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MGG: Press be damned - the setting Sun sets the pace
By M.G.G. Pillai
3/1/2002 2:17 pm Thu
Thursday, January 3, 2002
Press be damned - the setting Sun sets the pace
1:17pm, Thu: A truth foretold in Malaysia is that English-language
newspapers treading unbeaten paths must be reined in. The
government insists press freedom is absolute in Malaysia, and woe
betide any who challenge it.
The information minister threatens to put press freedom on notice if
the editors and reporters get uppity and do what they should not:
challenge official assertions and look at events from a neutral or
But this press freedom is how the government defines it, not in its
accepted meaning. And comes with several inalienable caveats: the
government is always right, the opposition a disorganised bunch of
political no-hopers, that the Barisan Nasional can do no wrong
especially when it does, that the acceptable press freedom is how
the leader of the country views it.
The government does the newspapers a favour in allowing them an
unfettered right to praise it.
It is not surprising then that editors can fall between two stools when
they praise the government and lose their jobs. The shifting sands of
political alignments, rarely reported, is so mendaciously frightening
that even well-connected editors stumble off the editorial tightrope
Editors lose their jobs not for their incompetence but when they fall
foul of the leader of the day.
So it is, as 2002 rolls in, with Malaysia's three English-language
newspapers: New Straits Times, The Star, and The Sun. The first is
controlled by Umno, the second by MCA, and the third a
businessman dependent on government contracts to survive.
Each decided to shoot itself in the foot, and put itself at risk with its
readers. And reflected an arrogance combined with fear. Even more
frightening is the huge corporate debt, which makes it easy for those
who control the treasury to pull the plug.
Stretching the limits
The Sun decided to have its own reporters do the reporting. The
New Straits Times and The Star rely more on the official news
agency, Bernama, than its own reporters.
The Sun stretched the limits of what could be reported, and did it
well. It is a practice it inherited. The Sun was sold to another
businessman who revamped it with editorial brilliance; when the deal
fell through, for political than business reasons, the owners had a
revamped paper they went along with.
Circulation rose. It had a point of view. It had columns. It sold well
that it soon threatened to overtake the New Straits Times, once
Malaysia's best selling paper but long overtaken by The Star.
So, when The Sun carried a front-page story on Christmas day of
an assassination plot against the prime minister and deputy prime
minister, the owner sacked those who tried to put out a readable
paper, and roped in a crony to run it.
In a paper strong on bylines, the first issue of the new year carried
none. Reporters took to the streets to demand justice and promised
bonuses. The management promptly rejected the demands, and
strives hard to be a bad newspaper.
The Sun, with its soul cut out, no surviving graces, heavily
indebted, can but drift along to irrelevance and disaster.
The Star, without a stand of its own except to back the MCA
president against his challengers, puts out a 'cut-and-paste'
newspaper with no editorial or voice of its own.
It brought in wealth beyond its wildest dreams. But the arrogance of
its success caused it to buy the Nanyang Siang Pau, at the MCA
president Dr Ling Liong Sik's command, and finds its reserves
Like The Sun, its wings are badly broken and almost beyond
A flawed revamp
The New Straits Times is into yet another revamp, still beholden to
the Malay community's boycott of it after the former deputy prime
minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked and jailed.
The new editor-in-chief Abdullah Ahmad, has his priorities right, he
brings in more columnists and promises to change it to one
Malaysians cannot do without.
But the revamp is flawed. His first change was to turn it into a
Malaysian edition of USA Today. The USA Today is aimed at the TV
watching citizenry, with an attention span of that medium.
To transplant it into the New Straits Times, and bringing in
columnists, would make it a hotchpotch for which it was famous for.
What Malaysians need is a serious newspaper, in which the issues
of the day are reported and discussed.
My first reaction was one of elation: at last, the issues of the day
would be discussed: it does not matter what that point of view is, it is
there to be debated.
This was where The Sun was before its seppukku. The New Straits
Times, in its changes, proclaims it contains 'all the news that
matter;. It is more like all the news that does not.
The latest is yet another attempt to hold on to its readers. One
cannot be sure if it would succeed, and if it would not meet the
same fate as The Sun.
Like all Malaysian newspapers, but especially the English, anything
that upsets the equanimity of whoever is in power is verboten.
Retribution is swift. Editors are replaced at the drop of a hat, and
chosen more for their political acceptability than journalistic
competence or editorial judgements.
Muting the opposition
With the Malay ground neutral, Umno cannot make itself heard as it
once could. The New Straits Times stands on its head to bring back
But that is conditional upon justice meted out to Anwar. Malay
politics, to which the New Straits Times is inexplicably linked, is
what sets the pace, not who controls it.
There is another unexplained and unmentioned reason: A general
election is likely within the next year, and the Barisan Nasional
divided internally and without a clear idea of how to fight it, wants to
rein in the press so that the opposition voice would be muted.
The Sun was the first casualty of that. The other two papers, with
financial and political problems of their own, can be relied upon not
to rock the boat.
So, we have three English newspapers, mostly heavily in debt, all
looking at ways, willy nilly, how they can blow up into smithereens
and retain the loyalty of its readers, and hope their backers have
the political and business clout to keep the banker wolves from their
At present, they can. But for how long?