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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
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.