Former journalist Datuk Zainuddin Maidin was named the new Information Minister in the recent Cabinet reshuffle. In an interview with SHAHANAAZ HABIB just after his appointment, he shares his thoughts on the media and the direction he hopes to steer.
You spent 40 years in the "university of Utusan Melayu”, how easy or difficult was it for you as a newsman to make the shift to politician?
Not easy because journalism is still in my blood. I should have been happy with the appointment. When we did the re-branding of RTM, we had promised to be the first on the scene and the first on the screen. Yet, RTM did not show the announcement of the reshuffle live. So how do you think I felt going into the new appointment with that situation. Why? Because I am still a journalist.
They say once a journalist always a journalist. True?
I think so because of the character and style of a journalist. Normally journalists socialise easily, they feel comfortable with others and adapt very fast to the environment.
Your elevation to the minister post has come very fast?
It is not my life's dream. In journalism too, I started from the bottom as a stringer and climbed step by step to a reporter in the state, staff correspondent, to reporter in KL, chief editor, news editor. From there, I became the group editor. It was not a rapid rise. I went up according to the steps. It is the same as when I became a minister. I was a senator first. When I was appointed as senator, I went to see an old friend Tun Zahir (Ismail) the speaker of the Dewan Rakyat). I started off in journalism in Alor Star at the age of 18. As a young reporter in Alor Star at that time, who are your friends? Dr Mahathir, Zahir - although I was much younger than them. There were not many intellectuals back then and when they wanted to reach the people it was through the newspaper. Zahir, too, rose from the bottom, he rose from clerk to lawyer to judge. And he told me "Zam you got here without pecah kepala" (breaking your head). That's a perfect description. Many people pecah kepala - used money, had fights, and struggled to go up. Maybe my silat in the Dewan (Negara) with PAS was watched by Dr Mahathir and I was elevated to parliamentary secretary. I never dreamt I would even be a parliamentary secretary. After becoming a deputy, I wanted to retire. We journalists become cynical to life. I already have a guaranteed income to live on. So, what more do I want? But shortly before the Cabinet announcement, my phone rang and it was (Tan Sri) Hashim Makaruddin. He said 'congratulations you are a minister'. Anybody wants me, I will work. My concern when I was appointed is how am I going to do?
You said the post of minister was not your life's dream. What then is your life's dream?
Being a journalist. The most enjoyable time as a journalist is to do the reporting.
As a minister, what is the first thing you want to do?
To make the ministry as an effective voice of the Government and deliver government policies effectively. This is a difficult task because we want to change the perception that RTM is a government media. Look at RTM now. We give news not just government news. We cover the opposition too better compared to before. Of course, we don't highlight crime. We don't believe in sensationalising the news to get the audience. It's quality news we go for. The perception is that RTM news is just government news and that we don't change. But we do.
Changing the perception yet remaining an effective voice of the government. Isn’t this a contradiction?
No, there are so many ways to skin a cat. There are many ways to be effective. Other stations are also giving news on government policies but they are more effective because they have a big audience. We lost the audience when TV3 came into the market because we still behaved like a government institution. We have to compete. This depends on how you change, project yourself as a media that is accepted by the people. And you must be first on the scene.
Your viewership for RTM's 8pm Warta Perdana is 400,000 compared to TV3's 2 million?
All in all, we reach more than one million. For the 8pm Malay news, we have 381,000 viewers, for the 7.30pm English news 154,000, the Mandarin news at 8pm we have 398,000 viewers and the Tamil news at 8.30pm we have 188,000. It adds up to more than one million. When we first did the changes, the Malay prime news had an audience of 600,000, Chinese 400,000, Tamil also 200,000. I just wonder why when our rating goes up we see a drop. Prime time news is where the private TV stations make their money from commercials. I suspect they exert pressure on the rating agency not to project RTM news as coming up as this would be detrimental to their advertisement revenue. To justify that their ratings is correct, the rating agency will also give credible ratings to some of our popular programmes like Gerak Khas which draws in 2 million viewers.
Will we see a change in the type of news RTM will be presenting?
We have changed. You see RTM now. We highlight news according to the news values not protocol. On foreign news, we are focussing on Asian news not just news from Europe. We are focussing on China, India, Japan, Thailand, South Korea because we believe this is the growth area and our people must have enough information if they want to go China. They want to see if it is safe or not. People also want to know what 's happening in India which has been projecting itself as an open economy. If you just keep showing all the negative stories like killings in Iraq, even that will become common.
Why was RTM not able to televise the Cabinet reshuffle announcement live?
It was a weakness on our side. I am still wondering whether we should wash the dirty linen in public or sweep it under the carpet. This is not the first time it has happened. RTM failed during the tsunami too. Also, once the PM called for an interview and RTM missed it. This is because the sense of urgency and attitude to be there first is lacking.
