at the University of Malaya. They did not seem unduly concerned with their future. As the march of months to the millennium becomes more insistent, so do I hope their awareness of changing times, changed fortunes and reduced international circumstances.

I can understand, then as now, why philosophy students remain unconcerned, even passionately unconcerned, because they can always find sublimity and nobility in philosophy!

Jokes aside, I know several philosophy graduates who are doing remarkably well, mainly outside academia.

But what about the others? What do they do when confronted with the real world, when there are groceries to purchase and bills to pay? The impression I get is that many people seem to think philosophy graduates are well-trained: they are trained to think, to analyse to be logical, to express and write well.

If these were true then jobs should be aplenty in wait.

Some degrees are not practical unless students choose them because they like taking a class they enjoy.

I know that not all people have a fantasy to become super rich. Perhaps, as I suspect, all these students not earning a practical qualification are destined for careers in politics!

How do they compete for jobs with accountants, engineers, computer geniuses, MBAs and the financial wizards?

In the United States, a 1995 survey of 7,500 Ph.D holders in philosophy found that about two-thirds were academics, but a significant number worked in highly varied fields such as managers and executives (9.7%), lawyers and judges (3%), clergy and religious workers (1.5%), computer occupations (2.6%), artists and writers (2.3%), management related jobs (3.3%), librarians, archivists (1.5%), social scientists (1.2%) and others (10.4%).

One Virginian Ph.D holder sells herbs and flowers; another owns a service station. Some 1977 philosophy graduates earn less than US $30,000 (RM 129,000) a year; the herbseller expected to clear US $6,000 (RM 25,800) last year. But more common, according to New York Times writer, Carol Marie Cropper, are incomes of US$50,000 or US$60,000 (RM 215,000 or RM 258,000), and a few earn more than US $200,000 (RM 860,000).

Actually the leap from Aristotle to computers can be a short one. But obviously to many Malaysians, bumiputras in particular, the jump from Ibnu Khaldun and Hang Tuah to politics is even shorter!

Of course, degrees are no disadvantages but I found out that there is no substitute for experience.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations.

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of SUN )

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