Nadeswaran’s new book is about Scandals and Scoundrels

Speech by Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar at the launch of Scandals & Scoundrels: A Collection of Essays 0n 1MDB & Related Issues by R. Nadeswaran at Royal Selangor Club, Bukit Kiara Sports Annexe, Monday, November 7th 2022.

Thank you  Sdr Nadeswaran  for the honour to launch his book. It is indeed a pleasure to be here, among his family, friends, colleagues and admirers. I am so happy to see old colleagues here, many of them, like me, are the remnants of a bygone era. We are the orang surat khabar lama. There are few of us left, fewer still who are diligently penning pieces for the newspapers or  weblogs and such.

But I am sure, we are all here to honour Citizen Nades – no ordinary bloke, a true-blue journalist, respected, and at the same time,  feared even  despised. But everyone is in agreement, that there is only one Nadeswaran, the one and only, in flesh and blood, in front of us today, and we are all here to salute  him for yet another of his  achievements as journalist.

Perhaps he should have invited a high profile candidate for the 15th General Election to officiate this event. I am sure anyone would come, and in tow TV cameras and the whole press corps. Yet he invited me, a yesterday man in the world of the media.

I have another reason not to say no. I have disappointed him in 2017 when he launched another book. It was the same day and time that my book, Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan ke Media Prima Berhad was launched at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). It was about my 50-year involvement in the world of arts and culture.

I have known Nadeswaran for almost three decades now. Some 29 years ago, the company I worked for, came out with an idea to publish an English weekly. No ordinary weekly, but a free English newspaper to be distributed in Klang Valley. I was hardly four months into my job as the Group Editor of the Utusan Melayu group when the matter was brought up in a board meeting.

It was unmistakably  a massive undertaking for a  company that published Utusan Melayu, the jawi newspaper and its Sunday edition, Utusan Zaman, and since 1967  the company published Utusan Malaysia in romanised script, and its weekly version, Mingguan Malaysia.

I remember clearly there was a collective gasp when the name of the production  editor was mentioned, one R. Nadeswaran.

Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar and R. Nadeswaran

Yes, THAT Nadeswaran!

But of course there was another person, with an impeccable credentials, to be appointed the editor of The Leader –  Frankie D’Cruz.

Nadeswaran had made his mark as a journalist  at the time. He was best remembered as the investigative reporter who  walked around Kuala Lumpur  in handcuffs and yet no one bat a eyelid. He was then with the Malay Mail. Nadeswaran has proven  what investigative reporting could do and in doing so helped redirect the course of new journalism in the country.

And we are talking about a company called Utusan Melayu, the last bastion of Malayness, a company that pride itself as the publisher of a newspaper termed as “suara keramat” (literally sacred voice) of the Malays.

It was first published on June 29th 1939 under the supervision of Yusof Ishak, who later became the first President of the Republic of Singapore. A. Rahim Kajai was the editor. From its humble beginnings, Utusan Melayu became a force to be reckoned with. Names like Said Zahari, A. Samad Ismail, Othman Wok, Dahari Ali, Salim Kajai, Ishak Haji Mohamad (Pak Sako), Usman Awang, Kamaluddin Mohamad were part of Utusan Melayu.

When Malaya became independence Utusan Melayu was far too critical for a fledgling democracy. In 1961 UMNO engineered an editorial coup. The reporters stood firm. They launched “Mogok Utusan Melayu” which lasted 90 days. It was a spirited attempt by the reporters to protect freedom of the press and to uphold the independence of journalists. They failed.

Said Zahari, the editor at the time was taken in as part of  “Operation Cold Storage” in Singapore. He was held under ISA for 17 years, the longest endured by any journalist in the region.

The 1961 Mogok was a defining moment in the history of Malaysian journalism. And I believed the beginning of the  death of free press in the country. No media organisation was free from the control of political parties since then. There have been exceptions of course, but it  is more of an aberration rather than a norm.

Therefore I was not surprised Nadeswaran coming to Utusan Melayu. After all Utusan Melayu had a checked history when it involved its own editors. Many of the editors were  fired for all kind of reasons –  regime change, not towing the line, supporting the wrong leaders, and the list goes on. All my predecessors went through that – Said Zahari, Melan Abdullah, Mazlan Nordin, Zainuddin Maidin. I was too, rather famously, in April 1998,  during the Dr Mahathir – Anwar fallout. And it happened elsewhere to, The New Straits Times, Berita Harian, The Star, TV3, you name it.

Among the orang surat khabar lama we love to tell  the joke, “ good soldiers don’t die, they fade away. Good editors don’t fade away, they got fired.”

On the July 29th  1993, KL Recorder Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Utusan Melayu was established with the sole purpose of publishing the new newspaper.

It was to be named The Leader.

It was first published on September 10th that year.

One of the first things  I was told when I joined the company in November 1992 was that, the soon-to-be published English newspaper was the only publication NOT under my purvey. The fact that it was created under a subsidiary was in itself an anomaly.

I didn’t complain. I have too much on my plate anyway, to revamp Utusan Malaysia and Mingguan Malaysia and also the newspapers in jawi script that were losing it  readers. And I have many popular magazines  to worry about.
So, Nadeswaran was there, somewhere,  and he started his column “Citizen Nades” in The Leader. I hardly met him. I have nothing but sympathy for him running a newspaper in an atmosphere that was totally different from the Malay Mail. And I am sure in a culture that was  totally different from The Sun which he later joined  where he survived for 17 long years.

The Leader was  Malaysia’s first free newspaper. Ironically The Sun started at about the same time with The Leader. But it  decided to go free in 2002. I am sure  the owners and editors of The Sun  learned a lot from the lessons of The Leader. “Citizen Nades” the column that he started in The Leader is a trade mark that defined him wherever he went.

Two years and many million ringgit later The Leader ceased publication. The truth was, it was no fault of D’Cruz or Nadeswaran. The company did a post-mortem of why  the free paper failed. Top of the list was of course the way it was distributed. I told the management, Nadeswaran was at  wrong paper at the right time.

I would have done it differently  if it  was under my charge. Perhaps we could have published another Malay Mail under our stable. Or even publish a mainstream English newspaper to compete with The Straits Times and The Star at the time.

But then it was history.

Today we are celebrating another of his achievements as a journalist – Scandals and Scoundrels: A Collection of Essay on 1MDB and Related Issues.

All the 44 essays in this collection from The Sun newspaper and the portal Malaysiakini are testimony to the indefatigable journalist that he is, writing without fear and favour, in his no-holds-barred style, fearless to a point of obsession, ferocious in his approach. For he  believes that journalistic independence is the bedrock of  any democracy.

He writes about scandals and those behind them – aptly labelled “scoundrels” by him. And there is one particular scandal that is unprecedented in its scope and impact – the 1MDB scandal. It brings nothing but  infamy to  the country. To quote Tan Sri Rafidah the scandal was “too atrocious to be true.”

Again, my path and that of Nadeswaran crossed  on this one. In the early stages of the investigation on SRC International, a subsidiary of 1MDB, we were both  in the Consultation and Prevention Panel or  PPPR of the MACC. I was the Chairman and he was among the many brave souls on my panel. It was in 2015.

It didn’t take long before the “powers that were” realised that the probe on SRC International was detrimental to them. Facts didn’t lie. The money trail was leading to none other than the Prime Minister himself.

In a drama more intriguing than a novel by John Le Carre, the Attorney General was sacked and the MACC was harassed. Two of its senior investigation officers, Datuk Bahri Mohamad Zin and Datuk Rohaizad Yaakob were transferred out or cold-storaged. Deputy Chief Commissioner of MACC at the time, Datuk Seri Mohd Shukri Abdul was  threatened.

My panel members acted. We were driven by our conscience if anything else. After all the PPPR is  an external oversight panel monitoring  the MACC. As Chairman of the Panel I came out with a strong statement calling for the Chief Secretary of the Government (KSN) to reinstate the two officers and for the government of the day to allow MACC to investigate the case.

We came out with the statement on August 24th 2015. The public outcry that followed resulted in the reinstatement of the two officers. But we paid a price for being audacious. The panel was soon revamped. All panel members, except one, were not reappointed.

In out little way we helped steered the SRC International investigation to the right direction   at the very early stage. And we provided the aircover for our friends at MACC. Now  we all know the ending of  the SRC International saga.

But more importantly we must understand what is the meaning of the scandal to the media  fraternity  as a whole. I have been asking series of questions pertaining to what actually happened. What is the role of the journalists  under such circumstances? Why did most of us fail to voice our concerns when the scandal was unfolding? Very few among us sounded the alarm even after facts and figures were revealed by The Sarawak Report.

Many among us were just ignoring the elephant in the room. We knew something was not right. Perhaps many were not privy to the details, but as one expose after another unfolded and some opposition leaders at the time harped on  the issue relentlessly at Dewan Rekyat, many among us were unconvinced, or worse decided to close one eye.

In one of my articles in The Star, I single out the press for being part of the problem. We have failed the people. We betrayed the trust of our readers, viewers and listeners. Many, especially in the mainstream media chose to  ignore the facts, which is against the very thing that we are supposed to do – to be the eyes and ears of the people.

As I have argued in my article the media is supposed to be free and fair and the press corps should first and last behave like professionals. I understand this is not an easy country to practice journalism in the true sense of the word. There are simply too many laws, archaic ones some them, that stifle us.

