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As Malaysiakini turns 21, join us in our celebration

It was 1999. The dotcom boom was at its peak.

This tech "gold rush" was sparked by Netscape, the then browser of choice which went for an IPO a few years earlier resulting in a market value of almost US$3 billion – unheard of for a company that was established only months before and which had yet to make a single penny of profit.

Meanwhile, Google was just out the starting blocks and it had Yahoo, the leader in the search engine market, in its sights.

In Malaysia, we were in the throes of an unmitigated economic and political upheaval. The "tom yum kung" financial crisis - so named because it originated in Thailand - had hit the country real hard.

In wake of the crisis, prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad sacked his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Reformasi rang out loud as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets. Sensing more trouble ahead, Mahathir called a snap general election for Nov 29.

A month before that, Premesh Chandran, co-founder of Malaysiakini, rented a walk-up shop lot office in Section 14, Petaling Jaya. Located on the third floor, the office was previously an architecture firm lined with wall-to-wall lime green cabinets. It was Malaysiakini’s first headquarters.

Fresh from Thailand after quitting my job at a Bangkok newspaper, I did not even have time to look for a place to stay. Instead, I plunged headlong into preparing for the launch of the country’s first independent news website and slept at the back of the office – a tiny cubicle which doubled up as a prayer room for our Muslim staff.

Not that there was anything to complain about. Our situation was perhaps far better than some Internet start-ups. Many began their journey in basements or garages, driven by nothing else but the hope of developing a killer app that would change the world.

Over in Malaysiakini, our ambition was a little more modest. We just wanted to change Malaysia.

We quickly hired three relatively wet-behind-the-ears journalists and a 19-year-old web designer. Armed with a 56k dial-up modem, we uploaded our first stories on Nov 20 - nomination day for the 10th general election (GE10).

In those days, there was no Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat or Instagram. To let people know we were in business, we relied solely on word of mouth. As expected, Malaysiakini had a slow start. But soon, our traffic grew from 500 visitors to 5,000 and later 50,000.

Mahathir suffered a major setback in GE10. While he was able to retain government, many Malays abandoned Umno to back the fledging PKR as well as PAS. Ironically, he was saved by non-Malay voters who apparently were spooked by the riots in Jakarta the previous May which led to the ousting of Indonesian strongman Suharto.

From those early days, we went on to tuck another four general elections under our belt, saw a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime change of government and yes, the return of Mahathir.

Perilous task

There are few human undertakings which demand a fiercer commitment to truth as journalism.

Not surprisingly, in countries where truth is hounded by those threatened by the power of the written word (and images), journalism has become not only an onerous endeavour but also a perilous task.

Malaysia is no exception.

We were declared "traitors" by one prime minister and sued by another. We faced debilitating cyber-attacks, were kicked out of press conferences time and again, saw a number of our journalists arrested and our office raided by the police at least five times.

Not only do we have to deal with hostile political forces that seek to quash us, but we also have to face the vagaries of the Internet economy. Malaysiakini’s existence is guided by one unwavering principle - independent media needs independent financing. But getting people to pay for online content is hard.

Many of our contemporaries were unable to continue. We, however, pressed on. It wasn’t easy. There were times when we were convinced that we, too, had to close shop. But we were able to persevere because of the support from our growing community of Malaysiakini subscribers.

Incidentally, one of those companies which folded was Netscape. Despite raising billions in the stock market, it was soon snuffed out by Microsoft. How that happened is another story.

So, did we change Malaysia? The jury is still out on that. But Malaysia did change - from the dark days when people had to look over their shoulders when discussing politics to today where Malaysians know they wield the power to change the government.

But there is one thing that did not change - Malaysiakini. Our values remain the same as they were 21 years ago - to tell truth to power and to hold power to account.

We still stand steadfast on the issues that drove us to set up Malaysiakini. Among them anti-corruption, good governance, the defence of human rights and protection of the environment, independence of the judiciary, and press freedom.

We turn 21 today, but our task continues. We thank all those who were with us on our 21-year journey. And we hope more will hop on board. To celebrate our 21st anniversary, we are offering a 21-percent discount to all current and new subscribers over the next seven days. This special offer will end next Friday, Nov 27.

Click here to subscribe to Malaysiakini. Join us today, and together, we shall be the change that we wish to see in Malaysia. And perhaps, the world.

Subscribe to Malaysiakini at 21% discount here.

STEVEN GAN is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Malaysiakini.

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