The year 2020 has not been easy for Malaysia. Aside from COVID-19 and an economic recession, this country also saw the collapse of its majority government coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) and the resignation of its Prime Minister in February.
Amidst this political turbulence and a rising debt crisis, the new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government announced ambitious solar-powered recovery plans including the 1-gigawatt large-scale-solar tender contract programme and green financing mechanisms expected to revive the economy. In order to understand how these initiatives have been covered in Malaysian media, I examined 100 articles published from January to October 2020 on four online mainstream media outlets—The Star, the New Straits Times, The Malaysian Reserve, and Free Malaysia Today—which shows that green growth in this country has mostly been reported on from a pro-government perspective rather than an advocacy one.
Green growth coverage dependent on government agenda
The news cycle on economy-wide green development in Malaysia largely correlated with government announcements on the topic. The PH government emphasized climate change as a national priority, creating a Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change (MESTECC) whose climate announcements often featured in national news. After the PH coalition’s ousting in February, climate articles dwindled in numbers until the lead-up to Malaysia’s 2021 Budget Plan announced in November, which contained references to green development. Articles in the lead up to the plan mostly relied on government quotes and displayed an overly rosy attitude about green development as part of the government’s COVID recovery plan.
In an October article featured in The Star, author Rashvinjeet S. Bedi quoted the Prime Minister in his headlines: “Sustainable development, green technology to play vital role in driving economy”. Using the Prime Minister’s statements, he claimed that green technology development will create a low carbon and resource-efficient economy, and further added that Malaysia was taking steps to embrace a circular economy with low-carbon targets. Interestingly, the article also framed COVID-19 as a moral wake-up call for Malaysia to rethink its development agenda.
For independent online portals such as Free Malaysia Today, journalists had more leeway to frame economic transition articles from the perspective of think-tanks. For example, in an article titled “Think-tank urges government to ramp up spending in Budget 2021“, Imran Ariff covered the economy as a whole while quoting Research for Social Advancement (REFSA) sources as they urged the government to increase its investment in the green economy.
Even then, Free Malaysia Today journalists found it hard to pitch articles on green growth topics not covered at all in government plans or announcements. Free Malaysia Today reporter Jason Thomas shared, “I wanted to highlight areas of infrastructure projects that must not be done at the expense of deforestation and degradation of the natural environment, but that did not get much focus during the Budget 2021 announcement”.
I wanted to highlight areas of infrastructure projects that must not be done at the expense of deforestation and degradation of the natural environment, but that did not get much focus during the Budget 2021 announcement.Free Malaysia Today reporter Jason Thomas
Large-scale-solar (LSS) policy framed as boosting national economic growth
One topic, however, did gain considerable coverage in 2020 as part of the government’s post-COVID recovery strategy. In June 2020, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources opened competitive bidding for 1GW of large-scale solar as an immediate way to boost the Malaysian economy. Unsurprisingly, the energy and electricity sector accounts for the highest number of sector-specific articles in Malaysia that adopt a green growth frame in 2020, at 27 out of 100 articles in our sample.
Among articles that cover green growth in specific sectors, most focus on the energy sector.
Energy stories dominate across all outlets and their different news sections, though they are framed slightly differently by each outlet. Articles in The Star typically framed renewable energy as having a “positive outlook” and green energy as “the key to sustainable future”. Similarly, the New Straits Times headlines often featured ways for energy companies to “jumpstart the power sector”.
For example, the article “Govt to offer 1,000MW solar quota under LSS@MEnTARI” by Zahratulhayat Mat Arif in New Straits Times framed the LSS programme positively as a move by the government to revive and stimulate the economy following the Covid-19 outbreak. The reporter provided an economic basis for her frame by stating solar projects will generate RM4 billion investment with the assumption that the renewable energy will benefit the economy and its people. Furthermore, she moralized her statements by emphasizing how the LSS programme will create 12,000 job opportunities to cushion the impact of Covid-19.
Op-eds frame progress on green growth as inadequate
The only articles in my sample that explicitly criticized government green growth policies as inadequate were nine op-ed pieces written by veteran columnists in mainstream media outlets. As staff writers attached to mainstream publications were not seen adopting a critical stance in their reporting, these perspectives were often left to op-ed writers.
For example, Alizan Mahadi, a division director at the Institute Of Strategic & International Studies Malaysia, wrote an op-ed for the New Straits Times titled “Make Environment A Security Issue”. Here, Mahadi formed linkages between water disruption, climate change and Covid-19. He stressed that natural resources will soon be scarce if the government did not implement more ambitious policies and used scientific data from the National Water Services Commission (SPAN) Water and Sewerage 2018 report to back his findings.
Meanwhile, specialist writer at The Star Siti Nuradzimmah emphasized that green growth has become a vital component that’s widely-discussed amidst the pandemic. Investments in sustainable development and renewable energy technologies would create new jobs, emphasizing on circular business models, thus giving a better alternative to the GDP-driven model. However, Nuradzimmah noted that green growth must be embraced “first and foremost at the policy-making level, which requires a strong political will”—something that veteran columnists are advocating for.
To sum up, my framing analysis showed that most articles discussing economy-wide green growth framed the concept as positively contributing to Malaysia’s COVID-19 recovery. However, the number of articles on this topic decreased after February and increased in the lead-up to the 2021 Budget Plan release, with mainstream journalists mostly quoting government announcements. This shows that the media in this country is still highly dependent on the government’s framing of discourse.
Want to read more about green growth reporting in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam? STAY TUNED for our full research report, “A Green New Deal for Southeast Asia? How COVID-19 Shifted Green Growth Narratives Across Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam” coming out Dec 18.