Media lynching and academic collaborators

By Dr Lim Teck Ghee

Every once in a while the government-controlled or government-associated media engages in a public lynching of individuals that dare to challenge the Umno-scripted truth about the political system, religion, the monarchy or just about any subject which may be seen as threatening to Umno’s political and ideological dominance.

The latest case involves Mohamad Sabu and the reason for his lynching relates to a speech he made in Tasek Gelugor on Aug 21 in which the PAS deputy president touched on the Bukit Kepong incident of Feb 23, 1950. 

In that incident, armed members of the Malayan Communist Party attacked and killed 25 police personnel and some of their family members. In his speech reported by Utusan Malaysia, Mat Sabu allegedly glorified the MCP by claiming that they were the real heroes for fighting against the British and for leading the country’s struggle for independence. 

Following the Utusan report, the New Straits Times had four articles including an entire page by its group managing editor Zainul Arifin attacking Mohamad Sabu for allegedly “rewriting history for political gain” (NST, Aug 28). 

This has since been followed by Utusan’s Sunday edition Mingguan Malaysia devoting extraordinary coverage (spreading over six pages) to the excoriation of Mat Sabu.

Mat Sabu even featured in the Prime Minister’s Aidilfitri-cum-Merdeka anniversary speech where Najib Abdul Razak sanctimoniously lambasted anyone that dared to discredit the sacrifices of the country’s forefathers and security forces in the path to independence. 

Missing from the historical narrative

At the end of his article, the NST’s chief Zainul – who surely must be aware that most people in our country know fully that not only history but also media editorials and pieces such as his have been written for political gain – makes the plea for history “to be debated by historians, and not politicians”. 

Whilst he makes the valid point that “a relooking at history is important …. [and that] some say it is biased and a tool of political dominance”, Zainul will know too that those looking for a debate or relook will not find it in the pages of his newspaper.    
So what is the verdict of professional historians on the communist insurgency and its contribution to the movement for independence from which a real debate and the historical truth can have its starting point?  

There is not enough space in this piece to reproduce the various analysis but readers interested in the MCP and its role in the struggle for independence may want to consult the following:  

C.C. Chin and Karl Hack, Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party

Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, 1948-1960

Richard Clutterbuck, The long long war: the emergency in Malaya 1948-1960

Richard Stubbs, Hearts and minds in guerrilla warfare: the Malayan emergency, 1948-1960

Especially useful is the latest scholarly assessment of the MCP’s role and place in Malayan history which is found in the journal ‘Kajian Malaysia’ (Journal of Malaysian Studies), Vol. 27, No. 1 & 2, 2009.  It is available online at

In the volume, Richard Mason has an article ‘Revisiting 1948 Insurgencies and the Cold War in Southeast Asia’ that provides an overview on the almost simultaneous revolt against colonial regimes in Malaya, Indonesia and Indochina. Also three writers, C.C. Chin, Leon Comber and Abdul Rahman Hj. Ismail, provide new insights into the MCP and the tumultuous events and nationalist stirrings of the period. 

What is noticeable about the NST media coverage is not only the way the paper has ignored the real scholars that have undertaken the studies of the MCP but also its reliance on the preferred modus operandi to trot out what appear to be court academicians in the guise of Malaysian academic firepower to provide intellectual justification for their public lynching exercise. 

One such academician, Prof. Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim – who is prominently featured in the NST and other government controlled media – should know better.

Mat Sabu’s intellectual honesty

Prof. Khoo’s field of specialization is not the Malayan Communist Party or Chin Peng or recent Malayan political history.

Although his PhD was on the topic ‘The Beginnings of Political Extremism in Malaya 1915-1935’, it does not cover the period of the 1940s and 1950s when the struggle for independence took place in earnest and during which time the MCP underwent various metamorphosis and change in ideological direction in its objective to free Malaya from the colonial yoke of the British.

Prof. Khoo could have waited for clarification or explanation from Mat Sabu, and for any justification the latter may have provided for his views. That would have been the correct academic etiquette.

Or if Prof. Khoo was in haste, he could at least have relied on scholars that have done more authoritative work on the MCP and through their studies provided an academic and more truthful historical context and explanation for the Bukit Kepong incident and the communist fighters.

Instead he was reported to have stated that “Mohamad should not lie to the people when the rakyat today was easily led astray and misinformed” (NST, p.10).  Not only has he dismissed Mat Sabu’s account without checking with the victim of the public lynching but he has diverted the issue away from Mat Sabu’s focus on who were Malaya’s freedom fighters to the international origins and orientation of the Malayan Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s!

Readers can view Mat Sabu’s talk at this link

Prof. Khoo is no academic innocent or virgin when it comes to press coverage. He must know that the NST has its knives out for Mat Sabu and other opposition or civil society leaders that stand in the way of UMNO’s agenda. He must know or at least he should know that there would be no fair trial and that the pursuit of academic facts and intellectual truth is the furthest away from being a concern or priority of the NST. 

Mat Sabu is feared by Umno and its mouthpieces, the NST and Utusan for good reason. He is PAS’s thinking, progressive and committed face – not simply a face but someone who possesses not only the intellectual honesty to raise uncomfortable questions about how our history is being written but also is prepared to take a contrary position to defend his take on historical truth.

In doing so, Mat Sabu puts to shame the academic hangers-on that are quick to bray when called upon by the government.