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Published: Sunday June 30, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday June 30, 2013 MYT 10:04:16 AM

Unfazed in the face of fire and thorns

A new book attempts to explain why Utusan Malaysia, often accused of going overboard in championing Malay interests, behaves the way it does.

LOVE it or hate it, one has to acknowledge the fact that Utusan Malaysia is not just a newspaper but a Malay institution whose history is little understood by many today.

Set up in 1939, the newspaper originally known as Utusan Melayu has been unwavering and unapologetic in fighting for Malay interests.

Its critics accuse it of going overboard in championing its cause while Utusan in turn has rarely failed to respond in kind. Few, however, know enough about the newspaper’s rich tradition.

Such an understanding would be helpful to better inform the debate on why Utusan behaves the way it does and why it continues to share a special bond with the country’s largest ethnic group.

This is where an interesting new book detailing the newspaper’s history fits in.

Titled Di Depan Api, Di Belakang Duri: Kisah Sejarah Utusan Melayu, the soon-to-be-launched book is written by former Information Minister Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin, an ex-journalist with the newspaper who rose through the ranks from a stringer to become its group chief editor in a career spanning over three decades.

“With this book on the history of Utusan starting with its establishment in Singapore until today, it is hoped that its role and contributions will continue to be remembered especially by the Malays and future generations,” wrote Utusan Melayu (Malaysia) Bhd executive chairman Tan Sri Mohamed Hashim Ahmad Makaruddin in the book’s foreword.

The title of the book was taken from a line in a 1961 poem by National Laureate Datuk Usman Awang, one of the newspaper’s key employees who supported a strike to protest Umno’s takeover of Utusan that year.

The strike was a pivotal event for the newspaper. It is one of many key episodes detailed in the book that provides an insight into the newspaper’s motivation, then and now.

Writing from an insider’s perspective, Zainuddin offers a treasure trove of anecdotes and little-known facts.

Among them was Utusan’s involvement in the setting-up of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Lee Kuan Yew, founder of the island republic who would later become one of Utusan’s major targets of criticism, served as Utusan’s legal representative.

Utusan’s founder and editor Yusof Ishak hired Lee in 1951 to represent his deputy Tan Sri A. Samad Ismail who had been arrested by British authorities for engaging in anti-colonial activities.

Samad was well-connected with Singapore’s labour, socialist pro-communist groups, and this impressed Lee.

Zainuddin’s book tells of a series of discussions that were later held between Lee, Samad and Samad’s good friend Devan Nair to set up a new political party in Singapore.

These discussions to set up the PAP, Zainuddin asserts, were held at Utusan’s office at Cecil Street, Singapore.

Samad, along with Nair and a number of other figures, acted as sponsors of the party when it was set up in 1954.

Samad and Lee later fell out over ideological differences but Lee maintained a close friendship with Samad’s boss Yusof.

It was Yusof who helped lay some of the foundations of the newspaper’s Malay nationalism policies which continue until today. After leaving Utusan, he went on to serve as Singapore’s first President. His image today appears on Singapore’s $50 currency note.

“It is wrong to accuse Utusan of being racist,” Zainuddin tells Sunday Star in an interview at his house in Putrajaya.

Old photographs, news clippings and other materials related to the newspaper’s history are stacked high in his study, part of the meticulous research that went into writing the book.

Utusan Melayu, after an initial period, began to champion for very cosmopolitan and universal values,” Zainuddin relates.

“Because of that, it became highly respected not just by the Malays but by all the races because it dared to stand up so openly against oppression and colonialism.”

Founded by left-wing freedom fighters, the newspaper became well-known for standing up to the colonial authorities.

In 1953, Utusan’s Kuala Lumpur correspondent Aziz Ishak, the younger brother of Yusof, wrote a scathing report about the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which incensed the Malayan High Commissioner Sir Gerald Templer.

Templer summoned Aziz to his office and scolded him, calling him a “rat” and the “most foul reporter in all of South-East Asia.”

But Aziz held his ground. He wanted to leave Templer’s office by slamming the door behind him but the heavy door refused to cooperate and shut softly instead.

Templer challenged Aziz to write about his scolding, which Aziz did. The resulting article was picked up by the wires and carried by a number of newspapers worldwide.

