Malaysian newspaper battle intensifies


The youth wing of an ethnic Chinese political party Saturday rejected the leadership’s bid to take over a newspaper group, defying the party boss and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who said the papers fomented hatred of his government.

The overwhelming rejection in a 631 to 25 vote at a meeting of youth wing delegates — which was boycotted by hundreds of supporters of the deal — foreshadows a bitter battle Sunday for leaders of the Malaysian Chinese Association to convince a general meeting to endorse the purchase.

The youth wingers, who met in their own conference Saturday, will attend the general meeting Sunday of 2,300 delegates.

They would need substantial support to defeat President Ling Liong Sik’s proposed newspaper venture, but a large dissenting vote could irretrievably weaken him ahead of a leadership contest next year.

A close vote would also hurt the standing of Mahathir, who ironically was basking this weekend in the praise of his own party, the United Malays National Organization, at an annual congress despite grumbling that no debate was allowed on substantive issues.

The prime minister told his party’s convention Saturday that he had approved the Chinese party’s purchase of Nanyang Holdings Bhd. and said they were too pro-opposition.

Mahathir also accused the newspapers, Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press, of stirring hatred against the government, dominated by his ethnic Malay Muslim group.

“Can’t we control the Chinese newspapers when they foment hatred against the Malay people?” Mahathir said. “Can’t these two newspapers be owned by a Chinese political party?”

“If the MCA wants to buy, let them buy. There is nothing wrong,” he said. “I am not anti-Chinese, but I want justice for all Malays and for all Malaysians.”

Race is highly sensitive in Malaysia and the government is built around ethnic-based, pro-business parties dominated by Mahathir’s United Malays National Organization.

Tang Ah Chai, head of an anti takeover activist committee, told The Associated Press that Saturday’s vote showed that younger party members were dissatisfied with Ling, a close Mahathir ally.

“We know that Ling has lost touch with the rest of the MCA,” Tang said. “His positions do not reflect the wishes of the Chinese community any more.”

Ling sowed a firestorm within his party by moving last month to take over Nanyang. The party, representing Malaysia’s Chinese minority in the racially based government, already owns Malaysia’s biggest English paper, The Star.

Party deputy leader Lim Ah Lek said that ordinary Chinese would view the takeover of Nanyang group as an attempt to propagandize them ahead of next year’s party contest.

Ling said that the party needed a media vehicle to reach Chinese voters for the 2004 general elections. Ethnic Chinese make up about 30 percent of Malaysia’s 23 million people.

The newspapers enjoyed the traditionally wider latitude given Chinese-language media, though the freedom is largely confined to reporting on the Chinese minority.

Malaysian media, the Chinese press included, generally take a pro-government line under the menace of tough licensing and libel laws and ownership by pro-government parties or businessmen.

The Chinese party, like the Mahathir-led government in general, has been pressured in recent years by demands for reform.

Mahathir has led Malaysia for 20 years, but his authority has slipped since the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis and the firing and imprisonment of his one-time heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, three years ago.