Very few Malaysians will have heard of Said Zahari (1928 – 2016), the veteran journalist, who was once the chief editor of Utusan Melayu, the first Malay owned newspaper, started by Yusuf Ishak. Yusuf later became the first President of Singapore.
Singaporean born Said Zahari wanted to become a teacher, but World War Two intervened. He was educated in an Anglo Chinese School in both English and Malay. He was also fluent in Mandarin and learnt Japanese during the war.
Said was a journalist who admired Samad Ismail, for his stance against colonialism (British). During WWII, Said received first-hand experience of the Japanese Occupation and this strengthened his resolve against any forms of imperialism. The irony is that later on, the paper he would helm, fell under the dictatorship of another “imperialist” master – Umno.
Said performed a necessary role in society. He criticised the government of the day for its excesses. He championed the needs and aspirations of the common man. He was prepared to make a stand and he was prepared to accept the consequences.
Five decades ago, Said incurred the wrath of the Umno party which wanted to dictate terms to the paper. As the chief editor of Utusan Melayu, he was jailed under the ISA for 17 years, in “Operation ColdStore”. Lee Kuan Yew said it was at the request of Malaya, but there was possibly collusion between Malaya and Singapore.
Few would believe that Utusan Melayu, started in 1939, was an independent paper, which voiced the aspirations and concerns of the ordinary Malays of the newly independent Malaya and Singapore. Today, it is the mouthpiece of Umno-Baru.
By 1961, men loyal to Umno had infiltrated the paper’s board of directors. Umno subsequently demanded that the editorial of Utusan Melayu accede to their four demands.
Said, the chief editor, was shocked by the arrogance of Umno and refused the take-over and fought fiercely for the paper’s independence. He successfully launched a strike to defend press freedom.
The 100-day strike was only broken when Said went to visit the Singapore offices and was refused entry into Malaya. Then, agents provocateur were sent to intimidate the people who were striking.
Said was against an Umno takeover of Utusan. He incurred Umno’s wrath becuase he wrote critical editorials, blasting the European countries which colonised parts of Africa, and treated their citizens despicably.
He was also in trouble with the Alliance government (precursor of BN) because his paper championed the concerns of the people. They often demanded an apology from Said, which he refused to give.
In 1961, Said did not get any support from the international press, which was aware of what was happening, but for one reason or another stayed silent.
Utusan Melayu was once a firm fearless, voice of the people and a champion of the oppressed. Ironically, the man who fought so hard for an independent media was jailed for 17 years.
Said was a a courageous Singaporean Malay who was prepared to make many personal sacrifices to make a stand, so that the ordinary man could have a voice. In the end, he was betrayed and punished by Umno.
Like Said, there are today, many other journalists who are prepared to fight to the bitter end, so that we may enjoy our various freedoms.
Let us continue with the good work which Said left unfinished.
The freedom of expression is one freedom which we must continue to uphold.
Let us fight the good fight and remember Said Zahari for showing us the meaning of being principled and writing without fear or favour.
Mariam Mokhtar is the modern day Said Zahari!