Said Zahari: Patriotic, powerful and principled

When confronted by an Umno man, who demanded the paper apologise for writing a story which detailed the plight of some Malay farmers, Said Zahari said, “I am a journalist, not a diplomat. I do not speak the language of diplomacy.”

By Miriam Mokhtar
Who was Said Zahari? His memoirs, Dark Clouds at Dawn and the Malay version called Dalam Ribuan Mimpi Gelisah: Memoir Said Zahari give an interesting insight into the man. There are some uncomfortable truths, which will certainly divide opinion. He was fearless, and possessed an uncompromising attitude, when it mattered.

As the editor, of Utusan Melayu, Said Zahari led a strike in 1961, to protest against a takeover of the paper, by the government of the day. The government demanded that the paper, conform to its policy. Said refused to back down, when confronted by an Umno man called Ibrahim Fitri, who was sent to pressure Said Zahari.

By 1961, despite Said Zahari being aware that the board of directors at Utusan Melayu, was under the control of a few Umno individuals, he was full of hope. He thought that the role of an independent press was to provide the rakyat with the confidence to speak openly about contentious issues, and thus enable both political and economic reforms to take place.

Uppermost in Said Zahari’s mind was the original aims of Utusan Melayu, which were to champion the cause of the people and be an outlet for their ideas. The paper, co-founded by Yusuf Ishak in 1939, was the first Malay-owned newspaper, had three aims in its mission statement, “To serve the religion, the people and the country.” Yusuf Ishak later became the first President of Singapore.

When Ibrahim Fikri put his four demands to Said Zahari, the latter and the staff in Utusan Melayu retaliated. They were shocked by the arrogance of Umno and later led the Malay-driven strike, which lasted for 100 days, to protect the independence of Utusan Melayu. The strike was apparently broken when Said Zahari was prevented from entering Malaya, after a visit to the newspaper’s offices in Singapore.

If Said Zahari had his way, today’s Utusan would, not be the mouthpiece of Umno Baru and spew government propaganda, including racist and religious nonsense.

Said Zahari at his home in Malaysia

If Said Zahari had not been detained by Lee Kuan Yew, during Operation Cold Store, for 17 years, but had been allowed to defend press freedom, both Malaysia and Singapore might have been very different. Not in terms of skyscrapers and development, but in the morality of governance.

If Said Zahari had not been punished for defending the right of the media, to write without fear or favour, he would have ensured the independence of the press and its role in curbing the excesses of governments.

If Said Zahari had not incurred the wrath of both Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew, both Malaysia and Singapore would not be promoting hate and fear, especially the racist and religious rhetoric of the current Malaysian government.

If Said Zahari had not been mercilessly cut-down in the prime of his life, he would have made useful contributions to Malaysian and Singaporean politics and helped to shape both nations. We may have had a more transparent and accountable government. The governments would not have been able to do as they please, because people like Said Zahari would have been their greatest critic.

— excerpted from Miriam Mokhtar’s piece at The Ant Daily

Utusan Melayu, the first Malay-language in Malaya, was first published in 1939, and used the Jawi script. The cofounders were Yusof Ishak, who later became the first President of Singapore, and Abdul Rahim Kajai, later to be known as the “father of Malay journalism”. It was only much later, on the 1st of September 1967 that the Rumi version, Utusan Malaysia, came to being. Utusan Melayu ceased publication on 5th February 2006 after years of dwindling circulation as the population of Jawi users shrank.


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  1. Pingback: RIP: Said Zahari, editor and freedom fighter | uppercaise

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