The Malaysian Insider depended on Ah Kong

March 15, 2016

The Malaysian Insider depended on Ah Kong, not Ah Jib Hor like Utusan Malaysia

COMMENT:  We bid a sad farewell to The Malaysian Insider (TMI).I’ll leave it to those better qualified to speak at length about their many achievements and contributions.

Suffice it to say here that they will remembered as one of the most widely read and impactful online news publications Malaysia has ever seen.

Perhaps this is a good time to take a step back, and reflect on just how vulnerable alternative media is in Malaysia, as well as the role that everyday, normal Malaysians, will have to play in order to keep alternative media alive.

The Internet revolutionised media in Malaysia. From a situation where any form of mass media was controlled by the same people who controlled the government, there suddenly arose a publishing platform that the powers-that-be completely failed to control.

With the advent of the Internet, and published, uncensored truths filling the country like a gush of fresh air, public discourse in Malaysia would never be the same again.

After a number of popular blogs laid the foundation, Malaysiakini blazed the path by being the first formal, professional online news organisation. Soon, many others followed, TMI among them.

All want, nobody wants to pay


Malaysiakini Founders–Still Going Strong with Generous Subscribers and Friends

I remember Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran defining for me what a ‘social asset’ meant, a long time ago. He said, “A social asset is something everybody wants, but nobody wants to pay for.”

As news websites became more and more popular, and grew in size and stature, a persistent concern was funding.

Media conglomerates such as Media Prima or the The Star Media Group have very little to worry about, as they have the government backing them at every turn, and have what is practically a monopoly in their fields. That position of course severely compromised the independence and credibility of their publications.

When alternative media burst upon the scene to fill that gap, the public response was overwhelming.Of course, the only way to be and stay a truly independent media is to be truly financially independent.

Vulnerabilities of ad revenue models

For alternative media, achieving financial independence focuses on two areas: ads and subscriptions.Ad revenue is a particularly precarious landscape for online publications.

After all, selling ad space on publications deemed ‘unfriendly’ towards the government is already a challenging task, given how most businesses are unwilling to risk earning the ire of the powerful.

To make things worse, what happens when the sites on which you are selling ads run the risk of being shut down at any moment, the way TMI or Sarawak Report was?

In a blink of an eye, a blocked publication will have gone from providing a useful service to companies that bought advertising space, to providing absolutely zero service.

Even if websites are not shut down, in a country like ours, it isn’t difficult for someone in power to make a few phone calls and pressure companies clearly advertising on alternative media to pull out. There may even be hints of ‘consequences’ for failing to do so.

Ah Kong-owned vs owner-operated

With ad revenue so unpredictable, we are left with subscriptions. This is of course another major challenge, as many people balk at the idea of paying for news.

Why pay, when there is so much free news out there?Part of the answer lies in thinking about why or how all that free news got there.

It costs serious money to run a professional news organisation, and is often impossible without an ‘Ah Kong’ (slang for big backer with a ‘generous’ heart) or some other source of funds. (In terms of quality journalists alone, all the glory and thrill of writing for an independent publication can easily and understandably wither away in the face of mainstream newspapers that are willing to pay twice the salary.)

The trouble with relying on ‘Ah Kong’ of course is the risk that one might be shut down at any time, maybe for ‘commercial’ reasons, such as those the given by The Edge Media Group for shutting down TMI. Such publications only exist as long as ‘Ah Kong’ decides it is good for him.

It is no coincidence that perhaps the only owner-operated news publication in the country is also the only publication that charges a subscription fee for its online material. How else can they be expected to remain independent?

Up to us

No doubt there’s a lot independent publications can do to make it easier for us to support them; perhaps with a little more breathing space financially, they’ll be able to focus on making those improvements.

In the meantime, as Malaysia heads into some seriously dark times, we may have to let go of the mentality that someone else will pay for social assets like quality, independent journalism.

After all, if everyday Malaysians like us aren’t willing even a little to dig into our pockets to help keep truth and freedom alive, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a future filled with lies and tyranny.

