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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

M.G.G. Pillai

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 independent perspective.

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 they negotiate.

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 bleeding away.

Like The Sun, its wings are badly broken and almost beyond healing.

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 that support.

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 front door.

At present, they can. But for how long?