Updated: May 11, 2021
Jomo Kwame Sundaram
KUALA LUMPUR: Have you ever heard of a workers’ strike or similar labour action for press freedom? And how long do you think it lasted? A day? A week? A month? And where and when do you think this happened?
Workers strike for press freedom
Six decades ago, in 1961, Said Zahari, the editor of the Malay language daily, Utusan Melayu, led a strike of journalists and other employees. The protracted strike, in both Malaysia and Singapore today, was for press freedom rather than employee welfare.
Against all odds, the strike lasted over a hundred days! It also marked the end of the ‘honeymoon’ for the post-colonial government after independence. The historic strike was remarkable for many reasons, with two deserving special mention.
First, it involved ethnic Malay workers where such industrial actions had mainly been associated with ethnic Chinese and Indian workers, first brought to Malaya as indentured labour in colonial times.
Second, and perhaps uniquely, the strike tried to resist the imminent takeover of the previously independent anti-colonial newspaper to serve the propaganda needs of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). UMNO was the dominant partner of the governing coalition after the first Malayan elections in 1955 under colonial rule.
In 1957, the Federation of Malaya became independent, but without Singapore with which it was closely integrated, economically, politically and even socially and culturally before the Japanese invasion in 1941-1942.
With the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, Singapore joined the expanded Malaysian confederation of British possessions in the region in 1963 before seceding less than two years later.
UMNO-led ruling coalitions ruled Malaysia until 2018 when it lost the general election despite great gerrymandering in its favour. But after a ‘palace coup’ in March 2020, UMNO joined the current ruling coalition.
Out of the frying pan into the fire
To break the strike, Singapore-born Said was banished by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman from re-entering peninsular Malaya after visiting striking colleagues on the island.
In early February 1963, Said was arrested by Lee Kuan Yew’s government of Singapore, then still under British tutelage. This happened hours after he agreed to lead the left populist Parti Rakyat Singapura (Singapore People’s Party) when PRS allies were still very influential in the region.
Arrested with over a hundred other political dissidents in Operation Coldstore, he was incarcerated without trial for 17 years. In the early 1970s, Said’s poems were smuggled out of prison and published in Malaysia. Said’s resolute determination despite his ordeal inspired countless others.
Said’s memoirs, published at the start of the new millennium, reveal how he came to make heroic sacrifices for a better, more just and democratic post-colonial Malaya with no thought of personal gain or advantage.
His memoirs are not just political, but also personal, candidly sharing reminiscences, but without the cosmetic editing that ‘great men’ typically demand for their biographical narratives.
Born on 17th May 1928 in a rustic Singapore which no longer exists, the young Muslim Malay youth came of age under British colonialism, interrupted by the 1942-1945 Japanese Occupation. His working life began at the Utusan headquarters in Singapore.
The newspaper was published by Yusof Ishak, later Singapore’s first president, and edited by A. Samad Ismail, the doyen of Malaysian journalism. As independence for Malaya without Singapore became imminent, Said was sent north in 1955 to head the Kuala Lumpur office.
He arrived in time to cover the historic Baling peace talks between the electorally victorious Alliance and the communist-led guerrilla movement driven underground in mid-1948. Then Chief Minister Tunku confided to Said that he never wanted the talks to succeed, but had agreed to have them to gain political advantage.
Generosity of spirit
After his release in late 1979, Said remained humble and modest, always affable, even avuncular and generous in his dealings with all. Other Utusan comrades too came out of the strike with so much of their dignity and humanity intact despite losing their livelihoods and much else.
Despite his prolonged incarceration, his magnanimity and generosity of spirit contrast with so much contemporary political hypocrisy and petty vindictiveness. Some who had caused him much grief later sought to redeem themselves with him, often to the chagrin of comrades.
Yet, he always remained principled, defiant and uncompromising when it counted. Although he said little about it until his passing five years ago, despite his modest means, he sought to compensate his family for its ordeal. This must surely be one of the heaviest burdens he had to bear.
Many partook of his love for humanity, truth, freedom and other cherished universal values. His was truly a life of much sacrifice for values and principles which still move many, so many decades later.
One cannot but be inspired by the Utusan strike, for over a hundred days, for press freedom. Those of us who cherish freedom of the press owe the strikers a debt which can never be repaid.
The name Said Zahari deserves to be immortalised worldwide as symbolising the now universal struggle for press freedom. Today, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, let us all salute Said Zahari and his Utusan comrades of 1961.