Two different worlds, one common struggle: Aliran’s interview with Said Zahari (Part 1)

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Said Zahari

We reproduce an Aliran interview in 2002 in memory of this Independence era journalist and editor, a towering pioneer in the struggle for press freedom in this region.

Arrested in 1963, Said Zahari was incarcerated for 17 years without trial in Singapore. Forty years had passed since the momentous Utusan Melayu strike for press freedom in 1961, and as we approached his residence, we wondered what he would be like after all these years.

saidsalamahA warm voice responded when we knocked at the door of his modest home, a double-storey terrace house, in USJ. Pak Said, as he is affectionately known, gave us a hearty welcome and ushered us in. Exchanging pleasantries, we handed over to him a copy of Aliran Monthly that contains the Charter 2000 press freedom manifesto.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Pak Said for his immense personal sacrifice in the struggle for press freedom in this land.

We had so many questions to ask of this simple, gentle man with iron-cast principles. Pak Said seemed happy to reminisce about his struggle and compare the world of journalism then and now. In between, his beloved wife Salamah served us refreshments including fried bee hoon, and we got to sample some of her legendary cooking.

There was no trace of bitterness in Pak Said’s voice. Instead we found wisdom, rich experience and an unwavering faith in God, his passion for the freedom of the press still brimming after four decades.

Two different worlds, one common struggle

Aliran: What really brought you into the world of journalism? How did it start?

Said Zahari: I became interested in journalism during my teenage days – especially during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya – when I started reading newspapers. It so happened that my brother was subscribing to Utusan Melayu after the Second World War, after the Japanese had been driven out by the British, and that was when the political situation in the country had changed: nationalist independent struggle not only in Malaya but also other parts of the region, in Asia, Africa and various countries – what is called the decolonisation period of the British Empire.

It was through the newspapers that I came to know what was happening in this part of the world and the world over. And in Utusan Melayu, I found something was very different – because at the early stage of the independence struggle, the Malay nationalist struggle in the country, Utusan Melayu had already sided with the struggle to liberate Malaya.

And slowly, I grew interested in this although my studies were interrupted by the Japanese Occupation. By the time the Second World War was over, I was too old to go back to school and too young to find a job; it was not easy.

So during the military administration period, immediately after the Second World War, I worked briefly with the military establishment under the BMA [British Military Administration] in Singapore. And it was during that period that I came into contact more and more with what was going on in the nationalist struggle of not only Malaya but also especially Indonesia, where they were fighting against the Dutch.

Slowly, I was attracted to these kinds of things, and when an opportunity was opened for me to become a reporter, I immediately grabbed it.

It was Keris Mas who offered me work in Utusan Melayu. Keris Mas, I came to know later, was one of the active MNP [the left-leaning Malay Nationalist Party, formed in 1945] members. He was a journalist, a writer, a sort of politician – and he happened to be a friend of my brother, who was also a member of the MNP in Singapore.

So when he offered me work in Utusan Melayu, I thought, this is something I was dreaming of – if I can get this kind of job, why not? I was then preparing for my Senior Cambridge examination at that time as a private candidate.

This was how I was attracted to journalism, and once I got the job, it was a matter of involving myself more and more. That kind of journalism – to me it was not just work, you know to write news, to get it published, to earn a living but also sort of a political activity that I was involving myself in through journalism.

What kind of principles did you feel were important when you were in journalism?

I wasn’t very clear, when you talk about principles, but one thing was very certain: that it was to get involved in any activity that could drive the colonial power out of our country. So that was the kind of principle – the anti-colonial struggle. Beyond that, I was not very clear on what it was [the principles involved].

When I say anti-colonial struggle, I do not mean just in Singapore but also in the South East Asian region especially in Indonesia, where they were revolting against the Dutch. Many Malays took part in that struggle and many Indonesians came across to get support from the Malays in Singapore and Malaya. So that was the kind of principle – if you want to call it that – that I subscribed to then.

Given your experience then and what you have seen now in Malaysia, what do you think makes a good journalist?

saidportraitThe world of journalism I was in was that of the early 1950s and the early 1960s. Actually, I was in journalism for a very short period of time. I joined in 1951; I think I ended in 1961 – exactly 10 years. I was beginning to get involved very deeply and very seriously in journalism at that time, 1961.

