What drives Utusan's controversial stance

Utusan Malaysia's front-page headline on May 7 proved explosive like nothing else in the paper's 46-year history.

Two days after the general election which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional win with a reduced majority in Parliament, the newspaper ran this headline: "Apa lagi Cina mahu?" (What more do the Chinese want?)

It had been no secret that Prime Minister Najib Razak worked hard to woo the Chinese vote before the elections. Yet Chinese Malaysians voted overwhelmingly for the opposition.

For many Umno members, Utusan's headline was the wounded cry of the betrayed. To others, it was an unnecessary racialisation of what they felt was more accurately explained as an urban-rural divide.

"I felt very disturbed when I saw the headline," said Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, Umno's former Temerloh MP, who is known for his progressive views. "Why were we so angry?"

"Umno did well in the 13th general election. Even though I lost, I felt thankful that Umno did better than in 2008. So why this headline?"

Utusan did not stop there.

The next day, it published commentaries from its editors saying the "Chinese tsunami" at the polls was meant to topple the Malay government.

"Solidarity" event for Malaysia draws a crowd at Hong Lim Park
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Malaysians protest against election results in Merlion Park on May 8
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Malaysia Opposition rally against election results
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Utusan, once staffed by political activists fighting for independence from British rule, has long been a champion of Malay rights. But now, critics say, it has gone overboard in its unflinching defence of Umno, to the point of fomenting racism and intolerance.

Mr Hata Wahari, an Utusan journalist for 16 years until he was fired in April 2011 for criticising the newspaper's editorial policies, said the daily was not so strident during prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's tenure.

"Before 2008, you would not write off Utusan as a government propaganda machine," he said. "But now it doesn't question the government's policies any more, it only acts as a propaganda tool for Umno and to slam the opposition."

The newspaper's defenders say they see no difference between Utusan's defence of Umno, the country's biggest Malay party with 3.5 million members, and the sometimes incendiary commentaries in Chinese- and Tamil-language papers.

"Utusan is just doing its job as the government newspaper," said Mr Nazrul Azizi, 27, a management consultant in Penang. "Malays must have a channel to express their sentiments."

Utusan's no-holds-barred defence of Malays and Islam - right or wrong - has got it into trouble before.

Last December, opposition veteran Karpal Singh, chairman of the Democratic Action Party, was awarded RM50,000 (S$20,300) after he sued Utusan over an article that said he had made an anti-Islam remark.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, also of the DAP, has been awarded RM400,000 in two defamatory cases against Utusan. In one case, the daily had alleged that he wanted to abolish the New Economic Policy, Malaysia's longtime affirmative action programme for Malays.

With crucial Umno elections coming later this year, observers believe the party's leadership will now use the daily to burnish the credentials of key leaders including Datuk Seri Najib, who may face a challenge.

During party polls, "the brand of politics normally becomes 'I'm more Malay than you'," said Datuk Saifuddin, an Umno supreme council member.

Utusan Malaysia is published by the Utusan Group, which used to publish the Utusan Melayu daily and Utusan Zaman weekly, both in Jawi, starting in 1939 in Singapore.

The group's operations moved to Kuala Lumpur a few months after Malaysia gained independence in 1957. Utusan Malaysia started publishing on Sept 1, 1967 in Romanised Malay, and soon replaced Utusan Melayu as the group's flagship paper.

In 1961, starting a long process to strengthen its grip on the media, Umno began to exert more pressure on Utusan Melayu, the most influential Malay newspaper then.

In protest, the newsroom went on strike, which ended 93 days later with a change of editorial management.

These days, Umno and Utusan are seen as so synonymous that criticism of Utusan is taken as criticism of Umno.

When AirAsia X's CEO Azran Osman Rani called Utusan "narrow-minded" in a tweet, he was flamed by pro-Malay groups like Perkasa for being "arrogant and forgetting his roots".

Last year, when the paper was taken to court by the opposition for defamation, Datuk Abdul Aziz Ishak, the Utusan group's chief editor, testified that the newspaper leans "towards siding with the aspirations of the ruling party".

He identified the group's chairman, Tan Sri Hashim Ahmad Makaruddin, as "Umno's representative".

As such, upheavals in Umno can have direct repercussions on Utusan.

Back in 1998, a month before then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the chief editors of Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian, Mr Johan Jaafar and Mr Ahmad Nazri, resigned. Both were known to be friendly with Datuk Seri Anwar.

"Many read the resignations as a clampdown on the press as their respective newspaper groups had played up the issues of corruption, cronyism and nepotism, as well as the problems at the newly opened Kuala Lumpur International Airport," said Universiti Sains Malaysia communications researcher Wang Lay Kim in an article titled Malaysia: Ownership As Control, for the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation.

With Mr Johan gone, the board dithered over who should replace him - Dato Khalid Mohamed or Rosnah Majid, a senior economics writer.

"So they asked Dr Mahathir to choose," said Mr Hata. "It's an open secret that the Prime Minister's Office has a large say on group chief editor appointments."

Dato Khalid, who took over from Mr Johan, spent 10 years at the helm before passing the baton to Datuk Abdul Aziz. The latter did not respond to e-mail requests for comments on the newspaper's direction.

Over the years, Utusan's editorial stance has hurt its business, and it is no longer the best-selling Malay newspaper.

Its daily circulation dropped from 213,445 in 2006 to 169,548 in 2009, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, although it picked up slightly to 173,000 in 2011.

In 2011, Utusan had revenue of RM367 million (S$150 million) and net profit of RM17.5 million.

Analysts say the rise of young, professional urbanites will continue to erode the newspaper's influence, which is still strongest in the rural areas where Internet access is spotty.

By contrast, Utusan's sister paper Kosmo! and Harian Metro both averaged more than 210,000 copies daily in 2011. Malays, especially young urbanites, seem to favour them for their less politically charged content, said Dr Shaharuddin Badaruddin, a political analyst at Universiti Teknologi Mara.

"Utusan needs to be more democratic and give fair coverage to all parties and be a Malay mouthpiece rather than an Umno one," he said.

Yet, some also believe that Utusan's brand of pugnacious reporting might just be what people are fascinated with.

"People criticise Utusan so much but they actually want to read it for exactly the controversy that doesn't come out in other papers," said Datuk Muneandy Nalepan, a newspaper distributor for 40 years, in Kuala Lumpur.

"Some say they are courageous, some say they create problems. Either you can accept it or you can't, that's what a newspaper is."

lestkong@sph.com.sg

Take it or leave it

"People criticise Utusan so much but they actually want to read it for exactly the controversy that doesn't come out in other papers. Some say they are courageous, some say they create problems. Either you can accept it or you can't, that's what a newspaper is."

DATUK MUNEANDY NALEPAN, a newspaper distributor for 40 years