Aziz would go on to serve as a minister in Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Cabinet, one of many Utusan journalists and editors who moved into politics.

Editor Othman Wok served 14 years as a Minister in the Singapore government while another of Yusof’s brother, Rahim, also served as a minister under Lee.

Later, Utusan staff who held government office in Malaysia included Tan Sri Abdul Samad Idris, Deputy Minister Datuk Abdul Khalid Yunus, Datuk Rosnah Majid (who served as a member of the Kedah exco), and Badrul Hisham Abdul Aziz who was MP for Hulu Langat.

In a cheeky aside, Zainuddin admits that part of the motivation driving the initial form of Malay nationalism in Utusan had nothing to do with anti-Chinese or even anti-colonial sentiments.

It was based on something else altogether – an intense dislike by Malays especially in Singapore then towards the local Arabs and Jawi Peranakan (Malays of Indian Muslim or Arab descent) who were accused of exploiting the Malays economically.

It was based on this sentiment that Yusof, who came from an elite Perak family, was given the responsibility by a local Malay group, Kesatuan Melayu Singapura, to head efforts to establish Utusan Melayu.

The newspaper was formed as a platform to champion Malay interests. It vowed that it would be fully owned by Malays instead of local Arabs or Jawi Peranakan as was the norm for Malay newspapers back then.

“You can see the anti-Arab sentiments reflected at that time even in some of P. Ramlee’s movies which poke fun at the Arab community,” says Zainuddin, laughing.

The newspaper’s narrow struggle expanded when it agreed to accept a wider definition of the term “Malay” as suggested by community leader Datuk Onn Jaafar in order to face a bigger threat facing the Malays – the Malayan Union proposal by the British.

Onn, during the Third Malay Congress which led to the birth of Umno, admitted that the party was established due to the call made by Utusan.

The newspaper’s stance at the time was leftist, pro-Indonesian, anti-West and pro-Eastern bloc, but both Utusan and Umno were united by their opposition to the British plan.

But Utusan’s ties with Umno was strained when Umno later supported the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya 1948.

Utusan was opposed to it and wanted instead to push a People’s Constitution which called for the establishment of a republic.

The clash triggered a chain of events that much later led to the Utusan strike.

Zainuddin, who was based in Kedah at the time, shares that he was sympathetic towards the strikers but believed that Utusan’s early leftist stance would have been a disaster for the country.

“Who knows, we could very well be a part of Indonesia or, worse, a communist country today,” Zainuddin adds.

The majority of Malays at the time were also with Umno, which meant that they subscribed to the party’s free-market, pro-West policy, leaving Utusan’s leftist stance a failure.

The newspaper’s position on Malay nationalism developed further over the years and is today anchored in the Malaysian Constitution.

“It is very unfortunate that the 2008 political tsunami has tarnished Utusan’s image due to its practice of defending what is right and opposing what is wrong,” wrote Zainuddin.

“Utusan which defends every inch of the Federal Constitution has now come to be regarded as racist.”

The changed political landscape since 2008 and especially after GE13 begs the question of the way forward for Utusan.

Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian says that while he does not dispute Utusan’s right to take a strident position on Malay interests, its approach is something he strongly disagrees with.

“In a shrinking world, we should talk more about the survival of the nation rather than just the survival of the Malays, because the survival of the nation also implies the survival of the Malays.

“By taking the latter approach, Utusan narrows the debate and doesn’t give room for other points of views that may be unpalatable but may end up being positive in the long run,” Ibrahim observes.

Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, a former group editor in chief of the New Straits Times Press Bhd, agrees with Zainuddin’s view that many of the newspaper’s critics do not appreciate the significance of Utusan’s role in the struggle not just of the Malays but of the country as a whole.

Utusan, says Kadir, is still relevant today but it must evolve to continue to remain relevant.

“For Utusan to continue to play a major role and to get people to support Umno and Barisan Nasional, it has to find new ways to reach out to a new generation. It can no longer depend on its current pool of readers,” he adds.

Details about the official launch of the 512-page book are expected to be announced soon. The book has been available at bookstores for the past month and is priced at RM62 for the soft-cover version. An English version of the book is in the pipeline.

Tags / Keywords: Politics, Utusan Malaysia

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