A tale of 2 newspapers, and its lesson to others

It is sad that Utusan Malaysia had to fold.

Just six months ago, one of the oldest Tamil dailies, Tamil Nesan, also met the same fate.

Financial difficulties, lack of political patronage and reduced readership contributed to the cessation of these publications.

The saddest part of their closure were the hundreds of workers who became unemployed. In Utusan’s case, 800 people lost their jobs.

They now face an uphill task in finding jobs to feed their families.

These two papers – Utusan Malaysia and Tamil Nesan – were at one time under the patronage of Umno and MIC, who kept alive the dailies while in power.

The problem started the day Barisan Nasional lost the general election.

But it could have been mitigated to some extent, had the dailies been independent and practised balanced news coverage.

Unfortunately, the management and editorial staff became arrogant. They thought Umno and MIC were unshakable, and ignored other political parties they were not in favour of.

Utusan lived in its own make-believe world, where Umno was right and the party and its policies had to be supported at all costs.

Even legal suits were inconsequential for the publication.

It was only a matter of time before the paper lost its legitimacy.

Utusan Malaysia might have been the favourite Malay daily for some time. But whatever progressive content it had was reduced to the survival requirements of Umno.

Umno became the “albatross around the neck” of the paper.

The financial lifeline thrown by Umno was not forever.

Alternative sources of information, online publications and the difficulty of censoring soon dawned upon Utusan and other dailies.

With declining circulation, revenue was affected.

Utusan clung on with powerful patronage from Umno, but it was a just a matter of time before Umno and BN cracked under the burden of corruption, scandals and rising expectations.

In the case of Tamil Nesan, it was owned/controlled by former MIC president S Samy Vellu and his cronies.

The paper had in its early years covered broad aspects of Malaysian Indians, their problems and their future prospects.

I remember when I was working closely with plantation workers in places like Pahang, Selangor and Melaka in the 1980s and 1990s – Tamil Nesan was the only publication that gave effective coverage on the plight of plantation workers.

But like Utusan with Umno, Tamil Nesan came to be closely integrated with the MIC leadership, particularly under Samy.

It merely echoed the views of the MIC leadership. It lost its respect and support from rank-and-file Indians, especially among the working class.

Soon the publication’s sales dropped as more Indians turned to other Tamil-language publications such as Malaysia Nanban and Makkal Osai.

Tamil Nesan was eventually folded up by none other than Samy’s son, Vell Paari, who cited financial difficulties.

The fate suffered by the two Malaysian dailies is an important lesson for other publications.

In the plethora of alternative news sources, political patronage is not enough to save newspapers from oblivion.

The sad part of the Utusan and Tamil Nesan episodes is the fate of their workers and their families.

P Ramasamy is Penang deputy chief minister II.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.