By Teo Cheng Wee in The Straits Times, KUALA LUMPUR, 21 May 2011
Arguably no newspaper in Malaysia evokes stronger emotions than Utusan Malaysia, the Umno-owned Malay daily which has been at the forefront of the country’s political battles since the last general election in 2008.
In a region where mainstream newspapers generally exercise restraint when it comes to writing about racial and religious sentiment, Utusan is an anomaly.
Well known for its Malay nationalist roots, its stance has become more strident over the last two years, as it regularly published strong commentaries attacking non-Malays and articles about how Islam is under threat.
Two weeks ago, the paper ran a front-page report about an alleged plot to make Malaysia a Christian country, titled: Christianity the official religion?
In a country where Christians make up less than 10 percent of the population, the article — based on two blogs — was met with disbelief and outrage.
The organizers of a Christian meeting in Penang, where the plot was allegedly hatched, denied the charge and called Utusan’s report seditious. Muslim organizations responded, saying that they were dealing with ‘aggressive and confrontational’ Christians.
Police reports were lodged on both sides. Utusan was eventually cautioned by the Home Ministry — a punishment the opposition says is too light.
In a newspaper column this week, social commentator Karim Raslan described the latest Utusan article and the polemic that followed as “a new low in Malaysian public life.”
“The Malay hard-liners are gaining ground as moderate voices are drowned out,” he wrote.
Some analysts see Utusan as a factor in Malaysia’s racial and religious polarization today.
Political analyst Ooi Kee Beng said the Malay right-wing now creates ‘more disharmony than is existent’ in Malaysia to keep itself relevant, in the process detracting from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s reforms, such as his multiracial 1Malaysia campaign.
Utusan’s circulation has fallen from 230,000 in 2000, to 157,000 today.
Yet one thing is for sure: Utusan has proven effective in shoring up the support base of rural Malay voters for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), judging from recent by-election results.
Malays and other bumiputeras make up more than 60 percent of the population.
“Utusan has always had influence among the Malays, because of its history of fighting for Malay rights,” said former senior Utusan journalist Hata Wahari.
About 150 demonstrators drawn from Umno Youth and Malay rights group Perkasa gathered at Utusan’s headquarters on Friday to show their support, calling it the true voice of the Malays.
The paper, first published in Singapore in 1939, moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1958 after Malaya’s independence. It was taken over by Umno in 1961.
Opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance politicians complain that they get no coverage in Utusan, unless it is bad publicity.
The Christian article, for instance, implicated the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), a component party of the PR. Utusan quoted the bloggers as saying that a division of DAP was involved in the plot.
Umno, despite owning the paper, denies any involvement in Utusan’s editorial direction.
“We’ve never told them what to write,” said Umno youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin. “I must say Utusan takes extremely robust views when it comes to the Malay community. It upsets non-Malays and moderate Malays. But among more nationalistic Malays, people who see things through a more racial prism, it resonates.”
Hata, however, claims Umno sends regular instructions on coverage to Utusan editor-in-chief Aziz Ishak. Aziz declined to comment.
Hata, who worked at Utusan for 16 years, was sacked last month because of his open criticism of Utusan’s leanings. Utusan reportedly said he had tarnished the paper’s image.
“In rural areas and certain states, the readership is holding steady,” he said.
“But urban Malays no longer see Utusan as pro-Malay, just pro-Umno.”