Academia Space in 5th Estate

March 24, 2012 12:38 pm 0 comments

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Universities and academics must take advantage of this new and exciting challenge and opportunity to prove their intellectual prowess.

MY objective today is to fire a conversation, a debate even, on the role of academia in influencing opinion, shaping thinking, growing minds. And if the social media is increasingly popular and impacting the lives of our young, is there a place for academia in this space? And if there is that space, can it be considered the Fifth Estate?

Let’s take a step back and appreciate the First, Second, Third and Fourth Estates. There is general acceptance as to these four estates, namely the clergy, First Estate, the nobility, Second Estate, the proletariat, Third Estate, and the print media, Fourth Estate.

But whatever the definition, the point to note is that this was a system of classifying the political reality of the time, well before democracy existed as a fundamental system of political belief.

Recall the French Revolution, the uprising of the oppressed, which gave rise eventually to the Fourth Estate which is largely a response to the need to provide checks and balance to the other three estates.

This Fourth Estate, the print media, has today evolved into the mainstream media. It was first conceived as the people’s conscience, giving voice to the marginalised.

Whereas in years past the print media provided the outlet for the masses, today, people, especially the young, find empowerment in Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other forms of social media. So is this the Fifth Estate?

There is no one definition for the Fifth Estate. However, there is growing consensus that the alternative media, the folks who blog and are on Facebook and Twitter comprise the Fifth Estate.

Is our PM then part of the Fifth Estate? He has Facebook and he tweets. Many of us do that too. Can civil servants be part of the Fifth Estate?

The Fifth Estate’s role is essentially to provide another avenue for the voices to be heard, to provide another point of view. It is not so much about the “social media” per se but about the fact that people are using and accessing this medium to be heard and to hear others’ views.

They want to be able to tell you things that the Fourth Estate supposedly won’t report and share information they claim they cannot push through there.

Inevitably, the active participants in the digital media are the young, your Generation Y folks, and perhaps those who claim to have become disillusioned with the other Estates.

Social media and the digital network have the ability to catalyse another revolution of sorts, one that has gone down in the idiom as the Arab Spring. This is the power of the digital revolution, pun intended!

This Fifth Estate is driven by technology. They have the power to influence, to shape how people think, how they learn and how they glean knowledge, just with their key strokes. However, the digital network can wield as much good as harm.

So, where does this leave the academia? Can we regard academia as the Fifth Estate? Or are members of the academia a part of the Fifth Estate?

Yes, they are part of the Fifth Estate if one agrees that their role goes beyond providing checks and balances. Yes, if their role involves shaping thought and character. And, focusing on the greater good.

The following prerequisites for the academic fraternity to claim a Fifth Estate status:

> YOU must believe that yours is a noble profession and that you are in it out of conviction and choice. You must be an academic because you have the skills, knowledge and expertise. You are in this field because you are convinced that you can make a difference in the lives of the people you teach; that you want to be involved. Make yours the profession of choice!

> YOU must believe that yours is a profession of immense power and influence. You have the power to shape minds, thought and character. You believe that education shapes and empowers the human intellect and spirit.
Yes, yours is the challenge of meeting differing expectations. One group demands that universities and institutions of higher learning produce graduates who are work-place ready.

Then, there is the other group that feels the university is the place for exploring new knowledge, for research and experiments in ideas and thoughts.

A university education is distinct from a vocational or technical institution. It serves to provide students with broader education, that you teach them to think – think critically, think strategically. Get this right, and employability will follow.

Universities are not just places where someone goes for a degree and also are more than just places where people engaged in “research”.

So, to be a force in the Fifth Estate, Malaysian universities must reclaim their intellectual leadership. Use your expertise, and influence the discourse in whichever or whatever sphere.

The Fifth Estate presents you with new and exciting challenge and opportunity to prove your intellectual prowess.

>YOU must believe that in the course of your work, you can give voice to the marginalised. In this space, you re-assert that all-important relationship between the university and society. Your research should guide the conversations on topics concerning society and the minorities with no one to speak for them.

More important than that, is your ability to propose solutions, credible solutions because they would be borne out of your research and experience.

The message is that your work contributes to the larger good. Use the technology available to you to convince, influence and expand your reach.

You must use your expertise to differentiate yourself from the citizen journalists in the blogosphere. Many bloggers advocate the same things we dislike in the Fourth Estate. They are often biased and tend to take extreme positions, regardless of the facts.

Academics on the other hand are accused of being detached from the real world; that you live in your ivory tower. While the bloggers are said to politicise issues, academics are accused of being theoretical.

The academic fraternity’s strength is in the ability to report based on research. You have the training to enable you to be objective and the intellectual tools to scan the environment, and provide different perspectives so essential for making informed decisions.

More importantly, you have the ability to impart that expertise to your charges and start a virtuous cycle of intellectual discourse that contributes ideas for society’s betterment.

>FOCUS on the people, not on the technology. This is what sets you apart from the other folks who claim the Fifth Estate. For them, it is Facebook, Twitter and their blogs.

More often than not, these netizens just want to get their point of view out there without much thought about the consequences or impact on others’ lives.

But you have the advantage of knowing how to build relationships. You are trained to analyse, to teach, to communicate. This is about extending your reach beyond your classroom.

Yes, there is a place for academia in the Fifth Estate. However, I want to push the unconventional point that the Fifth Estate does not belong exclusively to any particular group.

It includes anyone who can listen and give space to the otherwise, marginalised. Such that even Government and government officials can be part of it!

For in the final analysis, what the Fifth Estate has to do is to influence people and for the right reasons; in what is right, what is true and what is good. For is it not said somewhere that the voice of the people is the voice of God!

>This lecture was delivered by Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, Chief Secretary to the Government, at the Chief Secretary Annual Lecture Series organised by the Razak School of Government, on Tuesday, 20th March 2012.

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