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Still wary of lifting newspaper ban

Sunday May 22, 2005

Still wary of lifting newspaper ban

There is a feel-good sentiment in relations between Malaysia and Singapore, but it looks like the newspapers of both countries will remain on their respective sides of the causeway for a while more, writes JOCELINE TAN. 

UMNO Youth politician Khairy Jamaluddin is a fairly frequent visitor to Singapore. 

And if he picks up Singapore newspapers when he is down south, he is likely to turn to their coverage of Malaysian news. 

“I guess my interest in Singapore papers is what they say about us. When I’m in Singapore I open to the Malaysian pages. I’m not interested in what they’re doing with their landscaping or what’s happening in the HDB flats,” he said. 

WARM HANDSHAKE: Lee broached the possibility of allowing the circulation of newspapers on both sides of the causeway with Abdullah.
Khairy, who is deputy Umno Youth leader, was referring largely to Singapore's national newspaper, The Straits Times

Basically, younger Malaysian politicians like Khairy keep up to date on what foreign publications report on Malaysia, especially on policy matters and politics. 

And The Straits Times does have a daily staple of news on their nearest neighbour. 

In fact, Malaysian happenings be it politics, crime or policy changes, often form the bulk of its foreign news reports. 

But people like Khairy get to read The Straits Times largely when they are in Singapore because the republic’s newspapers are not allowed to be sold in Malaysia, and likewise, Malaysian newspapers in Singapore. 

The ban was imposed in 1965 following the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. But much water has since passed under the bridge and better ties that have developed have raised the possibility of the ban being lifted. 

Relations between the two states is now, as Malaysia Airlines chairman Datuk Dr Munir Majid put it, “the best it’s been in a long time.”  

There has been goodwill and a desire to identify common areas for economic and business relations. Next month will see Dr Munir head a group from the Kuala Lumpur Business Club to Singapore where they will call on the Prime Minister and also attend a dinner hosted by the republic’s investment arm, Temasek Holdings. 

The first hint that ties were warming up came on the golf course shortly after Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as Prime Minister and when Goh Chok Tong was still Singapore Prime Minister. 

Political leaders have their own way of sending out signals but the body language between the VIP golfers spoke volumes. There was a significant comfort level between the two Premiers. 

The current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is no golfer but relations have progressed and both sides have gone to some lengths to ensure that negotiations on a number of thorny bilateral issues continue smoothly. 

It is likely that Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew raised the idea of lifting the newspaper ban in this context: that ties had warmed sufficiently to allow both sides to accept each other's publications. 

The Asian statesman broached the idea when he met Malaysian ministers and senior editors in Kuala Lumpur recently. 

Lifting the ban has been talked about by various personalities over the years but not by anyone as high up in the government hierarchy as the senior Lee.  

He put it as, “loosening up the information flow so citizens can maintain a certain knowledge, intimacy of each other,” according to The Straits Times of Singapore.  

“It's about time. The newspaper ban is the last remaining legacy of the bad old days,” said Singapore journalist Seah Chiang Nee who writes a column for Sunday Star called “Insight Down South”.  

There are two aspects to the issue – economic and political.  

The concern of most newspaper proprietors was the potential impact on their market share of advertising and to a lesser extent circulation. 

But as one of them pointed out: “Foreign newspapers can never replace local ones. If they try hard, they may sell a few thousand copies but with that sort of circulation, what kind of ads can they attract?” 

“We’ll just have to compete in our market and their market too if things change,” said a senior newspaper editor. 

Another pointed out: “For a start, they should allow Malaysian newspapers to set up office in Singapore.” 

Politically speaking, the ban has outlived its purpose. 

“It's ridiculous that you can get just about every other newspaper here but not Singapore newspapers,” said ASLI CEO Datuk Dr Michael Yeoh. 

And, as many have pointed out, citizens of both countries can access the online versions of these newspapers, thus rendering the ban on the print version quite meaningless. 

