The day the Malaysian press was muzzled

Thor Kah Hoong

The Star’s front page on October 28, 1987, the second day of Ops Lalang. – The Malaysian Insight pic, October 27, 2017.

ON October 28, 1987, on the second day of Operasi Lalang, three media organisations – The Star, Sin Chew Chit Poh and Watan – were muzzled.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, then chairman of The Star, said the country was “on the road to dictatorship”.

The mass arrest of politicians and activists the previous day was not unexpected, but when the newspapers, one of them Watan, minuscule in its circulation, were shut down, everyone was shocked.

“Nobody had the slightest idea,” said K. Nada, managing editor of The Star at the time, when recalling the day he received a letter stating that the paper was shut down.

According to the government’s White Paper on the incident, Operasi Lalang was carried out as various groups had taken advantage of the government’s “liberal” and “tolerant” attitude to play up “sensitive issues”, with a consequent increase in racial tension.

However, Nada said he believed the shutdown was “a collection of resentment” by the government towards The Star’s coverage of several controversial issues at that time, including the internal friction in the ruling Umno party.

After The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan regained their licences on March 22, 1988, the Printing Presses and Publications Act was amended so that any revocation of a printing licence by the Home Ministry could not be challenged in court.

A new criminal offence of “maliciously publishing false news” with a three-year jail sentence and/or a fine was added.

The act was subsequently amended in 2012 to remove the requirement for an annual renewal of a printing licence, and the government’s blanket, absolute discretion over permits was replaced by judicial review.

But the shadow of anxiety cast over the news industry continues to linger, 30 years after Ops Lalang.

A total of 106 people were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and almost half that number were held under two-year detention orders at the Kamunting detention camp.

While no journalist was detained under the ISA, the shutting down of the papers created an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.

Below are excerpts of the interview with K. Nada about the circumstances surrounding the shutdown, the events on the 28th and the days that followed.

TMI: Did you all have any inkling that the paper was going to be silenced?

Nada: Nobody had the slightest idea. I read the letter when it came to the news desk. It was a very short letter. Just one sentence: you are closed for national security reasons; under 25 words.

I called the reporters together and told them we had been closed. I have no recollection of any of the bosses being around. Nobody gathered the staff to give any reason.

The first time we saw the bosses was when they told us our salaries were being halved. It was close to lunchtime. I told everyone to go off.

TMI: Was it accepted calmly?

Nada: Some people cried.

We were back at work the next day, like normal. We still had full salary. Then when they (management) realised we were not going to open so soon, they put us on half, then a quarter.

At first, we thought a month, then we thought by Christmas as a gift, then it was Chinese New Year.

TMI: Do you think it was because of your coverage?

Nada: We went to town on the Bumiputera Malaysia Finance (BMF) scandal. We were the only ones who sent reporters to Hong Kong. We published Lim Kit Siang’s statement on the North-South Highway on page one.

We were balanced. That was the time when Neo Yee Pan was fighting Tan Koon Swan (from MCA). When Koon Swan said something, we put it on the front page. 

Next day, Yee Pan will say something, we put it on the front page. We were neutral.

We were very fair in our coverage of Team A, Team B (in Umno). Tengku Razaleigh (Hamzah), Musa Hitam, Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) said something, we reported it, but we stood out like a sore thumb because no other paper was reporting on Team B.

The first month after closure, there was a carnival-like atmosphere. People were playing games, like Risk and chess. Ironic, not knowing how long we were going to be shut and playing Risk every day.

Those were the days we thought one month, then three months at most.

But after the New Year, people started moving out… to Hong Kong, Australia. – October 27, 2017.

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