So what have you decided - revealing it or sweeping under the carpet?
I can't decide now. I am still thinking. After the tsunami, RTM prepared an operation unit so that they can put news out fast. But just recently, there was an earthquake about the same magnitude on the Richter scale. We were informed but we couldn't put the news out because the man responsible wasn't there on that day. So we couldn't do the crawlers. The attitude of the journalists', their sense of competition, sense of urgency has to be good. Bernama informed us of the reshuffle but we were still not able to carry it out live. It was not a technical fault. It was a human fault. That's clear.
Is it forgivable then?
I want to make sure this sort of thing does not happen again. A reporter called and said “Zam you cheated us.” My grandchild called and said he could not get the live broadcast on TV1 as they were running a drama. I too missed the announcement because I was watching RTM. And when (Datuk Seri) Rafidah (Aziz) said she missed it too, I felt very frustrated. This was a moment I should have enjoyed. It is normal to be excited at that moment. But I was angry, ashamed, frustrated. I was not even sure of my appointment. It was not a pleasant moment for me.
Media & Rules
How has the media changed from the time you were a journalist to now?
It has made very much a great change. Now all newspapers depend on sensational news. They play up the pictures on page one. They highlight human interest stories which before would only appear in the inside pages. Sometimes you are surprised how such a story can be a page one lead story. Even an outdated story like (US president) Bush's mentioning the militant from Malaysia (Zaini Zakaria) which he had already disclosed a long time ago — that, too, can become the lead story today. During my time, we were more sober. We have been taught not to raise false alarms or make people very uneasy. There's a book on journalism which says you don't highlight the family of a man who is going to be hanged and you don't interview them because this is a violation of human rights.We also don't publish horror photos. Tell me what is the difference when you cannot use a picture of a naked person in the newspaper, but when it becomes political like the nude squat incident, the picture of a naked person (in the police lockup) becomes common in the newspapers. It's shocking. But even back then, the Chinese newspapers published horror pictures.
Do you like the newspapers now?
I have mixed feelings. These days I tend to only glance through. The newspaper is teaching people to change their attitude from long reading time to short because the stories are shorter. The English newspapers are tabloids and so when they are in tabloid form, psychologically, you think you don't have to spend much time reading it. It's all short-short stories. So now you don't look at the newspaper as serious reading. But the "make up" is better than before. The same goes for the Malay newspapers. You now see the shouted headings, the shouted pictures in front. They also put something of human interest on the front page. Before the newspapers were not using the magazine type of lay-out like now. And we were very strict on the page one story.
What was your most satisfying story?
The scoop of the year for me was the story of the meeting of Tunku (Abdul Rahman) and Sukarno in Tokyo to settle the Confrontation. I got an exclusive. The story was picked up by other newspapers and radio and foreign wires.
Did you get calls from the Prime Minister or ministers when you were head of Utusan?
I got a call only once. It was from Dr Mahathir when he was the Deputy Prime Minister. It was on a story we ran about the Government wanting to relax the equity of the bumiputra. Dr Mahathir called up and said it's was not true and told me I must correct the story. I asked: 'siapa bercakap ni?' (who's speaking) and he said "Dr". And I asked 'Dr mana?' (which Dr?) and he said ‘Dr Mahathir.’ He told me the story was wrong and that I needed to make the correction as big in size as the mistake. He also asked: 'Do you want to victimise me?' Dr Mahathir - you know lah his mouth. I was shocked to get the call. I have known him for a long time from my Alor Star days. I called him back. I told him I couldn’t accept what he said and that if I wanted to victimise him I would have done that in the Alor Star days. I felt so great that although he was the DPM, he said: ‘Zam, minta maaf’ (Zam, I apologise).
But as a journalist, you got away with a lot of things?
I got away with what I believe.
What about the action taken in 1992 against you as the Utusan boss over the Dr Mahathir interview in English in Indonesia?
I accepted it although it was not my mistake. When Utusan published that Dr Mahathir had asked to speak in English, I was away in London. I felt very bad because it showed that Utusan was narrow-minded. But it was already published. At home I ask my children to cakap orang puteh (speak English). Dr Mahathir wrote a reply to Awang Selamat, quoting the Malay saying biar mati anak, jangan mati adat (better for the child to die and for tradition to live on). Dr Mahathir's conclusion was that kalau mati anak mana lagi ada adat (if the child dies, where does that leave tradition?) I gave a directive to use Dr Mahathir's reply in full. But the editor added on a footnote saying that Utusan would keep quiet if that was true and apologise if it was wrong. This was disrespectful to Dr Mahathir and really hurt him.
As a journalist, what was the main principle you held on to?
I want Utusan to be seen as a non-partisan paper although it belongs to a party in power.
Do you still believe in that principle?
