The NST dilemma

CUTTING through the bilious fog of chatter about who’s in and who’s out, there remains the age-old dilemma that the Nasty Times has lived with since Tengku Razaleigh engineered the takeover of the Malaysian half of The Straits Times in the early 1970s.

That is, whether to be a professional purveyor of objective news and balanced opinion, or merely be a selfserving mouthpiece of the political and commercial interests of those in power, and survive on their handouts.

After the takeover an early portent of the skirmishes to come arose with the newly-appointed Marketing Director, of whom Pak Samad cuttingly observed that producing a newspaper was not like selling soap (as the man used to do at the factory next door, which spilled out a cloud of noxious orange fumes all day). And as David Tambyah later remarked, “We’re being screwed between the bookkeepers upstairs and the timekeepers downstairs.”

There’s not much difference today. Only in who’s calling the shots, and which floor they occupy. And these days, the noxious fumes are totally produced in-house.

Those were relatively easy times for the then not-so-Nasty Times: secure in its near-monopoly, having seen off the Eastern Sun, and with only a moribund Straits Echo and a fledging and struggling Star nipping ineffectually at its heels, secure in its political backing, enhanced by a cosy relationship with an establishment then still imbued with self-belief and principle.

The Nasty Times was able to pull off the occasional challenge to authority, one of the more memorable occasions being when the Bar rose as one against the monstrous challenge to individual liberty engineered by King Ghaz, among others, who proposed hooded anonymous witnesses testifying from behind a screen in security cases under Emergency powers. The NST’s extensive coverage of the response of an aghast establishment, with a long front-page lead on the debate at the Bar EGM, led to the proposal being watered down.

Can anyone imagine the NST carrying out anything like it today?

The Nasty Empire’s dilemma has been a constant no matter whose hands were at the controls. In any case control is only nominally in the hands of those appointed to high position. The real power lies in the prime minister’s department, the Umno president’s aides, Umno’s media control committee, the faceless Umno-controlled bureaucrats of KDN, especially the publications unit, and with the in-house stooges of Special Branch, the military, and foreign intelligence trying to pull off their little escapades in the background.

Against all this, what’s a professional journalist to do? And with the political pap put out at the behest of those concerned mainly with political survival, what’s a Circulation manager to do?

Salesman: NST, NST, hot news today, good news today, get your NST!

Customer:  NST-ah? How much? One riggit ah? What inside?

Salesman: Plenty of news, sir. Everything you need to know.

Customer: But this one all is Barisan propoganda.

Saleman: No sir, it’s all good news, it’s the true story sir. Look, look see this one, you know the real story about the Perak MB. Here look this one you see how great our police people, what a good job they are doing, here this one look all about this Minister, he is so great or not. So many things here la. This one here look about Iskandar is so great.

Customer: Ai yah don’t bullshit lah. You think I want to give you money and then you give me bullshit. (Salesman thinks: Yes, yes, that’s right, that’s what we want) You mad ah. You must pay me mah.

Salesman:  Pay you? But you’re wearing a Chelsea shirt. You paid for this shirt and you advertise Chelsea.

Customer: I supporter mah. Some more can make money from betting. Can make money from NST or not?

Salesman: You can learn good English. We have very good English. Look, see, so many big words, you know or not? You learn to talk big talk, you can get big job, get good money what. How about that?

Customer: Aiyah only for school children lah. Maybe good for teacher lah. We all working people lah. What for we talk big talk like Mat Salleh or what. You gila kah. Some more all your big words also all Barisan bullshit. Where got news?

Hah, pay money for your news ah! Hah! You better pay me to read lah.

End of story.

Fanciful or not it’s not too far from the truth. Circulation figures tell the story. From its heyday of near 200,000 copies — until The Star caught up and overtook the NST in 1987, at which point it was promptly shut down and told to shut up and sell out — to its current 100,000 or so, the NST has led a path of inexorable decline.  (I’m relying on memory here, without access to figures.) Even without having one hand and a leg tied behind our backs, what can be done in purely professional terms?

First, there’s self-serving p0litical crap.