The world of journalism then and now is so very different, in the sense that after the 1961 strike of Utusan Melayu workers, the first of its kind, there was no more talk about freedom of the press. The takeover of Utusan Melayu by the party in power, Umno, turned it into a party newspaper.

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To us, journalists had to play the role of watchdog of the government, to make sure that we represent public opinion. We represent the thinking of the people; we offer criticism to the government in the interest of the people; we protect the interests of the people through our writing.

But once journalists were not allowed to do that, after the takeover of the paper, they played a different role altogether.

The Utusan strike was a turning point in the development of Malay and Malayan journalism as well as a turning point for press freedom in the country because there was never a struggle for press freedom until 1961.

This of course was not given the proper publicity, and people did not know much about it because it was confined to a small circle of newspaper people who knew about it but dared not write or could not write about it. And even among the Malay community, only a small portion of people understood the reason.

(Certain quarters) tried to argue that it was a political strike – in other words, we wanted to take control of the newspapers so that we could support the left-wing political parties who were socialist and pro-communist and pro-Indonesia and so on.

Until today, they still hold on to that kind of thinking. (Prof Mohd) Safar (Hashim) is one of them who insisted that the Utusan strike was not so much for the freedom of the press but for the livelihood, the rice-bowl of the journalists. Safar was writing his thesis for PhD and he interviewed me for a few days in Singapore, but I am afraid to say … his views are very different from mine. (Laughs)

I had to explain in my book (Dark Clouds at Dawn) what I thought of Safar’s views because it was very important. A few years after the Utusan strike in 1961, all the other newspapers were one after another taken over by the party in power, by the government. Nobody talks about freedom of the press anymore; until today, the journalists, they (rarely) talk about freedom of the press.

It was in 1999 when the journalists signed a memorandum to Badawi appealing for a revocation of the Printing Presses and Publications Act and so on. I was sent a copy (of the memo) by them. It was the first time journalists in the country collectively had taken up the issue of freedom of the press and sent it to the deputy prime minister.

This is an encouraging development. Although the action taken was not the same as ours in 1961, we do have journalists who still want to fight for freedom of the press, who think that unless there is freedom of the press, your work as a journalist will not be beneficial to the people and to the country.

It’s a good sign but unfortunately, Abdullah Badawi has not said anything about it and, worse, even the journalists themselves, the editors, the tokoh-tokoh wartawan (outstanding journalists) – and they have appointed tokoh wartawan every year – never bothered even to say anything about the memorandum!

This is very strange. There seems to be like a new culture among the newspaper people: they don’t seem bothered about freedom of the press. Ironically, the people who are interested in freedom of the press are the people in the NGOs, the opposition parties who talk about the freedom of the press, and the journalists themselves. The people who are at the top level of the newspapers never bother to say anything.

So that is the kind of world we have – the journalism of my day and the journalism of today.

There are some newspaper journalists who say they are trying to be objective and balanced. Is it possible to achieve that?

First of all, when we look at the structure of the newspapers today, all the so-called mainstream newspapers are controlled by the party in power or by the government, and therefore the policies set by them are decided by the owner of the newspaper. So the journalists who are working for these newspapers will have to follow the editorial policy set by the owners, meaning the political masters.

In this kind of situation, I cannot see how journalists can be very objective. When I say journalists here, I am referring to the editors, people who decide what to publish and what not to publish, what feature articles, what commentaries can be written and published, what editorial policies to take. These are the people who decide, and these are the very people who are very closely associated with the people in power.

As an example, I refer to Utusan Melayu again. Ever since the strike, Utusan Melayu has got a few new editors. First who took over from me was Melan Abdullah. And then Melan got into trouble and his place was taken by Mazlan (Nordin). And then Mazlan was kicked upstairs or downstairs, and the post was taken over by Zainuddin (Maidin), who is now the parliamentary secretary of the Information Ministry. And then after Zam, it was Johan Jaafar, who was later sacked after Anwar was kicked out. And after Johan Jaafar, we have Khalid (Mohammed) now.

Now if you follow the development of Utusan, each one of the editors who took over from me was dismissed by the owner of the newspaper. Whether or not they were fighting for the freedom of the press is a different matter, but they were nevertheless kicked out or dismissed from the newspaper without explanation.