To close, let us take heart from Jahabar Sadiq’s words: “We won’t go gently into the night, well because news never takes a break anyway. We will stay up, one way or another, to inform you and to let you speak to everyone who wants to listen to you.The biggest lesson I learnt is simply this, we are all The Malaysian Insider.”

NATHANIEL TAN had a very enjoyable stint working for Malaysiakini for the first half of 2015.

7 thoughts on “The Malaysian Insider depended on Ah Kong


    It has been awhile since I have last read anything from Nat for “free” :p.
    The above is the last serious piece he wrote on his personal blog as he left us with these words.
    // It’s a dirty job, but if you and I don’t do it, then people like Azmin will overrun us all.

    It is going to be close to three years. Same issues and the dark side is winning. Azmin Ali might win big this time. He might even no longer need PKR.

    Nat used an appropriate analogy of “ah kong”.
    “Ah Kong” paid for Utusan, RTM, TV3 and etc.

    Media shapes us. Those willing to be shaped has already been shaped. Malaysiakini could never get to reach those we hope to reach. It would remain a place for ourselves to berbising-bising, be it in English, Malay, Chinese or Tamil.

    US has PBS, and New York Times.

    And we Malaysians still have two humble news outlet.
    Malaysiakini, and FreeMalaysia
    Keep up the good work.
    Alas, even the days for them could be numbered as NSC would soon become a reality.

    Where is the silver lining? None that I could see.

  2. More info from Jahabar:

    The Malaysian Insider editor Jahabar Sadiq told the Guardian that the news portal had closed for commercial reasons. He said the website had suffered from months of pressure from the government to dissuade advertisers from working with it.

    “State-owned companies have been told not to advertise with us,” he said on the phone from Kuala Lumpur.”

    In the meantime, Utusan has been in the middle of the most spectacular of insider trading deals:

    The last para:

    “With an investment manager able to pick out an investment giving 47,900% in returns within an eight-month timeframe lurking in our midst, perhaps Khazanah Nasional extended the contract of its managing director Azman Mokhtar a tad too hastily, eh?”

    So that is Malaysia circa 2016.

    Abandon principles, all ye who enter.

  3. Malaysiakini and FreeMalaysiaToday will succumb eventually.

    The regime is making it up as they go along.

    Time is running out fast, yet all we see is commentary rather than action.

    Sometimes a 90-year-old stumping from state to state (with evil motives, of course) may make us wonder why we are so passive. Half of 90 is 45. One third is 30. How many of us want to put our necks on the line, for whatever motive? Like I say, get used to Najib’s vacuous face.

  4. 1. Ferdi…what are you then? Another mere commentator? A kill joy is a better description…if you lose hope…please don’t depress others…
    2. Katasayang…oh no…another commentator…
    3. To all…if you are really unhappy about the way events are unfolding in our country…do something positive…one small step, can become a big leap…what is RM10 from most, if it comes to that? The more you help to pay for the independence (i.e. more subscribers) news portal, it’ll be cheaper in the long run…this free mentality has to cease…after did pay for your internet connection, right? 😉

  5. Delara … I don’t know. I still don’t see what we can do as something positive? I have suggested mine quite a few times the past few days. It is naive as per @CLF 😛

  6. Delara ..

    ok, something positive..

    as per operation cost for TMI, I am not sure why they have not considered doing it as a non-profit that lives on donation, instead of merely closing it down. Just their archive alone itself worth a lot.

    For e.g. Dr Kua was just lamenting today the fact he could not find RPK’s Third Force’s “Citizen’s Declaration”

    Perhaps, TMI might have a copy of it.

    PBS in USA lives on donation, and there are quite a few quality programs that came out from it.

    Perhaps, there are more stories behind the closing of TMI.

    Time to do to mimic this…
    “Coporation of Public Broadcasting: A Private Corporation Funded by the American People”

    with …
    “Today’s Malaysia Broadcasting Independently Funded by the Malaysian Rakyat”

  7. @ Delara March 16, 2016 at 8:26 am

    Good point, bro / sis – but I’m just not sure that the Internet is the cure. You cannot avoid the need to get up and go to ground. Just stay away from the Jibby goons : )

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