Yesterday, Premesh Chandran announced that he would be stepping down as CEO of Malaysiakini. Here’s a Q&A about his time with the country’s top online news website and his future plans.
You are stepping down as Malaysiakini CEO, why now and how did this come about?
Actually, I had planned to step down in 2020, as I announced at Malaysiakini’s 20th anniversary dinner. It was a good time to let go, with a government committed to improving press freedom, combined with an experienced team and financial stability at Malaysiakini.
However, as we were working on the transition, the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic and the Sheraton Move rocked the nation. There was too much uncertainty for me to leave, and the candidates we had in mind were also hesitant to take the job under such circumstances. And so, I took the decision to postpone my departure.
Now with the pandemic ebbing and the company financially strong - we just paid off the loan on our building - it's time to move forward with the decision.
I used to say that Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 22-year term was way too long, and yet I have stayed just as long. We all have important roles to play, but nobody is indispensable. I did tell the team, who knows, I might come back when I am in my 90s! [Laughs]
Who will be taking over from you?
We did consider bringing in a new CEO. However, there are some challenges.
We have a strong internal team and a distinct work culture, and this may jolt someone brand new at the top. We also value internal equity, with a more balanced salary structure as compared to the industry. As a result, our top-level salaries are under par and new entrants are likely to have to take a pay cut as compared to their previous compensation.
Malaysiakini is also seen as a politically sensitive organisation, our leaders will have to deal with the occasional threat and legal challenge while ensuring commercial profitability and growth.
Hence, it would be best for someone internal to rise to the top. Sometimes that is hard to do, while the founders are still around. So, the plan is for Steven Gan to take over commercial leadership for now, while our current senior managers take on more responsibility and leadership as well.
Nevertheless, we will be recruiting new senior hires and working alongside our current capable team, I am sure Malaysiakini is in good hands.
Will you continue to have a role in Malaysiakini? Will you be selling your shareholding?
I suppose Malaysiakini will always be part of me and I will be part of Malaysiakini. Formally, I will continue to be a director at the group level but will step away from daily operations.
Over the years, we have received many offers to buy Malaysiakini as we are perceived to be credible and politically influential with our large and diverse audience base. However, there is always a suspicion that these investors may impose their own political agenda rather than allow Malaysiakini to remain independent.
Furthermore, Malaysiakini has been financially and morally supported by our readership and so, it's important to recognise this element of public ownership.
Hence, Steven and I have decided to establish a non-profit entity that will become the major owner of Malaysiakini as the founders transition out of the organisation over time.
We intend for the non-profit to be run by a group that can ensure Malaysiakini remains commercially viable as well as independent from political pressures.
This will ensure that Malaysiakini can continue its mission even when the founders are no longer around.
Looking back, what were some of your proudest moments?
There are many! I remember when we first made the website live on Nov 20, 1999. It was a proud moment for the whole team but there was also nervous fear - no turning back, a point of no return.
I remember our first police raid, back in 2002 when they took all our computers. There was an avalanche of support, including (then PKR leader) Wan Azizah (Wan Ismail) leading a candlelight vigil outside Malaysiakini.
It was the first time we felt the brunt of direct government pressure, but at the same time, we were elated that our readers were with us.
In 2004, the late Abdullah Ahmad aka Dollah Kok Lanas, arranged our first interview with then retired Dr Mahathir at the top floor of Petronas Towers. The first thing he said was that he didn’t like Malaysiakini. It was tense and hilarious!
In 2011, a Chinese competitor website Merdeka Review announced it was going to close. Instead of celebrating, our Chinese desk came up with the idea of saving them by launching a joint subscription package - Malaysiakini + Merdeka Review for a single price, and we would give them half the revenue from this deal. Thousands of readers cheered us and signed up, showing the power of collaboration over competition. It was amazing!
We have run many fantastic stories and special reports that have rocked the nation. Our journalists and editors have been brave and determined, even when they knew there could be severe repercussions.
We were always ahead with our election coverage. In 2008, millions tuned in to Malaysiakini to hear the state governments in Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor falling to Pakatan Rakyat. Later, prime minister Abdullah Badawi admitted that he underestimated the power of the Internet in creating change.
Of course, in GE14 in 2018, as other media held back, Malaysiakini led the count. We were collating the results from various sources and reported that Pakatan Harapan had reached 110. We looked for two more results, and at exactly 2.28am in the morning, we showed Harapan had indeed won a majority. Minutes later, other media followed suit.