Follow the PM’s line. Make this Minister look good. That Umno warlord is my friend, play him up. The IGP’s my friend (actually I’m scared of them, they have dirt on me) make sure the police look good. [Dr Mahathir himself recently said, when you’re dealing with people who have guns, you have to be very careful. Just as in 1987 he carefully pointed out that the swoop on dissenting voices in Operation Lallang was actually just a police action.]

Then there’s the self-serving Malay agenda crap.

Play up the Malay feller’s deeds (world-shattering invention, world-shattering explorations, world-shattering expeditions). Play down the other feller.

Oh wait, no no that’s wrong, now it’s all this unity crap. Okay play up the everybody-together crap. Plenty of feel-good stores and pictures, Malay feller, Chinese feller, Indian feller all doing good things together, eating together (no no cannot say sleeping together), but put the Malay feller in front, okay? Or something like that.

Then there’s the self-serving commercial crap. Okay Astro is a big advertiser, give Astro programmes lots of play. But don’t forget we own all those stations too. Play up our side. Run all their press releases. It’s clean, no need to worry just cut and paste. After all who knows? Easy work. And our friends and ex-colleagues working the other side of the fence can do us some favours some time. Freebies, free trips, free tickets, that sort of thing.

Oh yeah, Telekom also advertise big. Okay big play for Telekom stories. Celcom also? Okay same shit. Hey come on how about Digi, our friends are there. Okay run any old press release they send.

What gives in the corridors of economic power also determines what gives in the NST. Agriculture the big thing? Play up mangoes and apples. Environment very big? Also very safe. Okay play up Yangtze turtle. Never mind dead leatherback. (Poor Dr Chan, screwed again.)

It’s good to be a press agent these days. There’s a very good chance almost any old press release will make it verbatim. It’s clean, what. Why bother to rewrite? You think you get a promotion for this? Hey, take it easy, why you want to work so hard.

A very senior editor told me one day last year in the midst of my struggling to sort out some crap, “Come on lah, all your trying to maintain standards, what’s the point? What’s it going to get you?”

Hmm. What’s it going to get you…

So true. That’s what the Nasty Times is about, at all levels corporate or editorial. Can Johan, Mat Talib and friends change any of that?


  • Pak Samad: my old boss A Samad Ismail, then deputy group editor, later distinguished alumnus of Gulag Kamunting, and literature laureate
  • David Tambyah: deputy managing editor, later production editor, and lifelong stamp collector. Whatever did Ruby do with them?
  • King Ghaz: Ghazali Shafie, the vain, flamboyant and irrepressible foreign service czar turned Home Minister and later implicated in an arms deal in Papua New Guinea.
  • Tengku Razaleigh: Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Umno whizzkid handpicked by Tun Razak who later engineered the takeover of Guthrie and eventually Sime Darby among other things. That Far Eastern Economic Review cover remains an alltime classic in my mind. Now a hermit-like Yoda of Umno, sometimes referred to as Umno’s last hope. His detractors say, fat hope.

(*  Amended 29 May 2009: changed prime minister’s office to prime minister’s  department )


2 thoughts on “The NST dilemma

  1. A looooooong time ago I used to sometimes hang out at Balai Berita and chew the fat with my NaSTy friends. That was a quarter century ago – before the days of digital tech, emails, facebook & twitter. When I finished a review for Thuan Chye or whoever, I’d have to physically deliver the typed foolscap article to his desk and some riookie would be made to retype the whole thing for the typesetters. Yup. Those were “good old days,” even if Doc Croc was PM. At least there were good people like Johan Bagley, Sheila Rahman, R.S.Murthi, Kee Thuan Chye, Fatimah Abu Bakar, Fifi Lim (and what was her hubby’s name? Damn, memory retrieval problem, he used to review music), Theresa Manavalan, Tan Gim Ean, P’ng, Shivadas…. and probably YOU, though I really can’t guess your identity :-)… anyway, those fond memories have now been obliterated.

    • All those guys are still around somewhere or other, don’t you keep in touch? Is there a story in the loss of fond memories? Come to think of it, I should try to persuade you to contribute some old memories for the blog. How about it?

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