If you want to be effective, you have to project that image.
What were your views on the Sedition Act, The Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Official Secrets Act (OSA)?
I strongly believe in it because I saw the May 13 (1969) killings myself. It was caused by the press (reports) itself. The present generation and young politicians don't value this very much. They don't know the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses Act are there because of the behaviour of the newspapers before May 13 incident. This is a multi racial country. I talk in public but I must realise who is my neighbours are.
In your many years in journalism, have you never called for a repeal or an amendment of the Acts? Not even once?
No never. I believe in freedom with responsibility - with the values we build up together since independence. May 13 has proven that social responsibility as a rule to the media is correct. That created the security that we achieved today.
What is the role of media in Malaysia as you see it?
To strengthen the belief in the values that we have — the belief in living together and not talking about the sensitivities of each other, the restriction of certain freedom, which is again what our values has established.
Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang said your appointment sends a strong signal that hard times await the media, press freedom, and freedom of information?
That's his own interpretation of freedom but not the national interpretation of freedom which has given him and his party the freedom to talk. I thank him for projecting me bigger than I am.
Are harder times in store for the Malaysian media with you as minister?
I don't think I am going to be hard. I am sympathetic because I was a pressman. I understand the feeling of the press and the occupational hazards. Malaysia is not as bad as people make it. How many editors have been arrested? How many newspapers have been closed? Closed but they come back. During my time, the police sometimes asked us not to publish this or that, but the newspaper still published it anyway. And there was no serious action against the newspaper. I went through hard times in the media - the early days of Merdeka, the Confrontation with Indonesia, the May 13 incident, the crisis with Singapore. I watched the killing of innocent people because of the western way of freedom. Only those who have gone through this can value the freedom of press. The nation that speaks for freedom sometimes goes back to what they condemned like Britain now accepting that the ISA as a good practice. You must value the freedom that you establish, our freedom - not their freedom. When we enjoy the new transparent euphoria of freedom, we forget the boundaries that we have established through our experience. That's why we have the Sedition Act.
How come a former journalist is talking about boundaries of freedom?
When I started working in the Malaysian media I realised the boundary is there already. When we forget the boundary, the boundary is imposed again for example after the May 13 incident.
But surely the scenario in the 1960s is different compared to today because society has changed. Malaysia is talking about being a developed society in 2020 and this includes mental development. So why can’t society discuss some things deemed sensitive like the Moorthy's conversion case for example?
Although we have developed economically, we see the development only in the urban areas. You can't deny there is a gap between intellectual people and the poor people, a gap between the rural and the urban. So we are not really an educated nation. Economically, we have developed better than others. But there is relative poverty in our country which is still strong. The Malays still feel left behind and that jobs are not equally given to all. You also have Indians who are poor. When you talk about these sensitive issues, you think you can solve this problem. But you create emotional tension easily because of the disparities in the living conditions.
But by not discussing it, aren't you creating more emotional tension?
No, unless you are really a developed country in so many ways. If you are developed, it's different — you become rational. You must remember the Malays have not come out of their traditional thinking. People are still emotional. There are poor Chinese too. When the country is in chaos, it is the poor who becomes the victim. They get used by the educated people, by the politicians, to achieve political end. We have come to this stage we are at now through consensus and the values that we have — why destroy this?
But one of the roles of the media is to educate people. To educate also means to elevate the mind, thinking and the intellect?
There is inequality in society so discussions do not become intellectual but emotional ones.
What is the yardstick?
What is written in the Federal Constitution. That is accepted by all. When the Government tries to impose this, people don't understand. Those who didn't go through the formulation of this constitution feel they need a new freedom. I don't think it’s necessary. We can grow stronger and stronger with these values (enshrined in the Federal Constitution).
In the case of Moorthy, it was quite apparent that even Muslims were uncomfortable with the manner it was dealt with?
That's very sensitive. I don't want to talk about it. It is not fair for you to ask this question because this is something you have to understand deeper. What happens if papers start questioning that not every Malay should become a Muslim? You open the floodgates and then all this irrelevant things come out.
But what is the boundary?
The principles in the Constitution, such as Islam is the official religion, the status of the Rulers, the special rights for the bumiputras, and the right of non-Malays born here to become citizens, that Malay is the national language cannot be questioned. Why should we go back?
How responsible is the Malaysia media?
Generally very sensible and editors very responsible.
Today the media scenario has changed. Do you agree that the media should cover all sides of a story objectively?
Yes, yes. I agree but there must be a limit as I said just now. You don't touch on some areas that have been accepted. I can't question your right as a citizen in this country and you can't question my right, the status of the Sultan. That is acceptable because it does not disturb your day-to-day life. There is no absolute freedom. You have to accept that everywhere. If you talk about absolute freedom, how about the aggression in sending foreign troops to other countries to install democracy? Look at how CNN behaved during the war. Did you get both sides?