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These people were sacked because the owners of the newspaper wanted to see someone who could serve them better. None of these editors has ever taken up this issue as a press freedom issue that has to be fought. In other words, they do not see it as an issue that journalists must fight for. Freedom of the press doesn’t mean anything to them.

It has happened in other newspapers too. And the Chinese newspapers recently as well – when they had the Nanyang Press takeover, exactly the same as what happened to us.

Some say that after Independence, the media should focus on development news rather than political reporting. What do you think?

I look at it in this way. They said that after Independence, we should concentrate on the development of the country and therefore, journalists have a role to play. So, they advanced what they call ‘developmental journalism’ as the political journalistic line that all journalists must adhere to – meaning, instead of fighting for press freedom or expressing unhappiness with government policy, journalists should support the government in matters relating to the development of the country.

In theory, it’s okay, why not? If the government has a policy for the development of the country which is in the interests of the people and the nation, by all means, journalists must support it, must encourage it, must explain to the people that this is government policy and the people must continue to support this policy. I am all for that, myself.

But why did we oppose the government immediately after Independence at that time? You see, we got Independence in 1957. In 1961, when I became the editor, the policy of the party in power, which was supposed to be in the interests of the people, had instead been more in the interests of foreign capitalists and foreign governments, particularly the British.

We opposed this – because we suggested that the government in power [Umno and the Alliance government] must remember what they promised the people during the first general election in 1955. If we study the policies of the government in various fields then – particularly in the economy, in education, in defence, in foreign policy – they were all more inclined to be pro our former colonial masters.

This was not good for the country. So, we in Utusan wanted to continue to play our role, to continue to be critical of those government policies that were contrary to the interests of the people. We would support the government on other issues. It was not for our own interests, but it was for the interests of the people.

(We knew that) when the paper was taken over by the government, it would become the voice of the party instead of the voice of the people.

Utusan Melayu readers were Malays. Only a small portion of the Malays belonged to this political party in power. The vast majority either belonged to other political parties like Parti Negara, Pas, Parti Rakyat and the Labour Party or were non-political – but they were still readers. And they were Malays, 80 per cent of whom were rural people.

We wanted to voice the interests of the people; we wanted to represent their thinking; we wanted to reflect their thinking, to tell the government their interests had to be protected in an independent Malaya.

Apparently, the government did not agree with us because they wanted to make sure that Utusan became the voice not of the Malays who read the paper but of the party in power.

If we opposed or were critical, we were critical on that score.

When you went on strike in 1961, you took a huge personal and career risk. What gave you the courage or the perseverance?

I knew about the risks. I knew the kind of sacrifice that I had to make. I knew that I would lose my job. I would have problems with my personal interests, with my family’s interests. It was a very small family, but with little children around, what would happen to them if I lost my job, and worse, if I was taken as a political enemy?

But that was secondary to me at that time, not because of any serious political objective that I wanted to achieve – I was non-partisan; I was just a journalist. I thought, even at that time, that this principle of freedom of the press had to be protected come what may. I took it as a test case.

I remember the editor-in-chief of the Straits Times at that time, Leslie Hoffman. During our strike, he invited me to have lunch with him; so we went to somewhere around the Selangor Club for a chat.

Leslie Hoffman - Photograph: ourstory.asia1.com.sg
Leslie Hoffman – Photograph: asia1.com.sg

He, being a fellow journalist, fellow editor, he advised me, “Said, you know you are fighting against the whole government. You know you cannot win. They will never allow you to win. So, think it over whether it is wise for you to continue this struggle.”

I said, “Yes, I know it, because I am fighting – I mean you are the (representative of) the IPI (International Press Institute) in Malaya and you know what I am fighting for.”

He said, “I know, but you can’t fight.”

I said, “But then do you remember when you ran away from Singapore? You did run away from Singapore, you know (because the PAP was about to get hold of him and he actually fought for freedom of the press).”

Because of the curtailment of freedom of the press in Singapore at that time by the PAP, Leslie Hoffman came over here. He thought that there was more leeway here for freedom of the press.

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“You remember?” I said.

He said, “Yeah, but then, this is different, Said. This is a bigger field.”

