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MGG: The Sun eclipses after a messy seppukku
By M.G.G. Pillai

15/1/2002 3:05 am Tue

Two months ago, The Sun newspaper was a much-admired newspaper. Its reporters were proud to be working for it, what they wrote was prominently featured, and their colleagues in other newspapers drooled at the freedom they had to report and comment. It did not aim to best the two market leaders, The New Straits Times and The Star, but for a niche market in the Klang Valley. It had a soul, and soon it was neck-to-neck with the NST in circulation. It still ran at a loss, but that had to do with its inflated start-up debts and too few advertisements, not its popularity or journalistic competence. Today, it is on its death throes, surrounded by vultures -- competitors, political, financial, business -- waiting to pick at its entrails at its death. Its owners, at the material time, Tan Sri Vincent Tan and his legal sidekick and holiday companion of chief justices and attorneys-general, Dato' V.K. Lingam, are responsible not for its success but its death.

What set it on its road to destruction was a story on Christmas Day of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and the deputy prime minister. It was checked with high officials of the government and the police, and published. It is madness to carry a report of this nature without it doubly and triply checked. The police were well aware of the plot, and reporters knew of it months ahead, but told not to publish it. The Sun was not at that police briefing, heard of it later and confirmed its veracity before it published it. But it was used to get rid of its managing director and editor-in-chief, not aligned to Tan Sri Vincent, and others; its editor resigned in disgust. The reporters and sub-editors involved were suspended. And the new deputy chairman, Dato' V.K. Lingam had a front-page apology to the Prime Minister over the story, written by a lawyer not a reporter, which gave notice to the reporters that it is he who would decision what is right and proper to print in the newspaper.

The reporters and editorial staff went on strike, and those who did not refused to allow their bylines to be used. Quickly The Sun came to look more like the New Straits Times without its new found verve. Circulation dropped. Tan Sri Vincent Tan, however smart his crony connexions led him to, is always caught out when he confronts journalists. But he believes that his friendship with those with offices in Putra Jaya would rescue him each time. They have not. He gets nervous. And he sacks reporters and staff with abandon, claiming poor economic conditions for his actions. He denies promised bonuses and salary rises. He closes down the bureaus, except Penang, and 60, including most bureau chiefs, sacked. More are likely. Dato' Lingam went about his sackings with no thought to contracts its signed, and those sacked in the first flush are members of the National Union of Journalists. This got the Human Resources Ministry to complain.

And Tan Sri Vincent Tan insists, contrary to the Prime Minister's, and the government's, insistence, that the declining economy forces him to retrench. In other words, he expects a privatisation even when he believes the economy heads for a downturn, so serious that he must shut down a newspaper to cut losses. And yet, when he was given three privatisations when the economy was on the way up, he failed ignominously. And he expects a fourth. The Malay is incensed the government rewards a crony for failing, while he is attacked when he cannot succeed. Tan Sri Vincent is therefore in a bind. He moved against the Sun not on his own volition but to to ensure he gets the promised privatisation. The Sun was getting too hot for the government's liking, and it was eating into the NST's circulation. So, it had to be killed. So he performs the coup de grace.

But killing a newspaper for reasons other than the economic is as chancy as destroying a journalist for writing what annoys the subject. So, Tan Sri Vincent lost every confrontation he has had with journalism and newspapers. His clashes with M.G.G. Pillai and Ganesh Sahatheven are unsettled. He thought he could get away with mass sackings in The Sun, and fails too. If, against all odds, he is given the promised life saver in the form of the privatisation or another gambling licence, and he may get one if the other is denied, he is in for more trouble than he bargains for. If he gets the privatisation, it is not going to be looked at lightly by the Malay community. If he gets the gambling licence, it goes against the official policy of no man allowed more than one. If as a crony, the rules are broken, he would get a poisoned chalice instead.

The licence is to purchase Magnum, the four-digit gambling company. Magnum, you would recall, is the backer of Malaysia's foolish extravagance into motor racing: the KL Minardi Asiatech racing car. I understand its commitment is only up RM5 million, the rest is underwritten by Petronas. If Tan Sri Vincent takes it over, he would be held hostage and cover the whole cost of the venture: about RM1 billion a year at the least. And he could not now crow about it in his newspaper. It would pack up earlier than anyone expects.

M.G.G. Pillai