“It's odd to talk about a new era with the ban still on,” said Seah. 

He said the earlier view had been about the Malays in Singapore being affected by the Malay language media in Malaysia and the Chinese here being influenced by Chinese opinion in Singapore.  

“There’s a new generation coming up that sees things in a different context,” he said. 

On this side of the causeway, advocates for a free flow of newspapers include former Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Musa Hitam. 

“Coming from Johor Baru, we have been exposed to Singapore TV and radio and other news sources for ever so long, yet Johorians have been the biggest supporters of the Barisan Nasional,” he said. 

Said Dr Munir: “I would say yes if the intention is to create knowledge, understanding and access of information. It doesn’t mean you cannot report negative news but I’m against coverage having a slant or intention.” 

But the response from Malaysian politicians and, surprisingly, among some of the younger set, was less enthusiastic. 

Said Umno Youth’s Khairy: “You could say it’s a way of making our countries closer, to make access to news easier. But it can also make us grow further apart. Part of the problem with relations between us has been the papers, and we have to admit that both our papers tend to be nationalistic.  

“So I’m not sure it’s a good idea. You can say for sure it’s a new era and there is, in terms of atmospherics and optics – the handshakes and the golf games, but there are still tough issues to resolve and which have to be discussed out of the public eye.” 

Pulai MP Nur Jazlan Mohamed, whose father is Umno veteran Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat or Tok Mat, was more direct: “I’m not agreeable to the idea.” 

His concerns centred on what he called the agenda of Singapore papers. 

“I’m not comfortable with the way Malaysia is projected in Singapore papers,” he said. 

The issue for politicians like Nur Jazlan is that reports about Malaysia in Singapore newspapers tend to evoke a response that is somehow different from that of other foreign publications. 

The historical baggage is no longer as cumbersome as it used to be for his father’s generation, but it is still there. And old feelings come to fore whenever comparisons are made about how things are done in the two countries – whose education system is superior, who speaks better English, who is more efficient. 

Such comparisons irk Malaysians. 

“Bilateral relations cannot be taken for granted. We think our relationship with Indonesia is special but we saw how easy it was to rile up their citizens because of media reports there about Ambalat,” said Nur Jazlan. 

Some people on this side of the causeway think the Minister Mentor was testing the waters with his proposal. 

The waters may be warming up but the ripples are still there. 

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Syed Albar recalled that shortly before his Umno politician father died in 1977, the latter told Lee it was perhaps time to do away with the newspaper ban. 

Syed Albar had then felt that Malaysia was ready to lift the ban but Lee did not think Singapore was ready as yet. 

Some 20-plus years later, Lee seems ready but Syed Hamid is of the opinion that, “the idea is not bad but it needs to be looked at in greater detail.” 

Ban a part of ‘divorce settlement’ in 1965

THE ban on sale of Singapore newspapers in Malaysia and vice versa dates back to events following the 1965 separation of Singapore from Malaysia. 

It is something both sides have lived with over the last three to four decades, so much so that it is no longer an issue. 

Thus, it was a reminder as much as it was a proposal when Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew raised the possibility of allowing limited circulation of newspapers on both sides of the causeway. 

In fact, the few surviving actors from that period of history had to scratch their head to recall the exact origins of the ban. Some, frankly, could no longer recall. The details of the time remain sketchy but the newly separated governments were unhappy with the other's media whom they saw as fuelling post-separation tensions. 

The Malaysian side was upset with the impact of the Chinese language newspapers in Singapore on Chinese in the peninsula whereas Singapore blamed Malaysia's Malay language newspapers for influencing their own Malay population. 

The pen was indeed mightier than the sword back then and both sides eventually agreed to a mutual ban. 

“It was part of the divorce settlement. 

They decided they didn't want to sleep in the same bed or share the same bathroom, and they also did not want to read the same papers,” said a think-tank head, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. 


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