August 7, 2013
Tun Abdullah Badawi on Taming Utusan Malaysia
In The Awakening about his years in power, former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi makes a startling revelation about how he dealt with Utusan Malaysia, in stark contrast to how the strident newspaper is managed by its UMNO backers now. Abdullah was known for liberalising news media in an attempt to restore their credibility after the severe damage that mainstream media took under the Mahathir years, but Abdullah still kept a firm line on racial and religious issues.
Referring to his appointees, he said, “I did not interfere with their work as I believed that they had a professional job to do and I allowed them the space to do it. But when they abused the openness by playing up racial and religious issues, like when Utusan Malaysia did, then I would call them and warn them.”
He revealed that he made a phone call to the editor-in-chief of Utusan Malaysia and left him with a stark warning: the newspaper had crossed the boundary with an editorial that smacked of racism and he should expect no favours from Putrajaya if charged with sedition.
As it turned out, the Police did not come a-calling and the editor escaped any sanction. But Abdullah said that phone call put the fear of God into the newspaperman and, after that, there were no more offensive articles from the UMNO-owned paper.
Such control apparently no longer exists over the newspaper that has since lost a bunch of defamation cases to opposition members and has even been ticked off in the courtroom for not following journalistic standards.
In reply to a question from the editors of the book on how much control UMNO has over Utusan Malaysia now, the former leader replied, “Now, I don’t think there’s any control anymore.”
Malaysian academic and Professor James Chin – who edited the book with Dr Bridget Welsh – followed up, noting that these days it appears the UMNO President says one thing and Utusan publishes something else the next day. Abdullah responded, “That’s why I said I don’t think there’s any control anymore.”
When he was the Prime Minister, he gave the media more space, noting that he appointed Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan as the Editor-in-Chief of New Straits Times. With Kalimullah at the helm, the newspaper was critical of Umno and at times, of Abdullah’s leadership itself.
“Some of my Supreme Council members were unhappy with him and wanted me to remove him. But during his time, the newspapers within the group became profitable and sales increased. They had credibility,” said Abdullah, noting that sales at the NST had since dropped significantly.
It was the same situation at TV3, where the viewership of the primetime news programme grew under the stewardship of Datuk Kamarulzaman Zainal, Abdullah’s former Press Secretary.
Still, he noted that many in UMNO were not pleased with the era of openness and blamed BN’s poor results in 2008 on Abdullah’s decision to allow more discourse on issues.
“The openness did not happen by chance. I wanted it that way. Unfortunately, my detractors – particularly those seeking to keep the old ways and who resisted the change – interpreted it as a sign of weakness,” he said in the book titled, “Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years in Malaysia”.