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A strike for press freedom

THE politics of Utusan Malaysia, with its championing of Malay rights, has raised concerns of late. The influential Malay-language daily is unapologetic about pushing forward the Malay (some would say Umno) agenda, often running roughshod over the sentiments of the other races.

But the Utusan Malaysia of today is very different from the Utusan Melayu of the 1950s and 60s. Then, the influential newspaper was independent, free to voice the concerns of the Malay heartland and take the government to task over perceived shortcomings.

The man who came to embody Utusan‘s struggles back in its heyday was Singapore-born Said Zahari. The actions of the then editor-in-chief were prime points of contestation for Malaysian press and politics.

For his role in the Utusan Melayu strike of 1961 — a protest against Umno’s takeover of the paper — Said Zahari was barred from entering Malaya by executive order. This restriction was only lifted when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister.

For being part of the Singaporean left, he was accused of being a communist, and now holds the dubious honour of being the second longest-serving political detainee of the island state, having spent 17 years banished to Pulau Ubin.

Such a lack of historical perspective afflicts both the man and the newspaper for which he once stood. The Nut Graph sat down with the 80-year-old press veteran and activist to find out what the paper he helped build was like in its more idealistic days; the effects of the takeover of Utusan by Umno; and its impact on press freedom.

TNG: Tell us what Utusan Melayu was like in the 1950s and 60s.

Said Zahari: The people who worked in the Utusan of those years, ever since the Singapore days, were not only journalists; they were also political activists. Journalism and politics were inseparable, because those were the years when we were fighting against colonialism. We wanted to contribute to the fight for independence — and Utusan always played a very important role in that.

When the Tunku (Tunku Abdul Rahman) won the 1955 general election, he knew Utusan supported the Perikatan (Alliance) government. But with this support, we wanted the government to fulfil all the promises it made during the election campaign. We insisted that we needed full independence, not Merdeka setengah masak. That was our line. With the independence agreement with the British, we would still be under the influence of outside [forces] — our former colonial masters, just wearing a different mask. Economically, they would control us, as things such as the rubber plantations were still owned by the British.

I remember telling the Tunku: “Utusan is owned by the Malays. It is supposed to serve the Malay community, not to serve a small group of Malays who are members of Umno. There are Malays in the Labour Party, in the People’s Party; Malays in PAS.”

Umno, at that time, would have only had a couple of hundred members. So it was not fair to force Utusan Melayu to serve only Umno.

Scene of the Utusan strike (Pic from Meniti Lautan Gelora, courtesy of Said Zahari)

The 1961 strike was a reaction to Umno’s bid to control Utusan Melayu‘s editorial policy. Why did they want the paper so badly?

Utusan Melayu was the most influential newspaper in Malaya at the time. Our actual circulation was very small: about 25,000 copies a month, at the most. But a large percentage of the Malay population lived in the rural areas, and three-quarters of our newspapers went to the villages. What they would do was simple: every morning, they’d come to the coffee shop before they go to the sawah. One Utusan Melayu would be shared by so many people. In terms of readership, we probably had hundreds of thousands.

Umno had its own party newspaper, called Suara Umno or something like that. It wasn’t very influential; even some Umno members didn’t read it. They were looking for an alternative, and Utusan was definitely the best option for them.

Why go on strike?

I happened to be editor-in-chief at the time. I was in my thirties. They all said, later, that I was too young, and therefore I took a very tough stance on the issue.

Leslie Hoffman was one of these people. He was the former editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times; he had been in Singapore, with the Straits Times, and then moved up after independence. We were friends for many, many years. When we went on strike, Leslie was very worried. He asked me why I did this, saying, “You know you are fighting against the government, and you can never win.”

I said, “I know I cannot win. But I’m not fighting against the government. I’m fighting to maintain the principle of freedom of the press. I’ll lose — so be it. Utusan journalists will be remembered as journalists who tried to prevent the taking over of newspapers by the government, or political parties in power. That’s all.”

A point of curiosity in your memoir Meniti Lautan Gelora is Siaran Mogok, produced during the strike, which started on 21 July 1961. Could you tell us more about it?

Siaran Mogok was a bulletin — a few pages long and edited by Usman Awang — which reported daily activities: what was going on, who came to support us, the issue of why we went on strike itself. It was circulated among the staff, and whoever came.

There was a lot of support for us, from everywhere. There were opposition party members, of course. And  believe me, even Umno people came to visit us to support our strike! Yes, Umno from certain branches. They supported us, they said, “Utusan should remain an independent newspaper.”

With that kind of support we managed to carry on, until slightly over a month, on 30 Aug, when I was stopped at immigration [trying to come back from Singapore]. They organised a group of people to break the strike from within; without me they acted. Once there was news that I was banned from coming back, it was the beginning of the split within the camp.

What were the immediate effects of the strike? Was there a loss of confidence, now that readers were aware that Utusan Melayu was biased?

In the beginning, no. In fact, the circulation increased after the strike, very much, almost immediately. It was backed by government support. In fact, that was what (subsequent editor-in-chief) Ibrahim Fikri said: we broke the strike, [and] now Utusan is very rich.

People in general did not really understand the reasons for the takeover. But I told the Tunku a long, long time ago: “Tunku, you want Utusan to serve only Umno; it can no longer be the Malays’ voice. Slowly, people will understand. Even if they buy the newspaper, it will not be because they support you, but because they have no alternative.”

Tunku Abdul Rahman (Pic from Meniti
Lautan Gelora
, courtesy of Said Zahari)
The Tunku said: “No, no, we’ll make sure it won’t happen.”

“Okay, good luck to you,” I said.

In retrospect, what was the significance of the the Umno takeover?

The death of press freedom started with the Utusan strike, although this was not generally understood at the time. The thinking that it was a turning point was very appropriate, because when you talk about control of the press being taken over by the government, or political parties in government, it started with Utusan.

I told Leslie: “Mark my words. Now that they are taking over Utusan, they are taking over our freedom to run a newspaper as genuine journalists, like you and I feel it should be. In the next few years, even the Straits Times will be taken over by them.”

Later on, when groups affiliated with the MCA started taking over Chinese-language newspapers like Nanyang Siang Pau, people started to remember what happened to Utusan Melayu. Forty years later, and exactly the same thing happened.

Part two: Utusan today, the ISA and ketuanan Melayu

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One Response to “A strike for press freedom”

  1. hassan says:

    Read above words from the true fighters, I wish we have a lot more people like this, fighting for the right cause.

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