Six Million UMNO-PAS Supporters Could Not Save Utusan’s Dignity

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Finance Twitter on the death of the oldest Malay newspaper.

We wrote more than a year ago that Utusan Malaysia, the oldest Malay newspaper may close shop. Founded as Utusan Melayu in 1939, almost two decades before the country’s independence in 1957, the generosity of the newly-crowned government of Pakatan Harapan has allowed the highly controversial and racist newspaper to operate without interference.

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On Wednesday (Oct 9, 2019), after working for decades, truckloads of the employees were in tears as they took their last photographs in the newspaper’s office and carried boxes of their belongings out – Utusan officially closed down for business. Effectively, 862 people became jobless. But there was no point crying over spilt milk. It may sound cruel, but they deserve it.

In the circular, the company’s management said that the plunging sales as well as failure to hit RM4 million advertising revenue to stay afloat had led to the shutting down of the company. But the problems were well known to the top management for decades. They knew the reasons why the toxic newspaper failed to attract advertisers and readers, but they had chosen to ignore them.

Utusan Malaysia’s circulation peaked at 350,000 copies a day in the 1990s and it was one of the largest selling newspapers in Malaysia. However, its circulation started to decline to about 250,000 copies in 2004 and further down to 144,438 copies in the first half of 2016. According to ABC’s Audit Report, the number plunged to 112,050 copies during the period of July-Dec 2017.

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In reality, Utusan – mocked as not worthy even as toilet papers – was UMNO’s mouthpiece in the form of a propaganda newspaper. The political party had a 49.77% controlling stake (as of annual report ended 31 Dec, 2017) in the company. It was game-over after the stunning loss of UMNO, the backbone of the defeated Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government, in the May 2018 general election.

As the gravy train stopped on the night of May 9, 2018, Utusan was as good as dead. Without any cash injection from UMNO, Utusan defaulted on RM2.9 million loans owed to Affin Islamic Bank in August 2018. Its stock price dropped like a rock and had never recovered. Dumbfounded by its political master’s unexpected loss, the company didn’t know what to do.

The company had been registering losses for years with zero gross dividend and negative EPS (earnings per share). Its reserves of RM169 million in 2013 were totally wiped out by 2016. Since 2016, late salary payment was the daily breakfast for its employees. For the financial year 2017, Utusan had negative RM65 million reserves – obviously deep in debts!

Still, the management, while in denial and dismissed the company was in financial trouble, had urged – even begged – the Malay community to give its full support to what it said was the last remaining newspaper company that represents the so-called Malay struggle. As far as the management and employees were concerned, their survival depended on charity from UMNO.

Utusan played an important role as the biggest influence in shaping the racism and extremism among the 68.8% of Malays and Bumiputeras in the country. Just a day after the 2013 General Election, of which the ruling BN coalition suffered its worst-ever results, Utusan published a highly racist feature article with the headline ‘Apa lagi Cina mahu?’ (‘What else do the Chinese want?”).

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That’s fine. Other newspapers belonging to political parties aligned to Barisan did the same propaganda drama too. But unlike Utusan which refused to change, other newspapers made instant changes to survive. For example, English newspaper The Star, owned by MCA (second biggest component party of BN), immediately adopted a more neutral stance to stay relevant.

After its demise yesterday, National Union Journalist (NUJ) Utusan representative Mohd Taufek Razak immediately slammed the owners of Utusan, calling them cowards for failing to meet their employees and explain the situation following the decision to liquidate the company. He said: “They have all run away. They are all cowards – with no guts to tell us whether they will pay us compensation or our due salaries.”

Apparently, the employees, once the darlings of UMNO for jobs well done in spewing hatred against minority ethnics Chinese and Indians, did not receive any termination letter, let alone compensation. Heck, the company also owed them at least two months of salary. Taufek said: “Despite them not paying us for months, we still worked. We love this company.”

Well, that’s what you get for working blindly for the racist and corrupt political party. The simple fact that the employees loved the company despite it consistently produced false, fake and extreme news speaks volumes about their problems. They still couldn’t see what was wrong with the company not being able to survive – even after they were left in a lurch.

They didn’t blame the management for being too radical and extreme, which had caused the newspaper to continuously lose readership – even among the Malay community – and hence advertising revenue. Sure, worldwide, the mainstream newspaper industry is facing the toughest period as they compete with social media and free content providers.

But instead of closing down, others adopt, embrace and reinvent a new business model. After 122 years, Malay Mail, the oldest newspaper in Malaysia, has since gone online in December 2018. Staffs affected by Malay Mail’s new business direction were given the opportunity to decide whether they want to leave or stay on and retrain for new roles in the revamped organisation.

In comparison, while all publications under the Utusan Group are expected to resume publication on Nov 1 under a new management (Aurora Mulia Sdn Bhd, a company linked to billionaire Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary), a large number of its 862 employees reportedly will not be re-hired. Clearly, the new owner believes the old employees are not “unemployable” for obvious reason.

Therefore, it’s laughable for UMNO president Zahid Hamidi to blame the government for Utusan’s closure. He argued that UMNO was unable to help the cash-strapped Utusan because its accounts had been frozen by Mahathir administration due to its involvement in the 1MDB scandal. The disgraceful Zahid should instead explain why UMNO supporters didn’t help Utusan instead.

Yes, despite the “Buy Muslim-made First (BMF)” campaign triggered by UMNO’s racism and extremism initiative to put Malays and non-Malays at loggerheads, it was a surprise that the political party’s four-million supporters had refused to support the Malay last remaining newspaper. And if the two-million fans of the PAS Islamist party had joined the party as well, Utusan could definitely be saved.

In August, executive chairman Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir said the price of Utusan Malaysia would be increased from RM1.50 to RM2, while the price of Kosmo would be raised from RM1 to RM1.50. By increasing the price of the papers, the company had hoped to generate about RM2.3 million a month, and in the process reduce its monthly deficit from RM3 million to RM750,000.

So, the question is: why Utusan could not even sell 200,000 copies a day when UMNO has a mind-boggling four-million diehard fans? Former Prime Minister Najib Razak had boastfully claimed that the party has three million members. Assuming all the members were real humans being and not donkeys, it’s a humiliation that less than 10% purchased a RM2 newspaper called Utusan.

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To make matters worse, PAS Islamist party, despite having been UMNO’s new ally since more than a year ago, hadn’t mobilised its two million fanatic fans to support Utusan newspaper. With a combined force six-million Malay-Muslim supporters, how hard could it be to purchase at least 200,000 copies, or even 350,000 copies (its peak circulation in the 1990s) a day for that matter?

It’s absolutely an insult to the community that the UMNO-Malays and PAS-Muslims, two biggest Malay parties in the country, were powerless at rescuing the dignity of Utusan. It doesn’t matter when or who was responsible for the erosion of public confidence which led to the demise of Utusan. A mixture of incompetency, racism and extremism was the recipe of Utusan’s embarrassing death. – Finance Twitter