Catching up with... Said Zahari: Heady days of newspapers and politics
WAN HAMIDI HAMID
New Sunday Times
In 1961, a young, idealistic chief editor led a strike in Kuala Lumpur trying to avert Umno's takeover of Utusan Melayu. Banned from Malaya, he returned to Singapore where two years later he was detained without trial for 17 years. Former chief editor Said Zahari tells his story to WAN HAMIDI HAMID.
HE must be one of the unluckiest political leaders alive. Less than four hours after he became chairman of opposition party Partai Rakyat Singapura, Said Zahari was arrested.
Said was among more than a hundred detained in Singapore's crackdown on the opposition under Operation Cold Store.
He was held without trial for 17 years. Chia Thye Poh, who spent 27 years in detention, was the longest-serving political detainee in Singapore. (My note : Chia spent a total of 32 years under ISA)
Now 78, Said is probably better remembered in Malaysia than in Singapore for his key role in a historical event here.
He led the journalists and staff of the Utusan Melayu to strike for 91 days in 1961, fighting to keep the newspaper free and independent of political control.
Towards the end of the strike, Said returned to Singapore for a short visit. That was when then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman declared him persona non grata, barring him from returning to Malaya.
He spent the next two years in politics in Singapore before Special Branch officers came knocking in the early hours of Feb 2, 1963.
Operation Cold Store crippled the opposition in Singapore.
At the time, he thought he would get out soon.
"I never expected I would spend such a long time as a political prisoner," said the ever-smiling Said.
He recently published a second volume of memoirs, on his long detention. Dalam Ribuan Mimpi Gelisah (The Long Nightmare). He had earlier written Meniti Lautan Gelora which was published in 2001.
When he joined Utusan Melayu in Singapore in 1951, the region was in turmoil. Like other Malay journalists of the time, Said was heavily influenced by Sukarno’s struggle for Indonesian independence from the Dutch.
"He proved that we could oust the colonialists and rule our own country."
Said acknowledged he had been drawn to the People's Action Party when it was formed in 1954.
He got to know its young leaders - Lee Kuan Yew, Devan Nair - and fellow journalist A. Samad Ismail. Said found PAP more progressive than others of the time.
It was also the year Utusan sent the Singapore-born Said to Kuala Lumpur to become its news editor.
Pro-Umno even then, Utusan supported the Alliance in the first council elections in 1955 "because Umno was fighting for independence".
After Independence, Utusan continued to press the new Malayan Government for land for farmers and workers' rights.
The Tunku was unhappy with criticism that Umno was continuing to protect the interests of the British, who still decided defence, foreign and economic policies.
"Tunku even called me for a one-on-one discussion. I argued that Utusan fights for the Malays, especially the poor Malays."
Many Umno leaders wanted Utusan to become its mouthpiece, but the editorial leadership stuck to its guns. When Said was made chief editor in 1959, the brewing crisis deepened, leading to the strike.
When he could not return to Malaysia, the new Utusan management under Umno control washed their hands off him.
"As you know, it was the shortest political career for me," he said.
He believes PAP founder Lee thought he would be a political threat.
"That's why after failing to obtain any confession from me, during my eighth year in detention, Lee declared publicly that I was a communist.
"That was a lie. (It was) to discredit me and my colleagues for believing in Malayan nationalism, for totally opposing any form of colonialism.
"I know what is nationalism, what is communism. I read Marx, Mao and other works on the economy and politics. I read the Quran and the Hadith.
"I believe Islam is much more than a political philosophy and it surpasses ideologies such as communism, and Islam is definitely the best for me."
He didn’t sound bitter at the interview, but in his latest book, he described Lee as vicious, arrogant and ruthless.
In 1979, Said was released at the age of 54, and joined wife Salamah to start a new life.
"I was too old for mainstream journalism and politics was extremely different from what it used to be."
In 1989, the Malaysian Government revoked Tunku’s order. In 1994, he came back and has not returned to Singapore since. (My note : Said made short trips to Singapore after 1994, but has not crossed the causeway since the launch of Dark Clouds At Dawn in 2001. He remains a Singapore citizen.)
Said, who suffered a stroke in 1992, is now writing his third book on his memoirs of his journalistic and extremely short political life before he turns 80.
"After that, God-willing, I want to write about my best friend and companion, my wife Salamah who passed away a year ago."
He lives alone but is always in the company of his daughter and her children. He walks with the aid of a walking stick, both legs weak from the stroke.
After finishing the book on his wife, he hopes to write on Malaysia-Singapore politics, seen through the eyes of a journalist.
"I can only write. That's all I know and will continue to do," he said.
He attends seminars and conferences to talk about journalism and politics, and Press freedom.
Comparing journalism today with that of his time, he said: "The attributes are different. It is unfair to compare them. During my time, no political parties controlled the Press.
"My advice to journalists today is that if you can do a little bit, just do that little bit. It's better than not doing anything."
1928 - Born, Singapore
Early 1940s - Tanglin Malay School, Singapore
1942 - Japanese military invaded Singapore
1944 - Joined Japanese Teachers Training College, Singapore
1945 - Japanese surrendered; end of World War Two
1947 - Sat for Senior Cambridge examination
1951 - Joined Utusan Melayu, Singapore
1954 - Sent to Utusan Melayu Kuala Lumpur bureau as News Editor
1959 - Appointed Utusan Melayu Chief Editor, Kuala Lumpur
1961 - Led the Utusan strike, Kuala Lumpur
1961 - Declared by Tunku Abdul Rahman as persona non grata ; barred from entering Malaya 1963 — Elected chairman of Partai Rakyat Singapura; arrested under Preservation of Public Security Ordinance
1963-1979 - Detained without trial as political prisoner, Singapore
1989 - Malaysian Government revokes persona non grata order
1994 - Moved to Malaysia with family
1996-1999 - Fellow of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
2001 - First memoir Meniti Lautan Gelora published; English version Dark Clouds at Dawn published in Kuala Lumpur
2002 - Chinese version of Meniti Lautan Gelora launched in Hong Kong
2004 December - Wife Salamah Abdul Wahab dies
2006 February - Second volume of memoirs, Dalam Ribuan Mimpi Gelisah, published in Kuala Lumpur