On August 19, various Malaysian news publication portals shared news of Utusan Malaysia’s print publication facing closure due to a strained financial situation. Utusan Online would still have been operational.
However, on the 20th, it was reported that they would not be ceasing operations for their newspapers, and would instead be upping the price from RM1.50 to RM2 which they hope will ensure its survival.
Many Malaysians are now questioning if that was the right decision to make, but before we get into their reactions, here’s a brief overview of the news company’s beginnings and a timeline of reports on Utusan over the past 3 days.
It Started Out In Singapore As Utusan Melayu
Utusan Malaysia is the country’s oldest Malay newspaper, but it first published news as Utusan Melayu, and in Jawi (an Arabic script for writing Malay and other languages).
In 1939, Utusan Melayu was founded in Singapore by Yusof Ishak, who later became the country’s first president, and Abdul Rahim Kajai, who’s known as the father of Malay journalism.
In 1959, its office was relocated to Kuala Lumpur. The printing of a Romanised version of its publication began under the name Utusan Malaysia on September 1, 1967.
During its early days, the daily played a major role in educating and changing the mindset of Malays in accepting development and progress in the country.
At a press conference yesterday, Utusan Malaysia’s Executive Chairman Datuk Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir said, “We (Utusan) stood up against the Malayan Union, Utusan was at the forefront on getting independence for the country and pushing for Bahasa Malaysia to be given its rightful status.”
“Utusan was also responsible in uniting the people many years ago through the Malay language because, at the time, even the non-Malays read the paper,” former Utusan Group assistant editor-in-chief Datuk Zaini Hassan told New Straits Times.
When UMNO took over its ownership in 1961, however, there was concern that the daily would no longer be free and fair, and many believe that was when the newspaper’s crisis began.
On February 8, UMNO sold off its shares in Utusan Malaysia after its accounts were frozen by the current government. UMNO secretary-general Tan Sri Annuar Musa said that the political party thus no longer had a say in the newspaper’s editorial and day-to-day operations.
Unpaid Salaries And Utusan’s Debts
This past Monday, over 100 Utusan staff held a peaceful demonstration before the company’s headquarters in Jalan Chan Sow Lin over unpaid salaries.
Since June, the company has not paid its staff salaries and had repeatedly delayed salary payments before then, with even executive staff salaries being delayed for 2 months.
Addressing Monetary Issues
Utusan Group is working to dispose of properties, but reported that the disposal progress “is much affected by the slow market sentiment, restriction and requirement by the relevant authorities and thus has not been able to resolve the cashflow issues immediately.”
Utusan Malaysia’s National Union of Journalist chief Tawfek Abdul Razak said, “The unpaid salary issue will be settled soon as the company disposes its RM60mil printing plant in Bangi.”
Starting Friday (August 23), Utusan will be increasing the price of its newspapers by 50 sen, which will bring it up from RM1.50 to RM2.
A source from the publication told Malay Mail, “We were told we won’t shut down and the company can continue to stay afloat if we can reach our sales targets.”
The company has set daily sales targets of RM50,000 to RM60,000 for Utusan Malaysia and RM90,000 to RM100,000 for its sister publication Kosmo!, with Executive Chairman Abdul Aziz saying, “We need around RM3 million a month to pay salaries. With the sales targets we’ve set, we can almost hit that target.”
Netizens React To Utusan’s Situation
As is expected with Utusan’s controversial nature the past few years (thanks to headlines like “Apa Lagi Cina Mau” and an article by a deputy editor back in 2014 ranting about how non-Malays were “overstepping boundaries”), some Malaysians were pleased by the initial reports of its closure.
Comments on Facebook posts made on August 19 about Utusan ceasing operations were along the lines of how since its take-over by UMNO, the newspaper has been a political tool for spreading government propaganda and pushing racial buttons.
Despite accusations that Utusan Malaysia is nothing more than a mouthpiece for ill-intentioned politicians, however, the publication has proven before that it’s capable of condemning politicians’ wrongdoings too. In November 2018, it condemned Najib and other top officials over the tampering of 1MDB’s scandal report.
Some commenters said that the newspaper had it coming because it was unwilling to diversify its content. A comment on Malaysiakini’s August 19 article about Utusan’s ceasing of printing operations said, “It is not a matter of only having being online or in print. It is a matter of being relevant. Just like a business, there must be a rational for being around.”
In the same comment section, there were commenters expressing regret over its potential closure. According to them, Malays aren’t the only ones who need Utusan; non-Malays need the newspaper too as it provides information on what Utusan journalists and supporters are saying about them.
They said that this might help propel discourse that could improve understanding amongst the races in Malaysia. Other commenters also voiced concern for Utusan’s staff who would be losing their jobs and income if the publication shut down.
Those were largely sentiments of English-speaking commenters, so what about Malay commenters? On another Malaysiakini article (written in Malay), netizens said that they wouldn’t be willing to pay RM2 for an Utusan newspaper.
Some are questioning Utusan’s logic of increasing their newspaper price by 50 sen, asking how that course of action would maintain their waning readership, let alone attract new readers.
However, on Utusan Malaysia’s Facebook posts and in Utusan Online’s comment section, it appears that they still have quite the number of supporters, but whether or not their words of support will be put into action remains unknown.
While there are convincing arguments for and against Utusan’s closure, what is worrying is the tone taken by several of those arguments. It might just be me, but I’d encourage you to look at the comments on different sites to understand why I think they’re borderline, if not completely, racist.
Utusan protesters understandably carry grudges against the paper for its previous provocations of racial tensions, but a few go as far as to insult Malays in general.
Many of the paper’s supporters are simply saying Malaysians should come together to keep the publication alive, yet some are taking the opportunity to take jabs at non-Malays who speak out against the paper.
Utusan definitely has made bad editorial decisions that may have played a part in enabling such sentiments, and I believe that all media, regardless of whether in print or digital form, must uphold the responsibility of presenting information in an impartial manner.
Publications like New Straits Times and The Edge Markets are saying that Utusan will need a white knight to survive, with the latter however predicting that the company will be hard-pressed to find one.
Personally, I don’t think Utusan would be able to survive with their current business model, debts and especially not with its plan to increase prices.
To reach Utusan Malaysia’s daily sales target of at least RM50,000, they would need 25,000 buyers a day, and 60,000 buyers to reach their RM90,000 daily sales target for Kosmo! (its price will also increase by 50 sen, from RM1 to RM1.50).
If they were to focus on increasing Utusan Online’s subscriber count and increase the relevancy of their content to Malaysian youths, I could see them potentially returning to financial stability and maybe even prospering.
Featured Image Credit: Utusan Online