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Hidden hands in the blackest day

Wed 2012-Oct-31 @ +08 11:59:49 am

In September, exactly a month before the 25th anniversary of Operation Lallang, this blog carried the following in the posting 25 years ago – blackest days of the press as advance notice of the impending anniversary and also as a random experiment. Hardly anyone noticed that it was a month early, except for a couple of sharp-eyed journos. That’s not surprising, after all it happened 25 years ago, and was significant in the lives of only those now aged 45 and above. To round off the Star Shutdown series, and for completeness, here it is again, revised with additional material.

• Umno’s influence and the Singapore grip
• The Mahathir, Daim and Anwar factors
• How the paper changed after the Shutdown

If you were at the news-stand 25 years ago on the morning of Oct 28 to pick up a copy of the paper, you wouldn’t have seen The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh or Watan on the rack. They had been closed in Bukit Aman’s Operation Lallang, to prop up Mahathir Mohamad and Life As They Know It.

Instead, people would have been rushing to snap up copies of the New Straits Times (bumped up print order); Nanyang Siang Pau, Shin Min, China Press, Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian.

The missing papers would only return five months later. (Technically, four newspapers: The Sunday Star had a separate KDN permit.)

Seven senior journalists were placed by Umno on a black list and told to get out. The elder statesman of journalism, A Samad Ismail, sent an emissary from Balai Berita to break the news quietly. Not officially, just a quiet word to the wise. Umno’s orders but in effect the same as government orders because government people put them into effect.

More than 30 others left the paper on their own, realising that things would never again be the same. They went on to successful careers somewhere else or in something else.

Those journalists who stayed the course with the paper struggled to stay afloat through the months without pay. (One slept on a friend’s car porch for weeks.) Eventually, most served out their careers in the “New” Star; some wealthier than others, some retired, and some remain on contract past retirement.

It’s rich, fat and comfortable, this post-Lallang “New” Star. Present-day readers who roundly condemn it as a lapdog wouldn’t know it was ever different, and might be amazed that the New York Times once called it the liveliest English-language paper in Malaysia.

Kill the Star, an editor said

Early in his premiership, Mahathir had called it a thorn in his side. The paper’s chairman, former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, had a weekly column that needled him and his policies, the paper’s coverage annoyed him, as did the paper’s failure to glorify him the way the NST did, to bolster his image against his rivals. (Mahathir farts also, we have to use on the front page, as one Balai Berita editorial wag said, not without repercussions.)

An editor of the NST told key staff that the objective was to “kill the Star”, but the paper had continued to pick up steam and by the late 1980s was about to overtake the NST in sales.

By then the paper was already skating on thin ice because of its coverage of political and social issues: people constantly murmured that Mahathir would seek the slightest excuse to shut it down. That he did was perhaps not surprising: the shock came from the ferocity with which it happened.

Ketuanan Melayu’s revenge

Operation Lallang was Ketuanan Melayu’s revenge on the disaffected Umno Malays gathering around Tengku Razaleigh, the disaffected Chinese gathering around the MCA and the DAP, and the disaffected Malaysian aroused by social concerns.

The harshest critics of the paper today, not surprisingly, are opposition politicians, especially the DAP — but they have been complaining, and burning copies of the Star, since 1977 after the MCA became the owners.

Many others also complain that the paper’s never been the same since, despite the range of conflicting opinions displayed in its columns.

Of course it’s not the same. It’s the market leader now, an establishment paper, not the upstart. Rich. (And fat.) Market capitalisation of RM2.3bln. Dividends of RM25m every year for its owners, the MCA.

Its financial and corporate success came after the paper’s resumption, granted on condition of the easing out of the Tunku as chairman and an end to his column.

(A family link to the Tunku remains through his granddaughter, an editor at the paper. But the Mahathir family also has a link, through his daughter who writes a column.)

Umno’s hand in MCA

Other management changes and a restructuring of ownership followed, with much jostling for control among the Umno favoured few: at one time Vincent Tan of Berjaya held a sizeable chunk and people said the Star was Mahathir’s paper. TK Lim of Kamunting Corporation, a friend of Daim Zainuddin and later of Anwar Ibrahim, took control through a dazzling web of cross-holdings in MCA-related companies. VT cashed out to start The Sun. After Anwar’s downfall, TK Lim was forced out of his corporate empire.

Umno’s hidden hand in the affairs of the Star was showing, as much as its hidden hand in MCA politics. There has always been an Umno influence in the Star: the first chairman was Hussein Noordin of Utusan Melayu group, and Kamal M Hashim of the CM Hashim family has been a shareholder and director from the beginning.

The Singapore grip

But there was also the Singapore hand, first through the arrest and imprisonment of MCA’s Tan Koon Swan; then a libel suit by Lee Kuan Yew over a report linking LKY to a minister’s suicide; Temasek Holdings emerging with a stake in the Star after resumption; and the Singapore government crackdown on activists, in May 1987, that was viewed as a precursor — perhaps even a cue to KL — leading to the Operation Lallang arrests and shutdown in October.

Stock market listing of Star Publications in 1994 put the gravy train at full speed ahead: share options, six- and nine-month bonuses, new plant and presses, expansion online and on air, and acquisitions to turn the company into a conglomerate (referring to itself as The Star Media Group now).

Memories of the days and nights (and the people) of the sparkling “impact compact”* born at 3 o’clock in the afternoon at Weld Quay are now long-forgotten and apparently unwelcome to the tovarich of the “New” Star.

Sin Chew Jit Poh (or Sin Chew Daily as it prefers to be called in English) is now also big and successful: it went from debt under a chocolate king to wealth under a timber king. Strenuous efforts led the paper to market leadership, overtaking and later absorbing Nanyang, as well as China Press and Guang Ming, into one group, Media Chinese International (market cap RM2.7bln).

Watan never fully recuperated from the operation and died of related complications a few years later.

Twenty-five years. A quarter century. The span of a generation. So much lost, some never to be recovered.

Life goes on, the trite and complacent will say, little caring. Only journalists, and perhaps only a handful, mourn the loss. The rest hardly even notice.

*Impact Compact – slogan lifted from The Sun of Fleet Street


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