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 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.”
Actually there were two Utusan Melayu newspapers and their stories began in Singapore.
Mohd Eunos Abdullah, a former postmaster, published the first Utusan Melayu with the help of Methodist Publishing House in which he pioneered an open editorial style.
When the Malays in Kallang were asked to move out to make way for the Singapore Airport, Eunos used his influence as the Justice of Peace to obtain lands for them at Kaki Bukit and Tanjung Irau.
Later when Eunos’ comrades in the quasi-political party Kesatuan Melayu set up a newspaper in 1939, they named it after his paper.
With RM12,290 collected from Malay royalties, small businessmen, teachers and farmers – Utusan Melayu was inaugurated on 29 May, 1939. There was another rival Malay paper called Warta Malaya but local Malays viewed it as an “Arab” paper. It was from this “Arab” paper, ( which I find amusing ) Utusan got its first editor Abdul Rahim Kajai.
If you could drop by the Utusan’s cramped office back then, you would meet Kajai working there from sunrise till sunset, wearing only a singlet. No air-conditioners, sorry! If you wait for a while, you would also meet Kajai’s apprentice, 16-year old A.Samad Ismail. Samad had to go to the courts, hospitals and police stations to gather news. Then he returned to the office to write his stories only to be rejected by Kajai – until he mastered the rudiments of journalism. Samad had to learn fast because…
Circumstances did not permit Kajai to remain longer with Utusan, Japanese occupation forced Utusan to be amalgated with other prewar newspapers into a Japanese paper “Berita Malai”. It was while working under Berita Malai Kajai’s health deteriorated and he died in 1943.
After the war, Yusof Ishak, one of the Utusan’s founders ( later the President of Singapore ) revived the paper and hired Samad as his assistant. However, Ishak was a veteren journalist who was illiterate in Malay! So young Samad in his twenties had to run the paper.
Editors Who Spoke Up For The Cause
Imagine yourself a prisoner for 3 yers on the charge of being a subversive. Then the British decided to release you on condition that you remain at home between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. everyday, would you comply?
Not Samad. He chased away the police who came to check on him! Somehow this worked and according to Samad, the British authorities ” pretended the conditions didin’t exist in the first place”…to save face.
That was in 1953, after Samad was imprisoned for criticizing the government’s handling of Maria Hertogh case.
That was a time when local police, postal workers, clerks and teachers were happy to contribute news to Utusan Melayu for little or nothing, forming a sort of “intelligence network” that could rival the government.
Those were also the good old days when a seasoned editor as Samad, apart from the usual editing load, conducted journalism workshops on holidays as well.
After Malaya gained independence, Ishak moved the newspaper to Kuala Lumpur. Samad was not included in the big move. Instead, Ishak assigned him to be a corespondent in Indonesia. Apparently, this is to avoid incurring displeasure of the late Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman with whom Samad often disagreed.
In effect, Samad’s career with Utusan ended at this point. After a self-imposed 8-month exile to Indonesia, ironically, the British-linked Straits Times offered him a job to edit its new Malay paper Berita Harian. From then on Samad rewrote the history of Berita Harian but that is another story…
Meanwhile, Utusan Melayu continued to act as mouthpiece for the Malay people under Said Zahari, who took over Samad’s position. I had a feeling our Tunku must had been irritated that there was still someone around to criticize his government after getting rid of Samad. Said was especially vocal about the new Malayan government’s tendency to protect the interest of the British which was contrary to the interest of the Malays.
How to shut him up? Take over the paper, of course!
No Newspaper For 91 Days
In 1961, Said led the staff of Utusan Melayu to a strike to protest UMNO’s takeover. The strike lasted for 91 days. Frankly I cannot imagine how these people find other means of income to feed themselves and their families during this period.
There were claims that the strike was politically motivated to support the left-wing political parties- to which Said denied.
This was what Said told Aliran: ” The Utusan strike was a turning point in the development of Malay and Malayan journalis
m 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 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.”
Said paid his price for speaking out. Tunku barred him from entering Malaya. Back in his country Singapore, Said was detained without trial as a political prisoner for 17 years shortly after elected chairman of an opposition party. It wasn’t until 1989 he was allowed to enter Malaysia again.
This is one unique character from Utusan Melayu that attracts my attention. Ishak Haji Muhammad was another prominent journalist who used to work with Kajai under Utusan and Berita Malai. The Japanese called him “Isako” which later became the well-known ” Pak Sako”.
He was a third class magistrate. He left his job and turned to full time writing to protest against his British masters. My point is…he is not a “country cousin” who had never seen a car in his whole life.
Holding a job at Utusan meant Pak Sako had to get to the press office in Kuala Lumpur. However, this man would rather stick to his hometown at Hulu Langat in a house equipped with only basic necessities. To commute to and fro KL, he used public transportation.
He owned a Fiat for a brief period when he was transferred to Rembau. Even then it was a driver who chauffeured him around. Guess why did he buy that car? He met a great car salesman…
From Daily to Weekly
But…you might scratch your head and ask, ” I don’t think I have ever seen this paper for sale.” Well…it is still available under a new name – Utusan Melayu Mingguan.
Due to decrease in sale, it became a weekly paper in 2003. On its last day as a daily, the circulation was 7,300 copies even less than the defunct Utusan Zaman’s 7550 copies, another Jawi newspaper.
“Orang Melayu kurang kesedaran terhadap sejarah, tradisi dan sumbangan yang tidak ternilai institusi seperti akhbar Utusan Melayu,”
said Datuk Johan Jaaffar sadly concerning the transformation. ( He is ex-editor-in-chief of the Utusan Group ). In English, it means the Malay people are not aware of the invaluable history, tradition and contribution of an institution such as Utusan Melayu.
In the Utusan Group’s official website, the paper is described as ” a staple for many senior citizens…Still enjoyed by many regular readers mainly from Northern, Eastern and Southern region. Though circulation is kept smaller compared to other newspapers published by Kumpulan Utusan, it strives to remain a high quality tabloid, both in terms of newsworthiness and printing standard.”