IN a matter of days — on July 15, to be exact — two days before Muslims in Malaysia celebrate the first day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, this newspaper will be 170.
This is the nation’s oldest surviving newspaper. When it started in Singapore, it was named The Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce.
It started as a weekly, and hardly 100 copies were printed each time. The words “and Singapore Journal of Commerce”, however, disappeared in 1861, 16 years after its first publication.
The Straits Times Malaysian edition dated May 15, 1969
As the name suggested, the newspaper was meant for the “mercantile community” in Singapore, a thriving port at the time. Its “journal of commerce” section was “a vehicle for mercantile information” though, interestingly, this statement was included — “a defender of trade principles”.
The first copy was a hotchpotch of items, randomly chosen to reflect not just the “news” of the day (which wasn’t much), notices and various announcements, including one pertaining to “Singapore Dispensary”.
There was a need to publicise, among others, the price of Madras cotton (per pound) and Benares opium (per chest). The newspaper has come a long way since that historic Tuesday, July 15, 1845. It became a full-fledged daily in 1931.
The complex journey of this newspaper reflects the story of the nation as well. Back then, local people were never on the radar. They were the insignificant “Other”.
They lived in villages, surviving on meagre earnings. Their rulers lost much of their power to the British. Real education was many decades away from the indigenous people.
Labourers from China and India were brought in to work in mines and plantations. This newspaper, too, has seen 170 years of the history of the nation, replete with stories of turmoil, conflicts, uncertainties, clashes and, of course, development, hope and optimism.
The world was changing fast; so, too, Malaya at the time. Malay nationalism and national consciousness redefined the idea of nationhood.
This newspaper saw the birth of a nation, some 112 years after it was published, when Malaya was born in 1957. In the same year, its Bahasa Melayu edition, Berita Harian, was born, which, not surprisingly, was nothing more than a translation of The Straits Times, with an added slant for Malays.
Six years later, Malaysia came into being. Two years after the formation of Malaysia, Singapore became an independent nation. The Malaysian edition of the newspaper, which was renamed the New Straits Times, was officially launched in 1974.
Its first edition trumpeted the idea of “Your national paper”, taking advantage of that year’s national day. The lead story was “The way to ensure unity”.
That has, in fact, been the guiding principle of this newspaper — championing and arguing the case for a united and moderate Malaysia, and taking the middle path long before any such notion became trendy.
The newspaper has never wavered in its role to understand the difficulties of a fledgling nation. It was even more daunting for a multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural Malaysia.
It had been chronicling tumultuous events, social upheavals and economic turmoil. This is not a nation made in heaven. The leaders were not perfect.
But within such imperfections, they guided the nation to a pinnacle envied by many. And again, they should have done more and, perhaps, even better over the years.
But, you can’t fault them for not trying. When Robert Carr Woods single-handedly edited this newspaper at a godown in Singapore at what is known today as Raffles Place, it was beyond his imagination that the New Straits Times would transform into what it is today.
It went through 170 glorious years of newspapering. It produced some of the best-remembered editors; some of them became the nation’s iconic figures.
There were many who carved their names as reputable journalists, many winning coveted awards in the process. The company, too, went through some interesting times — it became a public entity listed at the bourse; but, with the merger with the Media Prima Group, it was delisted on Sept 27, 2010.
It went through various corporate exercises even prior to that. The New Straits Times used to be the biggest-selling newspaper. It isn’t now. Its readership is dwindling, but so, too, other major newspapers the world over.
Inevitably, this newspaper has to embrace the digital onslaught. On Aug 23, 2004, it became the first English newspaper available in digital format.
The digital challenges, while frightening, provide new opportunities and use the strength of other platforms in the country’s only fully integrated media group.
The newspaper is embarking into new and exciting digital territories. The New Straits Times has been called names — unapologetic cheerleader of the ruling elites, a party mouthpiece, the “Hang Tuah” of journalism, you name it.
Supporting the government of the day has its perils, and the newspaper is not apologising for it. Sadly, the same people condemning the newspaper were the ones unabashedly using it for their own agenda when they were in power.
The same people who worked without complaining for years suddenly became vociferous critics of the newspaper for its journalistic independence or lack of it. Similarly, as its sibling, the Singapore Straits Times, celebrated its 150 years 20 years ago, the editors admitted there was no shame in supporting the PAP government.
A press that was adversarial on principle did more harm than good, they argued. How things have changed the last 170 years. So, too, the dynamics of society.
The editors of this newspaper are aware of the insurmountable odds facing the newspaper industry, at home and abroad.
Editors and journalists are aware of their vulnerabilities. But, they have to work harder now, for the world of information and the advancement in technology are changing dramatically.
A newspaper organisation can be a totem pole of obscurity in the digital age if adjustments are not made or differentiation not found. This is a time for reflection, for circumspection, for taking stock. The issue of relevance is always there.
The survival of this newspaper, or any other newspaper, depends so much on how it positions itself in ever-shifting dynamics. Thriving for excellence is the hallmark of this newspaper.
It has proven its worth the last 170 years. It is as influential as it was before, revered and hated in equal terms, even.
This newspaper has learned one valuable lesson in newspapering: it takes passion to ensure every page is readable, liked and palatable to readers.
The last 170 years, it has whet the appetite of successive generations of readers for news, information and knowledge. It has enlightened millions.
It will do so, perhaps, for another 170 years more. Dirgahayu New Straits Times. To all Muslim readers of this column, Selamat Hari Raya. Twitter: @Johan_Jaaffar NST Letters to the Editor 11 July 2015