But I noticed  during my days back in the 90s, things were imperfect too, but at least we were able to expose many wrongdoings and scandals of the day, of course at a hefty price to our careers.

1MDB is a slap on the face of the cowering media. 1MDB is also a wake-up call for the local media. Docility sucks. We have only ourselves to blame for allowing the shenanigan to explode into one of the worst financial scandal the world has ever known.

We are complicit in the 1MDB scandal.

Most of us that is. But luckily we have The Edge that have been relentless in pursuing the issue. As mentioned by Nadeswaran in the introduction of this book his source of information was The Edge which produced exhaustive and comprehensive reports on how the people’s money was milked by the scoundrels of 1MDB.

And luckily we have Nadeswaran  a contrarian among us who relentless penned article after article on the issue. This is another collection of his essays on things that have been bothering us all – corruption and abuse of power.

We have seen that in Curi-Curi Malaysia prior to this. Now we have this incredible collection on the scoundrels involved in the scandals that gave the country a bad name.

Corruption is a serious problem in the country. It is rampant thus worrying. In fact some said we have perfected the art of giving and taking. The high profile cases that we have been following in the courts alarmed us of how corruption has become a culture, in fact very much embedded in society.

Corruption is a crime against development and it should be treated as such. Little wonder Indonesia’s Komisi Pembentrasan Korupsi (KPK) an equivalent of our MACC has adopted the mantra “Bangun Negeri Tanpa Korupsi” (Building a nation without corruption).

I admire Nadeswaran for his conviction. I commend him for his tenacity in exposing the truth. I commend him for proving that journalists matter in this country. And journalism is still a powerful tool to voice the voices of the people. We must give power to the powerless, the little people, for they are the worst affected by corruption and abuse of power.

Nadeswaran  has shown why prurient journalism fixated with sex, lies and pseudo-democracy is not acceptable any more. Sensationalism, inaccuracy and intrusion into privacy are not selling newspapers anymore. There is a changing dynamics in the world of the media today. It affected us, our business, the entire discipline of journalism and perhaps the future of the newspaper and media.

Journalism is  being hollowed out by massive structural shifts, readers’ preferences, latest trends and the cost of the newspaper business. After all this is an era of Industry 4.0. The “New Industrial Revolution” is taking place and it is changing almost everything – not just the way we communicate but the way we live.

There is a silver lining to all this, I reckon. There is an opportunity for media companies and media practitioners to relook at the entire scenario, truthfully and sincerely. It is time to rethink the way we do things. There is an opportunity for a new beginning or the rebirth of a new news agenda. The new construct taking place of the old.

But something has not changed.

The press must play its role as an independent critic and formulator of public opinion. It is about time the press unshackled itself from the burden of political sponsorship, subsidy and patronage. As I have argued earlier a  journalist is not defined by his or her “kesetiaan” (loyalty) but by his or her professionalism.

But first the media practitioners  have to regain the trust of the people. The social media is there to compete with them. Thus we  need to ensure the public that we can provide them with real, quality, objective and balanced news especially during elections.

On the other hand, not many media companies will survive, which is good for the industry as a whole. It is also about choosing the kaca (glass) from the intan (diamond), as the Malays put it, the good ones from the bad, the credible ones from the not, the reliable ones from the unreliable lot.

The painful process must not stop at that. We must bring in only the best, the most reliable, the truly professionals.

That is why we need many more Nadeswarans, to remind us that the voice of reasons matters.

Nadeswaran has sown fear in those responsible for the debacles that have impoverished, dishonoured and shamed us. Leaders have a role to play. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare reminded leaders of their  responsibilities.

We hope things will change for the better after the 15th General Election. But haven’t we been waiting for real reforms and changes the last 65 years? Are not still hopeful that this beloved country of ours will  be ruled by leaders with integrity? Fighting corruption demands political will. We can’t expect corrupt leaders to eradicate corruption.

There is a need for accountability. In fact a wider sense of accountability. Thus the book.

This is an important book, a must-read for everyone, especially young people. It is a reminder that the work of one tireless journalist can make a difference. That is why the collection of essays is invaluable.

I have this to say to you, Sdr Nadeswaran. We are thankful to you for your works. So,  keep on writing!

With that, I officially launch the book Scandals and Scoundrels: A Collection of Essays on 1MDB and Other Issues by R. Nadeswaran.

The book is available for purchase here.

Tan Sri Johan was a journalist. He was the Chief Editor of  Utusan Melayu  from 1992-1998, former Chairman of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and former Chairman of Media Prima Berhad. He is currently a columnist for The Star. He is a National Journalism Laurette. 

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