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ATimes: A Victory Fraught With Danger [Nanyang]
By Anil Netto
27/6/2001 2:56 am Wed
A victory fraught with danger
By Anil Netto
PENANG - As riot police kept angry protesters in check outside,
delegates to an extraordinary general assembly of the second largest
party in Malaysia's ruling coalition on Sunday voted by a slim
majority to take over two relatively independent Chinese-language
The verdict: 1,176-1,019, a 157-vote majority in favor of the
Malaysian Chinese Association's (MCA) takeover of Nanyang Press
Holdings, with nine abstentions.
The result is a hollow win for MCA president Ling Liong Sik, who has
personally staked his credibility in backing the takeover of the two
papers, Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press. With 46 percent of his
party opposing the deal and uproar in the Chinese Malaysian community
at the takeover, the cost of victory could prove high in the long
For sure, the wafer-thin majority has provided some respite for Ling.
If delegates had voted against the takeover, Ling's leadership of the
MCA could have been immediately thrown into jeopardy and the party
would have been in turmoil.
But the euphoria for Ling was short-lived. As he walked out of the
hall, a crowd of some 300 anti-takeover protesters yelled "rotten
fish-head" - while shouts of "Bravo" greeted his deputy, Lim Ah Lek,
who had opposed the takeover. The protesters were part of a
groundswell of opposition to the takeover by hundreds of Chinese
groups and associations, including key figures among the Chinese
Malaysian business community, the MCA's traditional backers.
The community's anger at the takeover has split the party right down
the middle and could jeopardize the cohesion within the ranks of the
ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition of Prime Minister
"If the technical victory marks the beginning of the official split in
the second-largest component party in Barisan Nasional, the victory is
merely Pyrrhic," warned the pro-government New Straits Times in a
The MCA was ridden with factionalism even before the takeover. But the
acrimony surrounding the takeover will likely deepen fault lines and
trigger even more infighting and possibly even a bitter leadership
challenge. That could spell trouble for Mahathir, in power for the
past 20 years and with problems of his own, in the next general
election due by 2004.
With MCA support, the multi-party coalition headed by Mahathir's
United Malays National Organization (Umno) has ruled Malaysia since
independence. But in the 1999 general election, Umno suffered an
erosion of ethnic Malay support following the sacking of deputy
premier Anwar Ibrahim. The coalition, however, coasted home on the
back of non-Malay support with 56 percent of the popular vote.
But in a key by-election in last November, the Barisan Nasional
suffered a shock loss in Lunas, a traditional safe seat in northern
Kedah, Mahathir's home state. Analysts blamed the defeat on the swing
in ethnic Chinese votes to the opposition following grievances over
Chinese education and the premier's outburst against a grouping of
Chinese associations appealing for greater civil and political rights.
The Chinese press has traditionally provided space for a wide range of
views on politics, education, and culture. Its relative independence
compared with the Malay and English-language press has occasionally
resulted in warning letters from the home ministry.
These warning letters cannot be taken lightly. The home minister has
the power to revoke publishing licenses at any time and his decision
cannot be challenged in court. Under Malaysia's suffocating Printing
Presses and Publications Act, publishers also have to apply to the
home ministry every year for a fresh publishing permit for each
periodical they produce. It is a system that encourages
self-censorship and caution among editors of most dailies and makes it
difficult for independent publishers to thrive.
But despite the warning letters, the comparatively independent Chinese
press somehow managed to get away with bolder reporting that covered
views from the ruling coalition, the opposition and community in
No longer. Despite Mahathir's denial that he is behind the takeover
and Ling's assurance that the editorial independence of the two
papers, which have a combined circulation of 400,000, will be
preserved, they are sure to be toned down. Indeed, with the takeover
of the two papers, nearly all the mainstream media in Malaysia will be
controlled by parties friendly to the ruling coalition.
Historically, the Chinese media has been seen as a cultural icon of
the community and many Chinese Malaysians will not take kindly to the
Enough Malaysians will see the deal as one that is aimed at boosting
support for the MCA and, by extension, the ruling coalition.
Top-selling English daily, The Star, owned by the MCA's investment
arm, Huaren Holdings, is widely seen as a pro-MCA and
pro-establishment tabloid, and its ownership is reflected in its
The ruling coalition will now have to contend with a possible backlash
from the Chinese Malaysian community. This may take the form of a
swing in support towards the multi-ethnic but Chinese-based Democratic
Action Party or Anwar's multi-ethnic, Malay-based Keadilan (National
Justice Party), both members of the opposition Barisan Alternatif
"While the party [MCA] can promise that there will be no editorial
interference, how convincing is the argument being put across will, to
a certain extent, be reflected in the next general election, scheduled
in 2004," said the New Straits Times. The ruling coalition, it said,
"can ill-afford a vote swing from the Chinese and its defeat in the
Lunas by-election should serve as a warning".
A more immediate danger is the threat of a public boycott of the two
newspapers by anti-takeover groups. In the past, two Chinese papers
were forced to fold after they were taken over by firms linked to the
ruling coalition. If the boycott is effective, the two acquired
newspapers could chalk up losses that could devalue the MCA's
investment in the two papers and dry up liquidity needed to repay the
huge 230 million ringgit (US$60 million) loan raised to finance the
While Ling and his colleagues are hoping the takeover will result in
the largest Chinese media stable in Malaysia and perhaps enhance their
political prospects, many activists are hoping that those who backed
the takeover will live to regret the day they thought of this scheme.