By Kee Thuan Chye
The Heat is back. I wouldn’t say, with a vengeance, but certainly with plenty of critical substance for the reading public to think about. And well-researched information that is essential for every citizen.
On the front page of the newsweekly’s comeback issue of February 8-14, it vows to continue to “speak up against corruption, injustice and the forces that seek to divide our nation”. And its inside pages carry enough fire to show that it has not been cowed by its seven-week-long suspension by the Home Ministry.
Indeed, one of its top articles is headlined ‘It’s time for greater freedom of the press’. Although one might quibble that the headline is not quite accurate because you can’t have greater freedom when there is no freedom to begin with, the body of the article clearly spells out where The Heat stands on this issue. And quite rightly, too, because it is this lack of freedom that caused its suspension.
The theme of freedom also rings out loud in its cover story on student activism, with sidebars on student activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim, which it calls “Malaysia’s poster boy for democracy”, and K.S. Bawani, who found fame for standing up to Sharifah Zohra Jabeen of the infamous “listen, listen, listen” harangue that was caught on video and circulated on social media.
Their struggles and those of fellow activists are presented in a positive light. “They are driven by the belief of standing up for their rights and risk being detained for going against the authorities. They believe they have a social responsibility to correct the wrong they see and come out as ‘champions’ of the people, despite being seen as ‘rebels’ by the ruling government.” In thus endorsing student activism, The Heat shows that it is firmly in tune with the current zeitgeist.
Staff writer Rita Jong deserves credit for mainlining these articles. Meanwhile, another staff writer, Pauline Wong, is back to her normal form firing double barrels at government overspending and the impact of GST (goods and services tax) on essential medicines. She also contributes an article and sidebar on the issue of PTPTN (National Higher Education Fund Corporation) loans.
Then there is the personality profile featuring Ani Arope, the man who refused to play ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s game of giving unfair concessions to independent power producers (IPPs) at the expense of Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) – and consumers. He resigned as TNB’s executive chairman in protest against signing the one-sided agreements.
The profile is particularly enlightening as a portrait of integrity and, above all, for Ani’s revelation about the Government’s role in promoting the rise of the IPPs. It gives a first-hand insight into cronyism. Ani’s reference to the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) – the body Mahathir entrusted with setting the terms of the agreement – as the “Economic Plundering Unit” is amusing but telling.
Finally, we come to the back pages of the newsweekly, to its ‘Newsmakers’ section. This is where The Heat normally injects acerbic comments targeted at personalities and groups who have been making the headlines for usually the wrong reasons. I’m happy to see that in this issue, much unlike the last one just before The Heat’s suspension, the editorial board has regained its erstwhile candour.
I love the entry that goes: “(G.) Palanivel and Adnan (Yaakob) should realise that they cannot hoodwink the people for too long. If they cannot keep their promises to the voters, perhaps they should not have taken the responsibility of becoming MP (Member of Parliament) or MB (Menteri Besar).” These are pretty strong words that the reading public would not get to see in most, if any other, news publications.
On the whole, it’s good to see that The Heat is alive and kicking ass. Goodness knows we need more of that in the print media, especially in these crazy times when so much stupidity is flying around, much of it coming from the ruling establishment and its associates.
Even the suspension of The Heat was an exercise in stupidity. We could see the lie in the Home Ministry’s statement that the newsweekly did not adhere to the conditions of its publishing licence; it was so transparent. We were well aware that the real reason for the suspension was to intimidate The Heat because it had incurred the Government’s displeasure with its critical coverage of pressing issues. The upshot of the resulting hoo-ha, however, is that more people have now become aware of the newsweekly and what it does, and this would probably drive up its circulation. And that, ironically, is not what the Government would have wanted in the first place.
It’s timely that the newsweekly made its return this week. It coincided with the release of the 2014 World Press Freedom Index which shows that Malaysia’s press freedom index has plunged to the low position of 147th out of 180 countries. This is the lowest the country has fallen to. And – would you believe it? – we are now even lower than Cambodia (132rd) and Myanmar (145th).
What’s more, cynics would say this is probably the only thing at which we are better off than Singapore, which is placed 150th.
No doubt, the suspension of The Heat would have been one of the factors that caused our drop from 145th in 2013. But now one wonders what our position will be next year since the Home Ministry has just revoked the publishing licence of FZ Daily which it had initially approved last August. This revocation happened only less than two weeks ago, and the ministry gave no reason for it.
Even radio has not been spared. Last Wednesday, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission barred the business radio BFM from broadcasting its interview with Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim.
And yet the next day, the Prime Minister’s Office had the gumption to say that the media in Malaysia is “freer than it has ever been”. This is either self-denial or a downright lie or a ploy to deceive Malaysians who are poorly informed.
Whatever it is, the motive is suspect and the Government looks bad for doing what it does. Prime Minister Najib Razak can eat the words he said in September 2011 about wanting to make Malaysia “the best democracy in the world”. The way things are going, he’s probably more adept at making it one of the worst.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the book The Elections Bullshit, available in bookstores.