The struggle for Malaya’s independence from the British colonial rule (1826-1957), which was punctuated by the Japanese occupation (1941-1942), has been narrated by various quarters, but hardly told from a journalist’s perspective.

The crucial role played by journalists in the independence struggle was evidenced in the commitment of various pre-independent newspapers like Utusan Melayu (now Utusan Malaysia), the oldest surviving Malay daily in the country. Utusan Melayu (established in 1939) was first printed in Jawi before being romanised in 1967.

While other pre-independence newspapers closed down due to declining circulation and advertising revenue, Utusan Melayu surged ahead to ignite the fervour for independence and later patriotism and nationalism alongside its archrival Malay daily, Berita Harian (1957).

While soldiers and policemen put their lives on the line, preindependence Utusan journalists gave voice to the people and empowered them in the struggle, and inflamed independence battle cries through its pages. Utusan has shown a remarkable ability to survive and innovate as it unfolds the nation’s history for the past 80 years.

The newspaper was set up by Yusof Ishak, who later became the first President of Singapore and Abdul Rahim Kajai, later dubbed the father of Malay journalism, with the core purpose of fighting for independence.

For its critical views, Utusan was suspended during the Japanese occupation of Malaya and Singapore, but it survived until today. Recollecting the early days of Utusan, veteran journalist Ahmad Subki Abdul Latiff, 79, was proud of the newspaper for being free of any political influence then.

“The history of Utusan is not as many imagined it to be. They fought for what they thought was right for the nation, even to a point that many lost their jobs as they opposed the ruling party back then,” he told Bernama in an interview. Reminiscing his time as a young journalist, he said many renowned figures in the journalism and political world such as Ishak Muhamad, Othman Wok, Tajuddin Kahar, and many others started their career as writers with Utusan. “These vocal voices’ main objective was independence. Nothing else. It was just that at that particular period of time,” he said.

As for himself, Ahmad Subki said one of his fond memories with the Malay daily was during the early days after Malaya was united with Sabah and Sarawak in 1963 to form Malaysia. “Back then, we knew that there was trouble brewing during the talks on the formation. But, the formation became solid on a promise made by one man who would do anything to strengthen the country,” he said.

That particular person was Tun Abdul Razak Hussein who pledged his allegiance to the nation’s father of independence Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj (Malaysia’s first prime minister from 19571970). “I remember his exact quote until today. Tun Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister (1970-1976) had said ‘We have come so far, hence we will not fail,’” said Subki.

He added that another part of history that is not known to many was that Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister (1959-1990), was the newspaper’s legal advisor from 1952 until 1959. “Lee knew Utusan inside out and met with the board often to talk about the formation of the People’s Action Party (PAP). However, that friendship turned sour in the end,” he said.

Despite his falling out with the paper after leaving the editorial team, Subki said it was painful for him to hear the news on the Malay daily’s quagmire currently. “I was one of the first to serve Utusan. I was appointed as Utusan journalist on the day Malaysia was formed.

I still love Utusan because that is where I made a living and sharpened my skills as a writer,” he said as he expressed hope that Utusan could stand tall again. The Malay daily was the first media powerhouse to be listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange in 1994. Its shares’ highest price was RM7.66 on March 31, 2000. However, the company took a downturn and slipped to red starting 2012, and as at June 30, 2019, Utusan’s accumulated losses stood at RM261.61 million.

The company had fallen into the Practice Note 17 category last August as it defaulted on principal and profit payments to Bank Muamalat Malaysia Bhd and Maybank Islamic Bhd totalling RM1.18 million. Trading in the securities of Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd was suspended with effect from Wednesday and its shares would be de-listed today, a day before the country’s 62nd Merdeka Day celebration. Its last trading price was 5.5 sen on Wednesday.

What happened to Utusan mirrors what is happening in the media industry not only in Malaysia but also globally, despite the company being one of the earliest to embark on digitalisation initiatives. In 1997, the media powerhouse became Malaysia’s first online newspaper, through its collaboration with Telekom Malaysia.

However, the digitalisation efforts became insignificant following the content fall-out with many Malaysians prior to 2012, despite the paper’s long-standing history. Hence, as we stand today, let’s look back on where we are and understand the history of our country, as Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Before our independence more than six decades ago, the thought that ran through everybody’s mind was how Malaya could obtain its freedom. But at this particular time, we face a different challenge in sustaining the independence. Hence, in the spirit of Merdeka, let us put our differences aside, be it race or politics and remember what made us all Malaysians on the foundations laid by our forefathers and what they had fought for. – Bernama