A different Star newsroom culture after Ops Lallang
Tales of the dark days – V
Recollections by some Star journalists of the Shutdown days.
By Jackson Ng Kee Seng
For the hundreds of workers in the three newspapers closed by the government, Operation Lallang was the darkest moment of their lives. With dependants to feed, and car, house or other monthly commitments to meet, their future suddenly became dark and full of anxiety.
After 25 years, those effects are still being felt by other Malaysians, not just those whose futures were severely jolted by a cruel government led by Mahathir Mohamad.
Only the Star and Sin Chew survived, regained their popularity and went on to new strengths. Watan did not. But the effect of Operation Lallang was that both leading publications are now reduced to being mere mouthpieces.
I remember vividly being told about the shutdown: it came as soon as I stepped into the newsroom at 9am on Oct 27 when I was told by assistant news editor NV Raman that our KDN had been revoked in what appeared to be a widespread government crackdown on dissenters. Many politicians and non-governmental organisation leaders were still being picked up.
As I was the crime reporter on duty, Raman told me to go for the press conference at Bukit Aman (federal police headquarters) scheduled for 11am. We would not be able to publish The Star the next day, Raman said, but otherwise we would carry on as usual.
On a Honda cub to Bukit Aman
In a daze, feeling like a zombie, I struggled out of the Section 13 office at 10am and rode my C70 Honda Cub to Bukit Aman. Some 70 reporters and photographers were waiting in the press conference room for the Inspector-General of Police, Hanif Omar.Unlike other times, when reporters would joke, laugh and chit-chat before the press conference began, this morning everyone was looking gloomy and solemn. Even cub reporters could sense it was a dark time.
Hanif had only basic questions asked of him, minus the usual diplomatic exchanges of opinions and smiles.
The press conference was over within 30 minutes, despite the momentous events still taking place, and a contrast to the other routine police press conferences, which would sometimes last up to two hours.
There are those who hold the view that Hanif was the best professional IGP the country has ever had; perhaps the following might give pause for thought:
Attending the press conference by Hanif Omar that day did little to allay fears for our jobs: it was still too early to tell, as the crackdown was still going on.
The company paid us half-month’s salary and later announced that it would only be a quarter-month’s salary until publication resumed.
I was 29, and had an eight-month-old baby girl to care for, monthly car instalments and house rent to pay, and a second progress payment due on a flat off Old Klang Road. Jobs were scare those days. You can imagine the rough time that the hundreds of others like me had to go through.
Many of us spent time together, playing board games to keep each other company, trying to keep up our spirits, and praying and hoping that the newspaper’s licence would be restored and our lives returned to normal.
When the government lifted the suspension after five months, we heaved a sigh of relief.
But I found that the newsroom environment and the level of professionalism was no longer the same. In the five months of limbo, many editors had undergone a change, after undergoing the trauma of joblessness.
Some had left the country.
Many journalists reacted with a constant sense of job insecurity overpowering them.There was no more the encouragement of team work or due recognition for delivery and performance. It was now only about office politics and about which editor’s camp you were in.
Editors became paranoid about losing their position to others.
There was also an influx of editors from Bernama, the national news agency, who took over the news desk and turned news gathering into a daily propaganda operation for the ruling government.
I left for the Sun in July 1995.
The months after Operation Lallang had been followed by merciless attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, the sacking of the Lord President and two Supreme Court judges, and a series of undemocratic legislation that turned Malaysia into what seemed to be a lawless state.
The law is now Umno-BN law, used by to serve their agenda and exploited to intimidate and bully the Opposition and the rakyat. Justice, freedom and the rights of the people must be restored and can only be restored through change by the people’s will. That, to me, is the only course for Malaysians to return to the good governance of the days under first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Jackson Ng Kee Seng has been chief crime reporter, bureau chief and regional editor, and news editor. He has worked with The Star, Sun, Edge, The National in Papua-New Guinea, and the New Straits Times. He is now a political and editorial consultant.