Paying a hefty price for his principles

Said Zahari sticks to his beliefs and principles till the end.

The late Said Zahari had no regrets for what he did and never wavered from the belief that journalistic independence is paramount for any democracy.

IT WAS a wild goose chase for me on the evening of Tuesday the 12th. When I heard the news of Said Zahari’s (pic) demise, it was already around five.

The roads leading to the mosque where he was to be prepared for Muslim burial were clogged with traffic. It took me almost an hour to get there but by then the hearse was on its way to the Muslim cemetery at USJ22.

It was already dark when I reached the place. There were a few people left, including two of his sons.

I had to be there. After all we had something in common – we were both editors of Utusan Melayu, but more than three decades apart.

There were four other editors before me, the late Zainal Abidin Alias (Zabha), Tan Sri Melan Abdullah, Tan Sri Mazlan Nordin and Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin (Zam).

Three decades was a long time in the history of Utusan Melayu, the newspaper that was first published at Cecil Street, Singapore in 1939. It was to be the first national daily which, according to historian W. R. Roff, was “owned, financed and staffed solely by Malays of the Archipelago.” It was edited by A. Rahim Kajai and managed by Yusof Ishak, who later became the first president of the Republic of Singapore.

Utusan Melayu, the newspaper in jawi script, soon became a force to be reckoned with. It became a newspaper that was respected and envied as it was loathed and looked upon with disdain.

Utusan Melayu was an audacious paper raring to take risks. At the height of Malay political consciousness, Utusan Melayu was the suara keramat (revered voice) of the Malays. It was in that atmosphere that Said joined the paper.

It wasn’t long before Said was to taste the bitter reality of the paper’s principles. The argument among the ruling elite at the time was that Utusan Melayu’s uncompromising position was not good for the fledgling nation.

Umno engineered an editorial coup. The journalists stood firm.

The infamous mogok (strike) of 1961 lasted 90 days. It was a defining moment in the history of journalism in the country.

It was an event replete with heroism, comradeship and betrayal. Fighting the Establishment had its perils.

In cahoots with the Singapore government, Said was not allowed to come back to Malaya and was deprived of editing his own paper. He was later taken in under the Internal Security Act (ISA) under “Operation Coldstore”, together with 117 others who were made up of union leaders, suspected communists and social activists.

He was to be in incarceration for 17 long years. Only Chia Thye Poh lingered longer in Lee Kuan Yew’s jail.

Said had every reason to be bitter. He was 35 when he was arrested. He was 52 when released.

It took him many more years before he decided to domicile in Malaysia. He was the resident writer for Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia when he wrote his first memoir. In 2001, Meniti Lautan Gelora: Sebuah Memoir Politik was published.

When the Malay version of the book was launched by Zam, I was there at the event at Tun Razak Memorial Hall. It was the first time I was invited to a function organised by the company I used to work for since I famously “resigned” in 1998.

All three of us have something to talk about on marginalisation and stigma. Said was a prisoner of conscience. Zam, my predecessor, fired from his post, took many years to regain respectability. He later became a Minister. The process towards my “kosher-hood” took almost a decade.

Interestingly, our lives intertwined. Zam played a critical role in our “rehabilitation”. Said was invited by Zam to Utusan Melayu’s 50th anniversary in 1989, the first time Said set foot in the place after 28 years.

According to Zam, Said met Melan, too, at that time. Initially, both Said and Melan were suspicious of each other’s role in what happened in 1961.

Zam gave me a chance to host a talk show for RTM when he was the Deputy Minister of Information. Said and I were both grateful to Zam.

It was in 2001 that I first met Said. We seldom met over the years but when we did, we shared experiences and moments at Utusan Melayu.

His Meniti Lautan Gelora is as heart-wrenching as it is enlightening. His vocabulary is spartan and his style is innocuous. After all, a story of agony needs no sugar-coating.

The late Lee Kuan Yew had his own version leading to the event of Said’s arrest. Lee’s memoir Singapore Story was written from the point of view of the victor. Said’s Meniti Lautan Gelora was that of the vanquished.

Said had no regrets for what he did and never wavered from the belief that journalistic independence is paramount for any democracy. He was the embodiment of a true man of principles and a journalist who fought hard to ensure freedom of the press.

As the last light at the cemetery dimmed, I stood alone that evening, glad that I was there to pay my respects to the journalist who had endured so much pain in upholding his principles.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own. He will be donating the honorarium for this column towards The Star’s Golden Hearts award.

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