I said, “Precisely so. You see, you ran away from Singapore; you did not fight in Singapore. Now you are here; we are here together; I am trying to fight on this issue. Instead of supporting me now, you advise me not to fight.

“Leslie,” I said, “mark my words (and he confirmed this later): now it has happened to me and Utusan Melayu. It will soon happen – after this, it will happen to the Straits Times next.”

And truly it did happen.

Years later, after my release in Singapore, Leslie Hoffman had already retired and migrated to Australia. When he heard that I was released, he came back to Singapore. One day, a fellow journalist organised a dinner party, and suddenly Leslie Hoffman was there. I was invited because I was the Asia Research editor.

When we met, he said, “Said, Said, come here. Eh, Said-ah, maybe belated-lah – but you know what you said all those years ago was true. Aiyah, Said, I got helluva time.”

I said, “Yes?! Anyway I am glad; it is not too late for you to realise!” (Laughs)

Poor Leslie. I said, “I knew when you advised me not to…”

He said, “(I gave) 100 dollars for your Utusan workers’ strike fund.”

“Very kind of you,” I said. He remembered all those things.

“Said, at least I support you-ahh?”

(Said laughs heartily)

That was the situation I was in. The question of how I felt – truly, it wasn’t really very clear. But I knew I had to fight. It had become an issue – if I had given up, the paper would still be taken over; people would not talk about freedom of the press; and the journalists, they would just forget about it.

Said Zahari and his wife Salamah, flanked by Aliran's Mustafa K Anuar (right) and Anil Netto (left)
Said Zahari and his wife Salamah, flanked by Aliran’s Mustafa K Anuar (right) and Anil Netto (left) who interviewed him.

Do think that idealism is important for journalists?

It is something to hold on to. What are you doing? What do you want to be done? In this case, in journalism, it is very clear. What we wanted at that time was for Utusan Melayu to be allowed to be a free newspaper – free from control by any political party. Because once it becomes the voice of a political party, then the paper is obliged to support the policy of that particular party at the expense of its readers.

What we asked for then was, let us continue to be a free newspaper. We will give credit where credit is due. If the government has a good policy, we will support it. And if the government has a policy which is not in the interest of the people, we will offer criticism, constructive criticism, be it on a local or international issue. That’s all. That was the kind of principle that I was holding on to at that time.

We were not being idealistic. But at that time, to ask for freedom of the press, it was idealistic – the kind of thing we wanted to see happen although very few of us believed we could win that kind of war. It was a battle against a powerful organisation.

Tun Razak, at that time the deputy prime minister, warned me through my lawyer, PG Lim (Lim Kean Siew’s sister – she was then my lawyer). One day, she was having lunch with Razak, and Razak told PG, “Eh, PG, you are Said’s lawyer ah? You go and tell Said, “Don’t try to fight against the government. We will never allow you to fight.”

When PG came back to see me, I said, “Whoever wanted to fight against them?”

Do you think the journalists of today have lost their idealism?

I wouldn’t say that all of them have lost their idealism. I think some of them do still have a kind of idealism – especially among the lower level of journalists and among some of the feature writers and even commentators, columnists and so on. They still believe that they need some form of freedom – freedom of the press, so that they can write without any interference, and freedom of speech, whereby they can also talk about freedom of the press.

Now, this is not to say they are completely curbed because we have newspapers that do not belong to the mainstream newspapers. For instance, Harakah, Suara Rakyat, Berita Keadilan and the Rocket – they are all party papers. They explain their party policy and, as they are party newspapers, of course they can do what they like.

But if you call yourself a mainstream newspaper, then you are responsible to the readers as a whole. You have that kind of obligation. But it doesn’t happen now because the economic interests and economic control of the newspaper is so complete.

dark clouds at dawnIn that sense, there are journalists who still have that kind of idealism, who still believe that freedom of the press is important. They are still fighting for it, outside the mainstream groups of newspapers.

(The authorities) are tightening up now; they have new laws. They strengthen every law, culminating with the ISA, which is the ‘best’ and most effective weapon they can use against anybody including journalists.

Pick up Said’s book, Dark Clouds at Dawn, published by Insan, to get a more complete picture of the man and his struggle. Part 2: Suffering for the Truth describes what kept him going during those long lonely years in detention.

Originally published in Aliran Monthly, Volume 22 (2002), Issue no 3.

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