TMI May Be Gone, But Much Was Achieved
The sudden closure of news portal The Malaysian Insider sent shock waves across the nation. Penang Monthly meets its editor, Jahabar Sadiq, to ask some important questions.
In person, Jahabar Sadiq seems a very courteous and friendly fellow. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who helmed The Malaysian Insider, a news portal accused of “sedition”, or that Jahabar, a pedigreed journalist, was accused of running a “pornographic website” by Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Keruak. Whether Jahabar is a wolf in sheep’s clothes or not, the truth is that one of Malaysia’s most prominent independent news portals folded on March 15 this year.
“It’s a very interesting comparison but it’s completely wrong,” he says. “Why are my website and I so undesirable? Maybe because Malaysian authorities are very uncomfortable when confronted with what people are thinking, and with people challenging the national discourses issued by the government. Malaysian society doesn’t condone anything that is out of the norm, and we certainly were. We asked questions, presenting two sides of any story.”
The official blocking of The Malaysian Insider prior to its closure was announced on grounds of “national security”. “Information is seditious only to those who are unsecure,” Jahabar replies promptly. “In this country, national security is decided by authorities who believe it equates to their own security. But the government is very distinct from the nation: in this case, the work of journalists only affects the security of those in power. The Communications and Multimedia Act enacted in 1998 is not clear when it comes to online information regulations. What you have is the same sedition law, the same libel law, but they couldn’t challenge us on those grounds. So they used their power to force us to shut down instead.”
The stated reason for The Malaysian Insider’s closure was its operating losses for its owner, The Edge, which was suspended for three months as a consequence of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. “The Edge Media Group bought us in 2014 with a three-year turnaround plan, thinking of not making money from Day One,” explains Jahabar. “The most we ever made was 67% of our fixed monthly fees. Regardless of the plan, The Edge closed us down after 20 months. I like to think that if we had followed the plan, we’d now be financially successful, but they pulled the plug and I don’t know the reasons. Perhaps, The Edge’s situation made the financial stress of keeping us operating too much for it to bear. What is strange is that there were several offers – and I was one – but they didn’t take up any. I think the fact The Malaysian Insider was shut down within a day, the server taken offline… was strange. I would have loved to reach the 10-year milestone before walking away or shutting down. There may have been some political pressure, but I truly don’t know as they didn’t inform any of us. But I don’t think we were such a serious threat, being an English language website.”
It’s surprising that even the independent voice of famous blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin criticised The Malaysian Insider because of its investors, a group he referred to as “the Chinamen”. Raja Petra wrote that other independent Malaysian outlets such as Malaysiakini or NGO Suaram receive hundreds of millions from foreign aid. Why not The Malaysian Insider, then?
“I told myself that we would not accept a cent from anyone outside Malaysia. No grants, anything,” Jahabar is adamant. “This seems to be such a sensitive thing in Malaysia, because if you do, you’re seen as an agent of those foreign countries. I also think it’d be odd for investors in Europe or the US to pay us to produce news that circulates for free only in Malaysia. On the contrary, some Malaysian businessmen were willing to invest in information, because an educated and informed society is good for business,” he comments.
The 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act is not clear when it comes to online information regulations. What you have is the same sedition law, the same libel law, but they couldn’t challenge us on those grounds. So they used their power to force us to shut down instead.
“Raja Petra is famous for being a blogger, not a professional journalist, and he lives in England. He can say whatever he wants, and I don’t know how he makes his money. But I believe that by calling people ‘the Chinamen’, he’s using a very colonial mindset, resorting to personal attacks to get his point across. What is wrong with Malaysians funding a Malaysian website? If that’s wrong, it’s also wrong to ask foreigners to fund it.”
After The Malaysian Insider’s closure, Jahabar wrote a piece for British newspaper The Guardian, bringing the case to the attention of the English-speaking world. “We came into their sights because of the 1MDB scandal – you know, a corrupted prime minister is very sexy anywhere around the world. Then, The Malaysian Insider closed, generating loads of social media shares and readership. What was more interesting wasn’t that they asked me to write, but that they also wanted a Malay version of the piece. In the English-speaking world, everyone is competing for eyeballs and being the first in getting a story. One of the benefits you get by having The Malaysian Insider editor write a piece – and of course I’m chuffed to have been published by such a well-known newspaper – is that they can get Malay language readers to look at them as filling a void. For sure, there’s still Malaysiakini, Free Malaysia Today and Malay Mail Online, but where else can you go for news about Malaysia?”
In these hard political times, artists like Zunar, Fahmi Reza and others have tried to raise awareness of the endemic corruption affecting the country. “Artists like them are doing the kind of thing that Lat started in the 1970s and 1980s. They capture the ironies and inconsistencies of Malaysian life, the top-down structure,” says Jahabar. “We are all doing the same job, but in different ways: in our current Internetdominated society, where people use emojis to convey their feelings, journalists like me use thousands of words to convey a concept, but artists can capture the same with one caricature. It hits people much more. (Fahmi Reza’s) clown is like laughing at the Prime Minister, suggesting ‘don’t fear the authorities, because they’re like clowns running an asylum, and we are bigger and stronger than them’. Cartoonists are definitely more relevant to people below 30 because younger Malaysians respond more to visuals than words.”
Talking about the young makes it hard not to think of the old – particularly of the 91-year-old man who, after running Malaysia authoritatively for 22 years, is now trying to help take down the government. “I think it’s sad that we must rely on one man who retired 15 years ago to lead us to a better future from the present he helped build,” comments Jahabar. “Our nation is interested in having someone do the job, and then blame him or her if it’s done badly. But we don’t think about the management of our country, the future. We like to sit and blame. If we expect our leaders to be accountable to us, we should also be accountable to ourselves. For me, I don’t expect Mahathir to apologise – I don’t think he will and the past can’t be undone. But we need to go beyond that and take responsibility for his vision.”
As independent and unbiased information becomes harder to find in Malaysia, it’s fair to look at neighbouring Indonesia, where Jahabar worked as a Reuters correspondent for several years. “Even if the Internet can be controlled, Malaysians are doing what they did when Mahathir was in power. In those days, when the government banned magazines like The Economist, people from Singapore would fax the articles to us and we’d pass them around,” Jahabar remembers. “Today, with Whatsapp and all this free technology now, the state cannot regulate the media. In Indonesia, even under Suharto, they never really tried. There are a thousand websites there, so much information to make sense of. That’s what Malaysia needs to do, instead of asking someone to tell us what’s going on and how we should think.”
What happens after we reach developed nation status? The reality is we are chasing something we don’t think too much about, and in the meantime, we are not listening to ourselves.
Finally, some thoughts on the future of Malaysia – five years away from the planned Wawasan 2020? “I don’t think there will be change – I’m cynical by nature. I can’t forecast the future but I think history will repeat itself. My question is: what happens after we reach developed nation status? The reality is we are chasing something we don’t think too much about, and in the meantime, we are not listening to ourselves. What will make Malaysians happy? Developed nation status? A high income nation? Freedom of expression? I don’t know. But what makes us unhappy is that somebody else is more successful than we are. We are not a happy country and we’ll never be because we are so mixed up. Materialism is our success, and I think we’ll still be talking about the same things in the future, still bitching about our leadership, about our role in life… but in truth, in the short time we have been Malaysia, we have achieved so much. I think that, as a country, we must be more appreciative of what we do. We must know ourselves, instead of letting the government tell us we are rich, and this and that. Those are just statistics."