The day a PM reined in Utusan’s racial talk

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PETALING JAYA: An associate of former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has written about the time Utusan Malaysia toned down its potentially racial coverage after a phone call from the prime minister.

Businessman Kalimullah Hassan, then deputy chairman of the News Straits Times Press, contrasted Abdullah’s approach to that of his successor, prime minister Najib Razak, towards Utusan Malaysia, which is owned by Umno.

“If Najib had only done that, perhaps we would not have seen provocative headlines such as the now infamous ‘Apa Lagi Cina Mahu?’ (What More Do The Chinese Want?) in Utusan Malaysia and the many other provocative and race-baiting articles that it has published since,” Kalimullah wrote.

Kalimullah’s account about the phone call to Utusan in 2006 was included in his new book The Malaysia That Could Be, an anthology of his articles. An extract was published today by the Straits Times of Singapore.

He wrote that the phone call was made when aides gathered to finalise his speech to the 2006 Umno general assembly. An editorial in the Utusan Malaysia newspaper that morning had created concern.

Anuar Zaini, then chairman of the Bernama news agency, and Kamal Khalid, who was Abdullah’s head of communications, were upset about the “very right-wing” tone of the editorial.

“We all agreed that the editorial bordered on being racist and was potentially harmful, especially if Umno members took it as a cue to spew similar comments during debates at the assembly,” wrote Kalimullah.

He said Kamal alerted Abdullah to the editorial when the PM joined the group for breakfast. “Abdullah’s face clouded and his demeanour changed. He was angry and he asked Kamal to call Datuk Khalid Mohd, editor-in-chief of Utusan Malaysia”.

He said Abdullah told Khalid that the editorial bordered on being seditious.

Going by memory, Kalimullah quoted Abdullah as telling Khalid: “You are my friend, Khalid. But if the police decide to investigate you for sedition, I cannot stop them. I have to allow the law to run its course. I cannot tell the police that you are my friend and not to investigate you. And if they think there is a case for you to answer, I am afraid I will not be able to help you.”

Kalimullah said that Utusan’s subsequent coverage of the Umno assembly “was muted and there were no more such editorials”.

A former journalist himself, Kalimullah wrote that he did not condone government interference in the media but “in the context of Malaysia” and Malaysian laws on race and religion, “it is necessary to caution those who stray off this path that they are treading a slippery slope”.

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