Utusan and the wave of Malay dignity

It’s ironic that two days after several thousand Malays gathered in a show of strength to declare that they were fighting for Malay dignity, the first Malay-owned newspaper in Malaysia came to a not-so-dignified end.

Those who claim so loudly about a loss of Malay dignity after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government had taken power in May last year may want to ask themselves what happened and why they did not act in concert – not just talk – to save the paper that had done so much for the Malays.

They should ask if Utusan’s failure is a reflection of the failure of the New Economic Policy. Umno kept it alive by funding it through various means. This included getting Umno MPs to sponsor copies of Utusan Malaysia for schools and getting government-linked companies to place their advertisements in the paper, sometimes exclusively.

As a result, circulation figures and revenue were not reflective of the real market situation.

And who suffers? The Umno politicians who made the decisions? The management team? The editorial team? No. My fellow journalists in Utusan are the victims. It always comes down to the workers – they have to bear the brunt of failed policies and incompetent management.

But there is some good news for those who love Utusan Malaysia as the printing licence has been acquired by a company called Aurora Mulia, linked to tycoon Syed Mokhtar AlBukhary, from holding company Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd which is to be liquidated.

I suppose this is to give a free hand to the new company to rehire only some of the journalists, and that too on new contracts and pay scales.

I’m wondering if the closure at this point in time, coming two days after the “Malay dignity” gathering, is a political move. Already some Umno leaders, including president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, have said Utusan’s demise is due or partly to the PH government.

Zahid said on Oct 9 that government “cruelty” had resulted in the freezing of Umno’s accounts and that it was, therefore, in no position to extend financial help to Utusan as it had done in the past.

Is this the message being conveyed to the Malay voters: the Malay-owned and Malay-run newspaper has come to an end because Malays have lost power with the ascension of PH?

The truth is, as the Utusan branch of the National Union of Journalists noted, there was too much political interference in Utusan Malaysia. During Najib Razak’s time it was totally unrecognisable as a newspaper, sounding more like a party pamphlet. But the rot started during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first stint as prime minister.

It was to prevent politics from encroaching into Utusan that a brave band of 135 journalists went on a three-month strike in 1961.

By 1961, Umno had bought a controlling stake in the company. Utusan journalists, who had been fiercely independent although fighting for Malay rights, were unhappy. When Umno tried to dictate editorial policy by appointing its former information officer Ibrahim Fikri as editor-in-chief and managing director in 1961, the journalists, led by the then editor-in-chief Said Zahari, went on strike.

But they could not prevent the Umno takeover. For his courage to stand up for editorial independence, Said was barred from entering Malaya. The restriction was lifted when Mahathir 1.0 became prime minister. In Singapore, Said was accused of being a communist and banished to Pulau Ubin for 17 years by Lee Kuan Yew’s government. He was released in 1979.

Said did warn first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman against taking control of Utusan as the paper would then no longer be for the Malays but a particular party. The Tunku assured him this would not happen. The Tunku kept his word but some of his successors were fans of media control.

Said had also predicted that if Utusan was allowed to be controlled by a political party, other newspapers would not be safe. He was proven correct, as Umno, MCA and MIC later directly or indirectly took control of several major newspapers.

Said had, in 2008, warned that if Utusan were to move in its then trajectory, it would become irrelevant. He was again proven correct. However, this icon of Malay journalism – who has not been given the dignity he deserves – did not expect it to die.

I empathise with the chairman of the Utusan Malaysia branch of the National Union of Journalists Mohd Taufek Razak who, in no uncertain terms, blamed Umno’s meddling for the demise of the paper. He cried that Utusan had operated not for profit but for political interests and that the current situation was the “aftermath of political control” of the newspaper.

I hope Utusan’s 862 staff – including all journalists – are rehired when Utusan Malaysia starts again.

If Utusan begins rolling out again, it will be the third time a publication rolls out with this name.

A newspaper with the name Utusan Melayu first appeared in 1907. It was published as the Malay edition of the Singapore Free Press by its proprietors Walter Makepeace and St Clair. It was published thrice a week. The pages were in Jawi, except for the last page which was in Romanised Malay. In 1915, it became a daily. It ceased publication in 1921 after a libel case.

On May 29, 1939 a new Utusan Melayu rolled off the press from Singapore. It was the first fully Malay-owned newspaper.

Other “local” newspapers were already in circulation but these were owned by people of Arabic descent or Indian Muslims and catered to Muslims in general. Leaders of the Singapore Malay Union, including Daud Mohd Shah, Embok Suloh and Yusof Ishak, the last of whom went on to become Singapore’s first president, wanted a fully Malay-owned paper to promote Malay interests. Yusof and others went around Singapore, Johor and Kuala Lumpur selling shares to ordinary Malays but it was not enough, so Daud and Embok , who were wealthy, put in large sums to get the paper rolling.

Its stated aims were to serve the nation and “the Muslim religion”, to “co-operate and to exchange ideas for the common good”.

Before the end of 1939, Abdul Rahim Kajai, who had quit his position at Warta Melayu, joined Utusan Melayu and steered the new paper to great success. The Romanised version, Utusan Malaysia, only took birth in 1967, although it was preceded by Mingguan Malaysia in 1964.

Utusan was born at a time when consciousness of Malay dignity was high, when Malays began to feel they had to take charge of their destiny or others would. Those behind Utusan were fired up to make good, and worked very hard at it.

Utusan was born on a wave of genuine Malay dignity consciousness in 1939. Its death came about two days after a political show about Malay dignity.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT