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Liew and Jakob the stuff of newspaper legend

By Johan Jaaffar (Exe Chairman of Prima Media)

The two books are about two different newspapers in two different languages, in two nations, but more importantly about two great men behind them.

Both went through trials and tribulations to ensure the success of the newspapers they edited. Thanks largely to their dedication and tenacity, Sin Chew Daily in now Malaysia's biggest-selling Chinese newspaper and Kompas is the number one newspaper in Indonesia. Both are also the most influential newspapers in Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia respectively.

Walking Tall: Journalism on Malaysian Soil came out in 2009 and Syukur Tiada Akhir: Jejak Langkah Jakob Oetama was published recently in Jakarta. Walking Tall is the history of 80 years of Sin Chew Daily but partly about Datuk Liew Chen Chuan, better known as C.C. Liew. Syukur Tiada Akhir is supposed to be an autobiography of the founder-editor of Kompas, Jakobus Oetomo or better known as Jakob Oetama, but it is also the history of Kompas Gramedia Group, one of Indonesia's media powerhouses.

Sin Chew Daily would have folded and Kompas would have been a footnote in the history of Indonesian media had Liew and Jakob chosen the wrong route.

Sin Chew Daily flourished despite the odds, so too Kompas. Liew has been leading the editorial team for more than half a century and he survived six prime ministers.

Meanwhile, Jakob survived all the presidents -- from Sukarno until the current one. He turned 80 on Sept 27. Liew is still the managing director and editorial director of Sin Chew Media Group; Jakob is still running Kompas Gramedia Group.

"I started as a reporter with Sin Chew Daily on Dec 1, 1962. That was almost half a century ago. Today, I am still actively and passionately practising my craft as a newspaperman in the same newspaper," he wrote in Walking Tall.

With his principle of teguh dalam perkara, lentur dalam cara (strict on substance but flexible in approach), Jakob has made Kompas into a respectable broadsheet. Sin Chew Daily has been eyed with scorn, suspicion and contempt, labelled unfriendly by many quarters, even an enemy.

There are those who believe Sin Chew Daily panders to Chinese chauvinism and plays too much to the Chinese gallery. But one can't fault it for acting as the voice of the Chinese community. It doesn't hurt to know that the newspaper is perceived as more impartial, more responsible and more credible than most.

Sin Chew Daily was founded by the brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par in 1929. It ceased publication between February 1942 and September 1945 during the Japanese occupation.

In 1987, it went through serious financial trouble. There were times when it had enough newsprint to print only 2,000 copies. That was the time when Liew sought the help of his friend, the then editor of Utusan Melayu Zainuddin Maidin (now Tan Sri) for help while the Chinese media looked on. Then came Operasi Lalang when 107 individuals were detained under the ISA. Sin Chew Daily was served notice that its licence would be revoked.

It was a nightmare for Liew and his 480 staff. Sin Chew Daily ceased publication from Oct 27, 1987 to April 8 the next year. Yet, like a phoenix, its rising to become the number one newspaper (at one time surpassing the Malay dailies) is the stuff of legend.

Jakob aspired to become a pastor and joined a seminary in Jogjakarta. But he left to become a teacher.

He later joined a fledgling publication, the weekly Penabur, in 1955. With his friend Petrus Kanisius Ojong, they started Intisari in 1963.

Two years later, Kompas was born. When Ojong died in 1980, Jakob soldiered on. Kompas was fast becoming the leading daily when it was closed by President Suharto together with 12 other publications on Jan 21, 1978. Jakob and Ojong were told to sign some kind of "loyalty pledge". Among other things, they must promise not to write about Suharto's family or question the armed forces, the Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia or ABRI.

He and Ojong had to think of 2,000 workers and the future of Kompas. They signed. Kompas resumed publication on Feb 6, 1978.

Jakob has to live with that decision. Some would label him a coward, others criticised him for bringing disrepute to the profession.

Some say he survived because of his policy of appeasing the political masters. His group prospers and he is still proudly practising his craft. Jakob would never be regarded in the same league as Mochtar Lubis (of Indonesia Raya), Rosihan Anwar (Pedoman), Tasrif (Abadi), Ristides Katoppo (Sinar Harapan), Nono Anwar Makarim (Kami) or Goenawan Mohamad (Tempo), who went through hell especially during Suharto's days. Rosihan, known for his sarcasm, accused Jakob and those who signed the pledge as practising kewartawanan kepiting (crab journalism).

For his contributions, Liew was the first recipient of the coveted Tokoh Wartawan Negara from the Chinese press in 2010. Jakob, too, won many awards in Indonesia.

There are not many like them around these days, especially this side of the globe. Other than Liew, Datuk Ahmad A. Talib of Media Prima is one of the last of the Mohicans in the country. He joined Bernama in 1972 as a cadet reporter assigned to the economics desk. He is still a practising journalist.

His contemporaries have either moved on to greener pastures or left journalism for good, or in some cases, just like good reporters, they don't fade away, but just die.

In Indonesia, Fikri Jufri, Rahman Arge Makassar, Lukman Setiawan and Jaafar Assegaf are in their 70s and still working. They have their faults, but Liew and Jakob reflect journalistic excellence for their dedication, commitment and fighting spirit.

They are revered for being able to sustain the fire in their bellies. And to remind the younger crop of journalists that journalism is not all about news and breaking stories, it is also about the people behind them -- the unsung heroes of the printed word.

(Johan Jaaffar is also the Chairman of TV3, 8TV, ntv7, TV9, Fly FM ,Hot FM.)


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