In our first issue piece on The Star Publications (M) Bhd, we look at its flagship The Star — The People’s Paper. We look at how it was in the early days, how it thrived with its no-holds barred style of reporting, how it took on the giant New Straits Times and in ways was victorious, and how it went against the norm and attacked Government policies — unheard of those days and even now. Finally, we consider what has happened at the paper and company.
It was Sept 9, 1971 and the inaugural issue of The Star, which was Penang-based at that point in time, came out late at 4pm, due to some technical glitches.
“Ironically it was our editor (and founder) KS Choong’s birthday… people were asking if we were an afternoon paper and not a morning paper,” said Sugumaran Krishnasamy, a news editor of The Star at that time.
M. Menon another pioneer from the paper said, “They called us ‘The Moon’ as we came out so late.”
The first issue, Sugu as he is fondly known as said, was of a drunk sailor clambering down a gangway. Menon meanwhile said it was a court story. Both agreed that it was a long time ago, which could be the reason for their difference in opinion.
“Our office then faced the sea… it was strategic, we witnessed all sorts of things… the Straits Times and the (Straits) Echo knew we meant business,” Sugu reminisces.
The Star grew from strength to strength, becoming a national paper five years later on Jan 3, 1976, and shifting its headquarters to Kuala Lumpur in 1978.
The joke then was that The Star was owned by the MCA, run by the MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress, the third largest member of Barisan Nasional) for the benefit of the Democratic Action Party or DAP.
The Star with the late Tunku Abdul Rahman the first Prime Minister as its chairman was critical of former premier Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir who held the reins of the country from 1981 to 2003, changed the entire media landscape, largely as a result of the unbiased reporting by The Star.
Critical of the Government
Tunku in his columns, As I See It and Looking Back, often riled Mahathir up.
“The columns were very popular… It was on Tunku looking back at the old days… we also had Tan Chee Khoon write for us… they were all very popular columns,” Menon added.
Tan was known as “Mr Opposition” from the mid 1960s to 1978 when he retired, and was among the founders of Parti Gerakan Malaysia together with Lim Chong Eu and others.
Tan’s column “Without Fear or Favour” was often strongly against the Government.
“We had the Tunku sort out our problems with the Home Ministry. He would step in and smooth out the problems… Everyone.. the people at the Home Ministry included, had a lot of respect for him as he was our first Prime Minister,” another reporter from The Star’s early days said.
The Star was often referred to as Suara Tunku Abdul Rahman, or The Voice of Tunku Abdul Rahman, and was often let off the hook because of its association with Tunku.
However with its strong and independent coverage of news, it was only a matter of time before The Star came under fire, with the Government clamping down on the paper.
All the way until 1987, The Star was a thorn in the side of the Government.
But things changed.
A preview to Ops Lalang
The year 1987 will always be remembered for a whole host of reasons. On April 24, 1987, the Umno General Assembly was won by Mahathir and his deputy Ghafar Baba, by a slim 43 vote majority (761 versus 718 votes), defeating Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and his choice of deputy Musa Hitam.
Talk had it that current premier Najib Abdul Razak who was chummy with then Umno Youth head Anwar Ibrahim — who is now head of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat — had swung to Mahathir’s camp and was instrumental in his victory.
On June 25, a group, including Razaleigh and Musa sought a court declaration to have the election results overturned as it seems there were some 78 illegal Umno delegates present and that some election documents were tampered with. This group was known as the Umno 11.
After a few months of backbiting, and threats, the High Court in end-September gave both factions a two-week time frame to settle their differences. While Razaleigh’s group sought new elections, Mahathir’s camp was adamant to hold on to power.
Then on Oct 19, the dissenting Umno faction proceeded with the suit. This later resulted in the formation of Umno Baru in 1988, after the old Umno was found to be illegal.
However in 1987 prior to the formation of Umno Baru in 1988, there was turmoil.
In October 1987, while there was a split in Umno, and thus among the Malays, the Chinese were up in arms as a result of the appointment of non-Chinese educated headmasters in Chinese schools.
On Oct 11, 1987, a gathering of some 2,000 odd Chinese led by the Association of Chinese School Teachers and Trustees known as Dong Jiao Zong took place in Kuala Lumpur. They were joined by Chinese politicians from both the Government and opposition factions, as well as other Chinese associations and parties.
At this rally, the crowd was quickly charged up, racial slurs were used and a plan devised to boycott Chinese schools.
Ironically Dong Jiong Zong and some of the other Chinese associations were asking for the resignation of then Education Minister, Anwar Ibrahim.
A week later — in retaliation to the Chinese protests — a charged-up, 34 year old Najib who was the head of Umno Youth led a 10,000 strong rally in the TPCA (Tamilians Physical Cultural Association) Stadium in Kampung Baru where he is alleged to have called for the Malays to bathe the keris in Chinese blood.
A day after the rally there was more chaos in the country.
The siege lasted more than a day, with Private Adam refusing to surrender and demanding to see his unit commander. Adam was taken into custody by the military before being put on trial.
This brought back memories of the race riots of 1969.
Against this backdrop, The Star thrived on all the action.
“The Star was way ahead, compared to the New Straits Times which was considered the establishment’s mouthpiece… We were on the ball. We reported accurately and fairly.
“The Star’s reporters were often barred from Government press conferences… I think it was Asia Week that referred to us as a ‘Feisty tabloid.’ We were very proud to be from The Star, we felt we held true to principles of journalism,” a reporter of The Star from that era said.
On Oct 27, 1987, the crackdown began. A total of 106 individuals were arrested under the Internal Security Act and The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh as well as Watan had their publishing licenses revoked.
Since then The Star has been a pale shadow of what it once was.
‘It depends on who you ask. Those of us who were there in those days love The Star of that era. Some of them at The Star now like it the way it is now, a fat cash cow …but it is certainly a very different animal now from The Star of the (19)80s.”
Tomorrow: The Star post Ops Lalang, the downward slide.