Pak Kadiaq’s Cautionary Tale

July 10, 2013

Pak Kadiaq’s Cautionary Tale

by Terence Netto@

Politically-aligned ownership of media outlets is the graveyard of quality journalism and a sure road to delusion of those who sit in the seats of authority.–Terence Netto

COMMENT: Former New Straits Times Group Editor-in-Chief A Kadir Jasin’s disclosure that it was Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who personally ordered the consignment to political oblivion of Anwar Ibrahim by the NST after the latter was decapitated in 1998 brings to an instructive close the case against politically-aligned ownership of media outlets.

When the Straits Times Group, majority-owned by AC Simmons, a Jewish businessman domiciled in Singapore, was bought over in November 1972 by PERNAS, one of several government-owned corporations (the GLC acronym was not yet in vogue) set up under the New Economic Policy (NEP) to expand Malay equity ownership in the private sector, the speculation among senior journalists in the Kuala Lumpur office of the ST who were sceptical of the exercise was:

How long before this whole affair comes to grief? How long before politically-aligned ownership of media outlets would be deemed to be worse than the prior situation where ownership resided in the hands of politically unaffiliated businesspersons, more interested in profits and the public esteem stemming from being known as the publisher of a quality paper than in politics?

Twenty-six years to be exact.NONEIt took this length of time before the corporate ownership of the newspaper group, the leading one in the country before Star Publications gained pole position in the 1990s, devolved into party ownership (UMNO’s) and, finally, as per Kadir’s disclosure (right) on Monday, was subsumed under the personal fiefdom of an autocrat at the top of the political totem pole.

The assumption of the redoubtable A Samad Ismail, the then Berita Harian editor and principal figure behind the move to ‘Malaysianise’ the ownership of the Straits Times group (renamed New Straits Times after the takeover) was that his stellar stature as a political journalist-cum-Malay literary paladin and the good sense of then Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein and deputy Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman would provide a sufficient buffer against cotton-picking types among the lesser lights of UMNO.

Samad was entitled to his presumption. He was a confidante of Razak’s and doubled up as speechwriter on major policy addresses by the PM and Ismail.

Not in the business of making soap

Samad, arguably the best journalist on either side of the Causeway in both the English and Bahasa streams, duly had occasion to assess his own clout.

In 1975, UMNO Youth firebrand Suhaimi Kamaruddin paid a visit to NST Managing Editor Samad. Just then UMNO Youth was rising to the menacing levels of its eventual status as a powerful pressure group, thrusting on behalf of speedy implementation of the NEP.

The purpose of Suhaimi’s visit to Samad was to inquire into reports he had received that Malay journalists were not given enough berth within the NST stable to rise within its ranks.

Samad instructed the personnel department to prepare a list of the company’s hires over the preceding few years, with the academic qualifications of the non-Malay recruits juxtaposed with that of the Malay hires. The latter’s were comparatively lower.

samad ismail died past away al fatihah 040908 01Shown the evidence that tended to refute his hypothesis, a chastened Suhaimi slunk away in embarrassment after the visit to Samad (left) whose epigrammatic quip – “We are not in the business of making soap” – on another occasion, when an executive hired from Lever Brothers had attempted to assume primacy for marketing considerations over editorial ones, had the effect of checking the threat of editorial’s supercession by marketing, a practice no quality publishing group ought to allow.

But disaster struck Samad in June 1976 when he was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) as a suspected communist, a detention that had more to do with a complex power play within UMNO in which then Home Minister (Tun) Ghazali Shafie acted as a stool pigeon for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, an old adversary of Samad’s from the early days of the People’s Action Party (PAP) formation in the 1950s.

Graveyard of good journalism

The tragedy in Samad’s arrest was that it came just when he had assembled a team of journalists that arguably would have raised the standard of journalism in the NST stable to hitherto unmatched heights.

iftco conference mahathir 220806 new straits timesThis point is debatable, but the consequent elevation to public discourse that would have come on the heels of a national newspaper’s mounting quality would have checked the rise within Umno of ersatz intellectuals like Mahathir (right), who were able to ascend within the party because of a dearth of competitive quality.

The collateral damage from Samad’s removal from an arena where he was formidably good was a devaluation of the role of the Fourth Estate in a fledgling democracy, a diminution of the power of quality journalism to raise the level of public discourse, with consequent room, the lack of which allows for the ascent by default of the mediocre and the meretricious.

There is a lesson here for Pakatan Rakyat: forsake all notions of taking ownership of media outlets when and if you come to power.

The story of the Straits Times‘ metamorphosis into the New Straits Times is the saga of a good newspaper that was set to be a better one, brought low by an initial decision to allocate ownership to the economic arm of a political party – a recipe for the intrusion of a pyramiding influence that eventually results in power centring on individuals who call the shots from behind the official editorial seats.

Politically-aligned ownership of media outlets is the graveyard of quality journalism and a sure road to delusion of those who sit in the seats of authority.

