Yesterday, Mahathir gave a very different version of his position on the issue from what he said in his initial reaction on May 28, when he was first asked to comment on the controversy after launching the first made-in-Malaysia train built by Monorail Malaysia Technology Sdn. Bhd. in Rawang.
Mahathir had then declared a “hands-off” policy, saying that it was not his business to decide whether the MCA should acquire Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press.
He said: “Nanyang is a newspaper…anybody can take it over. I neither give my support nor my objection (to the proposed acquisition).” (New Straits Times 29.5.01).
On calls to him to intervene and stop the acquisition of the dailies, Mahathir said: “I don’t see what business it is of mine to go and block deals”. (The Sun 29.5.01).
Yesterday, Mahathir said he had given the green light to Ling to buy Nanyang Press Holdings Bhd. but he also said that the MCA should sell some of the shares and not hold “the whole thing”.
If it was Mahathir who had given the green light to Ling and MCA to buy the two Chinese dailies, why then did he claim on May 28 that he has nothing to do with it, neither giving support nor objecting?
The reason was simple. Mahathir knew that the acquisition of newspapers, particularly Chinese newspapers, is a highly sensitive political issue as it is never a straightfoward business deal when any political party is involved. Would Mahathir and UMNO be indifferent if, for instance, PAS or Parti Keadilan Nasional is taking over the Utusan Melayu group or the New Straits Times group?
The question now is when did Mahathir give the “green light” to Ling for the MCA to buy Nanyang - right from the very beginning from around mid-April, when “the possibility that Nanyang was for sale about one to two months ago” surfaced, or after there were objections from the Chinese community and inside the MCA at the end of May?
Ling’s own belated admission that the MCA buy of Nanyang is a “strategic political investment” and Mahathir’s admission that he had given the “green light” for Ling to buy have made it very clear that the whole deal was never a pure business deal.
Just as it constituted a “strategic political investment” for the MCA, the takeover must be scrutinised as to whether it constituted a “strategic threat” to the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese community, Chinese education, press freedom and democracy in Malaysia.
The Star today published a two-page Q & A where Ling justified the Nanyang purchase on the ground that it would benefit the Chinese community, using the Star as an example that the MCA would not interfere with the editorial independence of Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press.
To the question “Given the independent nature of the two newspapers, would’nt press integrity be compromised with the takeover by a political party?”, Ling answered:
“No, the journalists will be left to carry out their work professionally. MCA leaders have pledged that there will be no interference. Although The Star is owned by Huaren, it has successfully become the leading English daily and plays its rightful role in the community and in nation-building.”
Asked whether the editorial staff will be left alone to do their work , Ling replied:
“The MCA has never interfered. Even after the MCA takeover, The Star continued to be independent until members complained the The Star was owned by the MCA for the DAP. In fact, in 1987, the government revoked the printing permit of The Star. It was suspended for about five months. If the MCA had interfered in the editorial work, would this have happened?”
Liong Sik was not being frank, and was even duplicitous, to make the above claim that the MCA had “never interfered” in the editorial independence, professionalism and integrity of The Star, as what he said applied to The Star before October 1987 but definitely does not apply to the newspaper in the past 13 years.
It is true that before October 1987, there was the joke that the Star was owned by MCA and run by MIC for DAP not because The Star journalists were closet DAP members or workers, but because The Star journalists could evaluate news stories strictly from the professional perspective without having to serve the MCA political agenda and could fearlessly put journalistic independence and integrity above all other considerations, including proprietorial concerns.
At that time, it was a badge of honour to be journalists of The Star, and Malaysians can still remember those heady days when The Star performed its crusading role for greater openness, accountability and transparency, especially in its coverage of exposes and scandals like the RM2.5 billion Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) scandal and the various strictures and reports against government waste, inefficiency, abuse and misuse of public funds spearheaded by the then Auditor-General, Tan Sri Ahmad Nordin.
The Star of the past 13 years is a totally different creature from its predecessor, where the political agenda of MCA and its President was the guiding and operational principle, turning it into a MCA gazette as far as political coverage is concerned, where the DAP, for instance, is reported with the purpose to lampoon and vilify its leaders rather than an honest piece of journalism.
I have never doubted the professionalism and integrity of the Star journalists although have not been allowed to practise their craft of independent and professional journalism in the past 13 years and I believe that Ling’s claim that the Star is the model of independent and professional journalism will not find endorsement from the Star journalists themselves.
It will indeed be a great tragedy for the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese community, in particular Chinese education, press freedom, human rights and democracy in Malaysia if Ling succeeds in transforming Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press into Chinese versions of the Star.
Ling’s ambition to transform Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press into Chinese versions of the English-language Star is the greatest disservice to the Chinese community, Chinese education, press freedom and democracy in Malaysia and this is why the MCA takeover of the two Chinese newspapers must be opposed at all costs by the MCA extraordinary general meeting on Sunday.