NOV 22, 2003 SAT

 New Straits Times chief editor Tan Sri Abdullah sacked 

By Brendan Pereira

THE controversial two-year reign of Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad at Malaysia's oldest newspaper is over - and in stunning fashion too.
NST's circulation rose under Tan Sri Abdullah. -- REUTERS
The New Straits Times (NST) group editor-in-chief was sacked with immediate effect on Thursday, a fallout from a column he wrote a week ago criticising the Saudi monarchy, which not only drew protests from Riyadh but also punitive measures against Malaysia.
But observers say that his departure was also the cumulative effect of upsetting a wide spectrum of people in his twice weekly columns.
The Straits Times understands that senior editors at the English-language daily were told of his departure late on Thursday night and were instructed by senior management to spike his articles, which were to be published on Sunday and not take any directives from him.
While all this was happening, Tan Sri Abdullah was in Hong Kong delivering a speech on Malaysia in the Abdullah Badawi era. He told The Straits Times yesterday: 'I have been sacked. This was communicated to me by a representative of the owner.'
It is understood that his stewardship of the ruling party-owned newspaper was discussed at length by the management committee of Umno on Thursday.
The committee consists of the party's acting president, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz, Tan Sri Muhammad Taib, Datuk Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, Datuk Azalina Othman Said and Tan Sri Khalil Yaacob.
At the meeting, members were made aware of the displeasure of the Saudi government over a report titled 'Freeing the Prophet's Land'.
In that column, Tan Sri Abdullah wrote that 'the legitimacy of the House of Saud rests on its allegiance to the severity of Wahhabi doctrine, which has not only encouraged militancy and fanaticism but elevated the hypocrisy of the royals, who live alternate lives in their luxury Manhattan penthouses, London townhouses and mansions... and fritter away millions in the casinos of Las Vegas, Monte Carlo...'
While such observations have also been made by American commentators, the Saudis saw it differently in that they came from an establishment newspaper in another Muslim country.
The Malaysian Ambassador to Riyadh was called in for a dressing down and the country's quota for haj pilgrimages was slashed.
The Straits Times understands that members of the committee also raised other grievances, noting that some of Tan Sri Abdullah's articles were divisive and could convey the wrong image of Umno and its politicians.
Of particular concern were his pieces campaigning for the deputy prime minister's position to be filled soon by Datuk Seri Najib.
An associate of Tan Sri Abdullah said the committee's decision was unanimous.
The man at the centre of the controversy told The Straits Times: 'I am told that there was unhappiness over the Saudi article. But I believe it was the cumulative effect of my views and opinions.'
He said he needed some time to digest the sacking but was pleased that he was leaving the NST group in better financial health than when he took over in August 2001.
Then, the NST's circulation was 125,000. Today, between 135,000 and 140,000 copies are sold daily, still below his 180,000 target.
He was a hard taskmaster in trying to boost performance, with staff given show-cause letters if they failed to meet expectations. Expressions of relief greeted the news of his departure as it filtered through the newsroom.
The abrupt nature of the NST chief's dismissal also carried a message for the rest of the country - that there is an incisive edge to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi behind that popular image of him as 'Mr Nice Guy'.

Nov. 21, 2003

 Top Malaysian editor sacked 

Agence France-Presse

KUALA LUMPUR-The group editor-in-chief of Malaysia's government-linked New Straits Times said Friday he had been sacked, less than a month after new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took office.
The editor, Abdullah Ahmad, 66, told Agence France-Presse the move was apparently due to a recent article he wrote about a cut in quotas for Muslim pilgrims which caused a rift between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
"I am not surprised at all they sacked me," he said in a telephone interview during a visit to Hong Kong.
"In Malaysian politics, anything can happen. Probably they are not happy with me. What can I do, I have to take it and retire gracefully," he said.
Abdullah told Agence France-Presse he had held the post of group editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd. for two years and his contract was due to end in October next year.
"I got wind of this last week. I called up the owners of the New Straits Times this morning and they confirmed it," he said.
His aides said there had been indications as early as a year ago from advisors to the new premier that Abdullah would be removed because he was deemed "too independent" and they were unhappy with his editorials and opinion pieces.
"They are unhappy about some articles he wrote. He had been told that one of the first things the new regime would do is sack him. They need to show that they are tough," an aide said.
Premier Abdullah succeeded Mahathir Mohamad following his retirement October 31 after 22 years in office.
The New Straits Times is Malaysia's oldest English newspaper and is linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the linchpin of the ruling coalition, through ownership by companies seen as proxy to the party.