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“Utusan will become very irrelevant”

JOURNALIST Said Zahari was a seminal force in Utusan Melayu during its heyday as an independent publication. He led the paper’s 1961 strike in protest of a takeover bid by Umno, which resulted in him being banned from entering Malaysia. The ban was only lifted in the 1980s.

A consummate man of letters, Said has written two memoirs, Meniti Lautan Gelora and Dalam Ribuan Mimpi Gelisah (available in English as Dark Clouds at Dawn and The Long Nightmare, respectively). He is currently working on a third.

In part two of this exclusive interview, The Nut Graph talks to the former editor and political detainee about what he thinks of Utusan today, the ketuanan Melayu concept, the role of draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), and what needs to happen before there is freedom for the Malaysian press.

TNG: With the 1961 strike in mind, it is clear that Utusan Malaysia today is a very different animal than it was during those times. What do you think of the newspaper now?

Said Zahari: Now we can see that, although Utusan can survive with government support, they have lost complete credibility.

Look at the recent incidents against Teresa Kok. And then, why has this Chamil Wariya suddenly become a short story writer? I remember talking to some of the Utusan people who came to see me. I said: “What the hell are you doing this? What are you trying to prove?”

It’s because of this kind thing that people will lose confidence. Last week I read a report, referring to Malay-language newspapers, which said that the circulation for Utusan and Berita Harian has come down to about 200,000. It was up to one million before, with the Sunday paper; the daily paper used to have 300,000 to 400,000. Now it’s so low.

I told them: “If Utusan is stupid enough not to see this, then Utusan will become very irrelevant.” Nobody will care for Utusan anymore. Now that people have the internet, they have an alternative.

Senator Datuk Wira Syed Ali Alhabshee, in a statement about the Umno Cheras-sponsored Tabung Azan, was quoted as saying “akhbar Utusan Malaysia milik orang Melayu, sinonim dengan perjuangan Umno, maka tindakan Teresa [Kok] itu samalah seperti menggugat kepentingan seluruh umat Islam.”

They distorted Teresa Kok’s stand on certain issues — the azan, for example. These things have been disproved, but they were all deliberately distorted. They use Teresa Kok as an anti-Malay symbol. So they spread this over, along with the idea that Utusan is synonymous with Umno. Then when Teresa sued Utusan, they said: “We must defend Utusan.” Because she is Chinese, she is from DAP, therefore she is anti-Umno, anti-Melayu, and anti-Islam. But it is not true! And this was not the original issue!

This is what happens when a small group of people manipulate the news, and make use of the name “Melayu”. People don’t discuss the real issue itself. It’s as simple as that.

The Pakatan Rakyat need to do more than boycott Utusan. Particularly, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS should go around to the people, to the grassroots, to explain that to play communal and religious issues will not solve the country’s problems.

“Ketuanan Melayu” is a major part of the current political rhetoric. What are your thoughts on the concept?

I just want to say, I don’t understand why Umno wants to play the role of “tuan”. Why do you want to talk about “ketuanan Melayu”? The symbol of that is the Agong — and nobody can touch him. Who worries about a Chinese [Malaysian] or Indian [Malaysian] becoming the Agong? As for economic matters, the constitution and the New Economic Policy guarantee a lot of rights for the Malays. There’s nothing at stake for “ketuanan Melayu”. Enough lah.

What Umno should be concerned for is “kepimpinan Melayu” — orang Melayu jadi pemimpin bangsa Malaysia. In other words, you make sure that Malays can be leaders of Malaysia, for this whole nation, not just Umno.

They make “ketuanan Melayu” an issue because when they are in trouble, they think they can unite the Malays on this. But it won’t work now because of the new media. The different views are well known. People will understand where you try to bluff, to cheat.

You are perhaps most well known for having been detained under Singapore’s ISA, spending 17 years on Pulau Ubin. What are your thoughts about detention without trial? Has there ever been a point in Malaysian history where the ISA was necessary?

The ISA in Singapore is similar to the one here. Both exist not for the internal security of the country, as they claim, but always for the interests of the political leaders in power.

Let’s go back to the origins of the ISA, when the British declared Emergency. The purpose of the Emergency Regulations, ostensibly, was to fight against terrorists — the same so-called terrorists, the Malayan Communist Party, that had helped them during the war. But when arrests were made, not many communists were arrested. There were more leaders of the Malay nationalist groups who were taken: people from the Malay Nationalist Party, and so on.

Said carrying buckets of water during his time on Pulau Ubin
(Pic from Menitis Lautan Gelora, courtesy of Said Zahari)
So [the explicit reason for the ISA is] rubbish, to me. Till today, there has not been a case where an ISA detainee has been proven to be a terrorist. The ISA has always been there to intimidate the people. It is at the apex of all sorts of laws that frighten the people.

Among these laws are the Official Secrets Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which affect the media directly. You are also known as a press freedom advocate. In your memoir Meniti Lautan Gelora, you observe that the most vocal proponents of press freedom come from opposition parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Are journalists themselves doing enough to defend their autonomy?

Journalists of today work for newspapers owned by certain groups with certain interests. If they do not serve their owners, they may not be able to continue working. There is this struggle between personally thinking of the role of journalism, and the fear of losing their livelihood. People from NGOs don’t have worry so much.

This is why until now I don’t remember any of the mainstream newspaper editors discussing freedom of the press. They may comment on how the anti-media laws affect their daily operations, but they don’t severely criticise these laws.

Because of all this fear, the minds of journalists are controlled. Under these circumstances, the future of the Malaysian media depends on what the journalists themselves think. If their own minds are not free, don’t even talk about press freedom — one’s creativity, the most important tool for a journalist, is gone.

Journalists have to decide that they should be free to express their opinion. Then change can happen. We have to start from there. It is possible, but we may need some time.

What are your thoughts on new media, such as those represented by the internet? What do you think is this nascent form’s role in Malaysian discourse?

The traditional media is now beginning to realise that they can no longer play the most important role in shaping public opinion. The situation has changed. For one, there are all the alternative, opposition papers. But on top of that, there is the internet: news portals and blogs.

The thing about blogs and all that is that people have a medium to express. They comment on each other’s writing — and this is a good thing for our country, because things are becoming more open. You will get a number of people writing rubbish, but it doesn’t matter. I can write, and I may not be right in giving my opinion, but let other people say where I am wrong.

When [Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad] started blogging, within six months he had the most widely read Malaysian blog. Why? Because people want to know what Mahathir has to say. Let him speak. And this is the time you can attack Mahathir if you think what he says is wrong.

Former Utusan editor-in-chief Yusof
Ishak (Pic from Meniti Lautan Gelora,
courtesy of Said Zahari)
What are your hopes for Utusan?

I have an emotional attachment to Utusan. Politically, journalistically, I grew up in the paper. That feeling is still there, in spite of my hating their current policy.

When I took over the editorship from Yusof Ishak, Utusan played our role in serving the Malays. But we wanted it to be not just the Malays. Back then, the paper was in Jawi. For our second phase we planned Utusan Melayu Muda, in Rumi script. Through Rumi, we would reach non-Malays; we could serve the Malayan people. Kepentingan rakyat was our focus back then: democracy, social justice, freedom.

Of course, I would love it if Utusan Malaysia could somehow go back to the spirit of the Utusan Melayu of the 1960s. I think there are people who feel like me, but I don’t know how widespread this feeling is.

See part one: A strike for press freedom

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One Response to ““Utusan will become very irrelevant””

  1. Sooth says:

    Thanks for bringing us this very candid interview with him. Many of the people who played a part in our independence have been sidelined in favour of an “Umno”-tised history. I guess the victors do write history.

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