13 thoughts on “Pak Kadiaq’s Cautionary Tale

  1. There is nothing inherently wrong with a ruling political party owning a national newspaper and use it as its propaganda voice. But the same freedom should also be extended to others including independent players and opposition parties or opposition-inclined business interests all operating within the rules and laws of the country.

    Some of the notable past editors are real scumbags. They have no true journalistic integrity. They care a hoot about press freedom. They serve as lapdogs of the owners and the ruling class and enjoy the perks and privileges to the maximum they can. Only when they are eased out, retired or sacked that they come out after a long pause to champion the cause of freedom and bite the hands that fed them.

  2. “There is a lesson here for Pakatan Rakyat: forsake all notions of taking ownership of media outlets when and if you come to power………….Politically-aligned ownership of media outlets is the graveyard of quality journalism and a sure road to delusion of those who sit in the seats of authority” – Terence Netto. That quote is arguably debatable too. What about the HARAKAH, ROKET & KEADILAN DAILY???

  3. It’s amazing that Kadir would say these things in public. He received instructions from Mahathir to “do away with” Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. It reminds me of the scene in the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” when the Pharaoh said, “Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet, stricken from all pylons and obelisks, stricken from every monument of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of men for all time.” And so Mahathir orders Kadir to strike the name of Anwar forever, so no one should ever remember him. But we know how that worked out….

    Kadir also admitted that Malaysia’s newspapers and television stations are under the control of one man – the Prime Minister, who also is the UMNO President. He said, “In the case of the Media Prima Group, it is answerable only to the UMNO president.” So according to Kadir, Najib controls Prime Media and all of Malaysia’s private television stations – 3, 7, 8, and 9 and of course the public networks as well, RTM 1 and 2.
    Ambassador Malott,

    I am surprised why Pak Kadiaq chose to confirm what we already know, that is, Mahathir is the enfant terrible of Malaysian politics who controlled everything including the media. His treatment of Anwar was more severe than what Musa Hitam, Tengku Razaleigh and Badawi received. Somebody must be urging Pak Kadiaq (Kadiaq is Kedah name for Kadir) to make this disclosure at this particular time. Your guess is good as mine. It may be recalled that Pak Kadiak was a close associate of Anwar who jumped ship when the latter was dismissed from UMNO and removed as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998. He became a Mahathir crony. Now this change!

  4. In the old Soviet Union, political leaders who lost in power struggles are literally airbrushed out of official photographs. Malaysia under UMNO Baru on its way to emulation of Stalinist USSR ?

  5. It has taken that long for Pak Kadiaq to say the obvious. Something must be bugging him. Could it be his guilt conscience?

  6. Aliefalfa…. Harakah, Rocket and Keadilan Daily are party organs, please know the difference of these with the mainstream media… jangan pakai tembak karena bisa dilihat sebagai bangang oleh orang lain.

  7. It seems only in Malaysia political animals way past their use-by date keep fighting to be heard, to influence not just choice of leaders but also poison voters’ minds, to assume positions of authority in companies especially GLCs. What is it that pushes these political dinosaurs to do so? Greed, wealth, untamed ambition to maintain power, guilt, fear of having to pay for past sins? What is it? Kadir Jasin will never enjoy the respect a former editor deserves simply because he gave in to a tyrant’s psychotic behavior. When NST went to town during Anwar’s trial a whole generation of Malaysians were subjected to lurid details that made the older generation blush. The newspaper destroyed not just Anwar’s dignity and reputation but also that of his entire family. So what is Kadir trying to do now? Put the blame on the tyrant? Was Kadir the NST boss a man without morals or integrity? Obviously he was a man without balls cos if he had stood up for journalistic principles, he would have been sacked but he would have left with his head held high!

  8. Phuah Ka Lit,
    There’s no such thing as the old Soviet Union. It is either Soviet Union or Russia.
    By the way the Tunku was backed-out after he was toppled. That was before UMNO Baru.

  9. Does anyone remember once upon a time during the Pak- Blur era when all the MSMs were taking their orders from the so-called “4th floor boys” and the Mad-hatter was complaining about his frustration of being shut-out and shut up by those MSMs that he gave interviews in Malaysiakini and started his own blog?

  10. The lesson is for any government of the day, including Pakatan…
    …and for the Rakyat too.

    The professionalism and quality of journalism in media vary INVERSELY in proportion to the % in which its equity is controlled or owned.

    I would like to suggest to mandate that no single entity be allowed to control more than 1 % of its equity.
    The mass medium licences be opened for tender freely and the board of editorial and/or the contributors be held responsible for the meritorious quality in accuracy and truth in their writings and reports.

    Lets us , the Rakyat , look and move beyond Pak Kadiagqs and most PERTINENTLY, Beyond the Umnoputeras, and make it happen.

    Rakyat Mesti Boleh !

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