COMMENT | Said Zahari: Unsung Mandela of press freedom

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Modified 3 May 2021, 4:13 am

COMMENT | 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, 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 mentions.

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 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...

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