Over 10 million viewers had tuned in directly to Malaysiakini that night, and perhaps millions more followed on social media and other platforms. It was a truly remarkable moment.
Besides our stories, I think buying our own building - @Kini - was a proud moment too. We believed our readers would support us and we launched a ‘Buy a Brick’ campaign and raised RM1.7 million. More recently, we raised over RM750,000 in just over four hours, in response to losing a contempt of court case. Unbelievable!
Surely it was not all good, what were the tough times?
Despite the support, we didn’t do so well financially in the first few years. We had to try something new or else close down. In 2001, at a staff retreat in Bukit Selesa, (editor-in-chief) Steven (Gan) and I explained to our team that we wanted to introduce a paywall. They thought we were crazy and got a shelling from them!
And they were right. In the first year of subscription, we did really badly - only 1,000 out of 100,000 readers subscribed. It was devastating. Worse still, to survive we had to let some staff go. It was incredibly painful and I cried.
If we had closed, all our detractors would have been proven right. The concept of independent media being financially viable would have evaporated, and others would not have the courage to even try. We knew we needed to find a way to pull through.
We did anything and everything ethically possible to raise revenue. We managed to stay afloat and build slowly. It was only after the stunning results of the 2008 general elections that turned Malaysiakini into the most popular news site in Malaysia. Subscription and advertising skyrocketed, and we started to grow steadily.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the Sheraton Move. Are you disappointed with how things turned out?
Obviously, I would have hoped that elected MPs would respect the mandate given by the people. It's extremely disappointing that so much was thrown away so easily.
That said, the essence of democracy is the power of voters to throw out the government they despise. This had never happened in Malaysia. It is not about who rules, but whether the rakyat has the power to decide who gets to rule.
May 2018 was a watershed moment because of this. The voters spoke. The powers-that-be accepted the result and allowed a bloodless transition of power. That is a huge victory for the rakyat and the nation, and everybody who contributed to this moment - even those who subsequently jumped ship - can take pride in it. Even if subsequent actions destroyed the result, it should not dilute the history achieved.
Are you worried about where the country is headed?
Like many others, I think we have difficult economic and political times ahead. Economically, we are stagnating. Politically, ethnic divisions remain, Sabah and Sarawak feel that they have lost out in the federation, rural communities are neglected, and women are (still) having to fight for equal rights.
We have a shameful record of respecting migrant workers, despite them having built nearly all of the modern infrastructure we get to enjoy.
However, if you look at how Malaysians have come to aid each other, the #kitajagakita spirit, we are a mighty nation. Time and time again, we have come together to help each other out. If we invest in building bridges across our differences, we can stand stronger together.
Young people are organising fast and are determined to do better than the previous generation. They are the Merdeka 100 and Malaysia 100 generation, they will lead the country in 2057 and 2063. Let’s work with them to build the nation and we can celebrate together when we turn 100.
What is next for Malaysiakini?
Malaysiakini has a strong credible media brand. Even our detractors give us that. Malaysiakini worked because people wanted today’s news today. They wanted independent news, and found it easy to get it online.
However, media consumption habits are changing fast. Readers spend their time on WhatsApp, social media and content services such Netflix, Spotify, or news aggregator apps. Just as newspaper readership has fallen dramatically, direct readership to news sites is falling as well. We need to adapt accordingly.
The other challenge for Malaysiakini is to attract these younger readers and engage them not only around politics but on matters they care about. They like the simplicity of social media and are more attuned to video than reading text.
These are not easy challenges, but perhaps younger, open minds are better at coming up with solutions than we old folks!
What is next for you?
This is what I have been asked a lot. People who know me, know that I have many ideas. I like to see how we can make housing more affordable, improve public transport and make education more fun and relevant. Can we come up with a new type of politics that makes people feel counted and heard?
Despite our advances in technology, we still seem to be grappling with making our society fair and sustainable. We want the best for our children, and yet we ask them to inherit a society that is broken and under siege. We need to do better.
We are not heroes, we are just humans with our own strengths and many weaknesses. Yet, as humans, we share a common humanity and trusteeship of our planet. We have a duty to each other and to our children.
I hope to have a wider impact by supporting, mentoring and investing in those driving change. I will try to see a little further ahead. I will try to look for partners, funders and opportunities to put some ideas to work. In other words, there will be a few new adventures ahead. Wish me luck!