Aliran Monthly, the magazine which provided independent alternative journalism in Malaysia long before the internet became popular, has printed its final issue after 33 eventful years, writes Himanshu Bhatt.
Its publisher, Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, decided to cease print so as to dedicate its editorial focus completely on the online media through its web portal (aliran.com) and e-newsletter.
The association, founded in 1977, is the oldest human rights and civil liberties non-governmental organisation in the country.
“This is a heart-wrenching moment for all of us who have been involved in the production of the monthly for 33 years,” said the journal’s editor P Ramakrishnan in a farewell write-up in the November issue.
The magazine gave alternative insights and exposes of various political, economic and social issues that affected Malaysians over more than three decades.
It frequently featured cases of corruption, racism, abuse of Malaysia’s native people, displacement of estate workers, media censorship and lopsided development – many of which were not highlighted in the mainstream media.
Publishing in the face of intimidation
Advocating justice, freedom and solidarity, the Aliran Monthly team operated amidst pressure and interference from the authorities.
“We had problems finding printing firms to take on our job even though we were reputed to be good paymasters,” said Ramakrishnan, who was the association’s president from 1993 to 2011.
“Printers were under intimidation and after some time, refused to print for us,” he said, adding that this happened at least twice just before the general elections.
In fact, between February 1999 and September 2000 – a tense period which saw the arrest of former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the economy reeling from the Asian financial crisis – Aliran Monthly was printed by no less than eight printers, he said.
The editorial policy, however, remained open-minded, allowing for disputing views.
Ramakrishnan remembered an article reproduced from Asiaweek before the 1995 elections, which touched on allegations, including womanising and excessive accumulation of wealth, which hounded the then Malacca chief minister, Tan Sri Rahim Thamby Chik.
When Rahim’s press secretary wrote to Aliran to dismiss the accusations as baseless, his assertion was duly published.
“In all fairness, we decided that he should be entitled to defend himself. The right of reply was honoured,” Ramakrishnan said.
Beginning as a four-page tabloid in 1980, the journal was published as a quarterly before Aliran got a permit to print a monthly in 1984.
Ramakrishnan said the first copy was published in January that year at the height of the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) scandal, while the first full colour issue later coincided with the Highland Towers tragedy in 1993.
“We were selling the Quarterly and Aliran Monthly – you wouldn’t believe this but yes, just for a ringgit a copy,” he said, adding that the price stayed for a decade before it was raised by a mere 50 sen.
Momentous events documented
Aliran honorary secretary Mustafa K. Anuar said the momentous issues covered by the journal included the court-ordered dissolution of Umno as a political party in 1987, and the subsequent Operasi Lalang crackdown that saw more than a hundred individuals detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and four news publications suspended.
“Aliran was especially affected by this political clampdown given that its then president, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, and two other members – Brother Anthony Rogers and Theresa Lim Chin Chin – were caught in the political dragnet,” he said.
Other memorable issues covered included the Bakun Dam controversy in Sarawak, civil society protests against the Papan Rare Earth factory in Perak, money politics in Umno Baru, the Hindraf rally in 2007, the Bersih marches, and the judicial crisis of 1988, which saw the removal of lord president Tun Salleh Abas and five Supreme Court judges from office.
Mustafa said sales of Aliran Monthly also rose during the Reformasi era in the 1990s.
“Many people were hungry for information and analyses on such a historic phenomenon,” Mustafa said.
“Moreover, internet usage was only just taking off in Malaysia at that time,” he added.
In later post-Reformasi years, sales of Aliran Monthly dwindled in the face of the increasing popularity of news portals and other websites, he said.
President Francis Loh said Aliran had embarked on digitalising the monthly to increase its reach to youths and new groups via the website, social media and e-newsletters.
“However, we shall also continue to write longer analytical pieces and investigate and discuss the major trends in Malaysia’s politics and socio-cultural developments as we have done for 33 years,” he said.
Citing Operasi Lalang and the judicial crisis as examples, he said Aliran’s documentation and follow-ups of the events were done more closely than other media sources during the pre-internet era.
“Consequently, Aliran Monthly has become an important source of reference and critical analysis of this period of transition in Malaysia’s political history,” he said.