KUALA LUMPUR — Despite stringent mass media laws, Chinese newspapers in Malaysia have built a reputation for objective, balanced and accurate political reporting and analyses. This widely-held perception among all ethnic groups in multiracial Malaysia — Malays, Chinese and Indians — often stands in contrast with how English and Malay media have been traditionally regarded: as having a proestablishment slant.

The Chinese press appears to be free of any political control, while its English and Malay counterparts are considered to be beholden to the ruling National Front (NF) coalition government, whose main components are the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).

But late last month, the MCA moved to upset the apple cart. It dealt a heavy blow to the independence of the Chinese press by taking majority control of a company that publishes two major Chinese newspapers, Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press, which have a combined daily circulation of about 400,000. The other major Chinese newspaper, Sin Chew Jit Poh, a rival of both newspapers with a circulation of about 290,000, continues to be “independent” despite being owned by business people sympathetic to the NF.

The MCA’s insistence that the M$230 million ($60.5 million) purchase from tycoon Quek Leng Chan was a purely commercial deal between “a willing buyer and a willing seller” was greeted with skepticism, not only by the Chinese community but also the opposition Islamic Party (PAS), a traditional rival of UMNO.

While the Chinese community felt that the MCA’s political motives would destroy a valuable heritage of Chinese culture, especially press freedom, PAS believed UMNO had given its blessing to the MCA as part of a wider government move for total control of all major Malay, English and Chinese newspapers.

Almost immediately, Chinese clans, social/educational groups, nongovernmental organizations and political parties denounced the MCA and demanded that it cancel the purchase, failing which they would boycott both. For a start, 41 prominent and influential Chinese freelance columnists decided to stop contributing articles to the papers to reduce their credibility.

The Chinese groups also made it clear that they would not have any dealings with MCA leaders such as the president, Dr. Ling Liong Sik, and Vice Presidents Ong Kah Ting and Fong Chan Onn, who were all instrumental in pushing the deal. The critics hoped that, deprived of contact with opinion leaders, the politicians’ influence would fade completely.

The takeover of Nanyang and China Press newspapers caused a split in the MCA. Its three top leaders — Deputy President Lim Ah Lek and Vice Presidents Chua Jui Meng and Chan Kong Choy — opposed the move. But it also drew flak from the Gerakan, the MCA’s Chinese ally in the NF, as well as from the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).

While MCA leaders Lim, Chua and Chan dissociated themselves from Liong Sik’s move, DAP leaders joined Chinese groups in organizing forums and demonstrations, some of which ended in scuffles with pro-Liong Sik groups.

Meanwhile, PAS President Fadzil Noor announced at the party’s recent general assembly in Kuala Lumpur that the party had decided to bar the new MCA-managed Nanyang and China Press from covering its activities.

A PAS central committee member, Dr. Hatta Ramli, said that although many PAS members cannot read Chinese, they nevertheless patronized Nanyang and China Press because they liked the extensive photo coverages of PAS’s activities by those papers.

PAS Secretary General Nasharuddin Mat Isa said that the MCA purchase was motivated by “revenge” because those papers had given fair and accurate coverage of recent political developments such as the Lunas by-election last November, where a candidate of the ruling NF lost to the opposition.

The Chinese papers devoted ample space to growing Chinese anger against the MCA for being unable to stop UMNO from going back on its earlier pledges to respect Chinese educational and cultural rights. The most telling example cited was the NF’s moves to introduce Malay-dominated “Vision Schools,” which are feared to rob Chinese schools of their cultural identity.

The Chinese were angry because the pledges had been calculated to win their votes in the 1999 general election, but after UMNO won, it found it expedient to unilaterally repudiate the promises when some quarters in UMNO started to brand them as “extreme” demands. The UMNO president, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had earlier praised the Chinese, bowed to pressure, changed tack and sang a different tune.

There was also the matter of the UMNO youth wing threatening to burn down the headquarters of the Suqiu, a collection of Chinese groups that had appealed to UMNO not to take Chinese support for granted. While the NF-controlled Malay and English newspapers like Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian, New Straits Times and The Star failed to report the story, the Nanyang and China Press reported it, believing it was their duty to focus on issues that can affect the Chinese community’s future.

The aim of Liong Sik’s critics is to make the newly acquired papers suffer the same fate as Tong Bao, a popular Chinese paper which was set up in 1957.

MCA took over the paper in 1981 and started changing the slant of its coverage, but met with disastrous results. The Chinese community began to see it as an MCA mouthpiece and eventually boycotted it, causing its circulation to drop drastically. The MCA was quick to dispose of its controlling interest in the paper in 1992. Two years later, Tong Bao collapsed.

The traditional independence of the Chinese press has reached an important crossroads with the MCA acquisition of two of its most widely read papers. Whether it will remain or vanish will be decided in the next three years.

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