But surely the media should be free to show all sides?
Yes, but sometimes there is the manipulation of the story and the disinformation. As a media man, I congratulate the Western media for successfully diverting the attention from the killing of the innocent people in Pakistan (in a January 13 US air strike) by reprinting the caricature of the Prophet. Why reprint this? There was a big demonstration against the killing of innocent people first then suddenly it was no more. Instead, we see over CNN the violence over the caricatures. They project this in order to have people believe that Muslims are really angry with the caricatures. That this is more important than the killing of innocent people. Bush came out and said we must stop the violence. So now we are the militants, we are the terrorists! I want to learn this trick. The local media must be careful not to be the tools of the play of the Western media to divert the attention of the real issue facing us.
How is your relationship with the media?
I enjoy being with them. Journalists who know me know I speak my mind. I am very straight forward. I am not harsh with reporters. There was this newspaper article which said that since I became deputy minister I have had an "uneasy relationship with senior executives" of some of the mainstream media. But I don't know with whom I am supposedly uncomfortable. If this were true, then surely there would not be good news about me in the Chinese or Malay newspapers. I never hate anybody. I want to be nice to all. I want to be helpful to the press. Although I have no powers to act on the media, I want to say that there's a limit (to press freedom) and that they must not touch areas that will create instability.
You are a strong advocate of the Malaysian Media Council. What value would it bring?
It is going to protect the rights of the newspaper and the people.
But the view among a number of journalists here is that this would only lead to yet another layer and the restrictive laws on the media should first go?
No, it does not add a layer. Right now, the journalists and the newspaper industry are not protected. They can get sued for RM100mil, RM300mil or RM600mil. If the newspaper gets sued, you cannot get your bonus, you cannot get your pay. Where's the protection? I believe that recognition from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is very important because it is a professional body and it identifies who is a journalist and who is not. You only can become a member of NUJ if you are a full time journalist. Today, a lot of people claim to be journalists but they write only one or two articles on websites. The council is to protect the profession, dignity and integrity.
How would having the council protect a journalist's dignity?
The media council will be chaired by an ex-judge. Members of the council would include not only journalists and editors but also the public. It's something like Suhakam (the Malaysian Human Rights Commission) or even ISIS. People who want to complain against the media can do this before the council and not go straight to court. This is protection as it gives the newspaper the opportunity to admit its mistake and make an apology. Journalists too can complain to the council too if they feel their freedom of press has been violated. It serves the interests of journalists.
What do you think of journalists of today?
They are more qualified but lack the enthusiasm. Before, journalists worked for the glory to get a byline. Now it's easy to get a byline in the newspapers. Today's journalists work for money and they do not really want to stay in journalism. The idealism is gone.
And I feel sad that journalists today don’t read. They come into the office without reading, without thinking. I can't face the journalists who when I ask about something in the papers today they say they don't know. They are not reading newspapers and they are not reading books. They just work. I keep asking my officers also to read. Dr Mahathir became who he is because he read newspapers everyday.
THIS & THAT
What is your favourite movie of all times?
I rarely see films. Normally I just watch the news. And just like an editor, I get angry if we (RTM) miss a story or if a story is wrongly placed. My relaxation is after Isyak prayers where I go up to my room to write or read and listen to classic radio on Rima.
Did you catch the movie Sepet by any chance?
No, I didn't see it but normally I like political movies that shows a man with strong motivation.
Not too long ago, you objected to film and drama producers using Bahasa rojak (mixing language) in their drama and you would head a committee to monitor this. Are you serious?
We are not trying to impose but trying to educate. In news, you can't avoid this of course. Like for example when politicians talk, you can't expect everything to be in Bahasa Malaysia. That's impossible. But in dramas, the scripts sometimes use English tak kena pada tempat (inappropriately) I am concerned about this. Why mix when you already have a written script? A drama is to educate the use of good language. That's all.
Who is your favourite singer?
Ahmad Jais and Rafaeh Buang.
The Opposition has called you Mr Propaganda and Goebbels (Adolf Hitler's strategist?
(Ha ha) I think they overestimate me (laughs) Who am I? A kid from Kota Kuala Muda. I am really friends with the opposition. I am very friendly with Kit Siang (DAP). Although Kerk Kim Hock (DAP) is sick - he called me up at my home on Thursday night (16 Feb). I have also visited him. In Parliament, Kit Siang, sometimes hentam me but I told him I respect him as a member of the opposition and as an intellectual - although sometimes he does not behave himself and does not respect the parliament decorum. He said we must have mutual respect in Parliament.
Are you a Mahathir loyalist?
I am loyal to whoever is my boss. I have pledged solidarity to Pak Lah (Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi). That should be understood by all.
Did you find this article insightful?