Unable to take the heat, Putrajaya puts media on noticePutrajaya's transformation programme took a step backward yesterday when the Home Ministry suspended The Heat weekly, most likely for its November 22 lead article that focused on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's spendthrift ways.
While such reports are commonplace in online news portals, The Heat's article hit too close to home as it was in print and came at a time when Putrajaya had cut fuel and sugar subsidies while higher electricity tariffs, toll charges and public transport fares were on the cards as public funds were tight.
Putrajaya insiders say the Home Ministry took action as the report made the PM look bad, which is an unwritten out-of-bounds marker in the local media scene.
"You get a permit to publish, so you must know your parameters even if you want to be critical," a retired newspaperman told The Malaysian Insider.
"This is just a warning not to overstep the boundaries even if the PM can be quite liberal about such things," he added, noting that the government is more concerned about print rather than online media.
Ironically, Najib had relaxed publishing rules two years ago, allowing printing permits without the need for annual renewals that has kept the media in check all these years. However, the Home Minister retains the right to suspend printing permits, as he did with The Heat yesterday.
The last newspaper suspension was in February 2006 when the Sarawak Tribune ran into trouble for publishing an image of Prophet Muhammad which is taboo for Muslims. And before that, in 1987 when The Star and several Chinese dailies were suspended under Operasi Lalang.
The contrast cannot be any greater in all suspension orders. Then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had just launched a security crackdown in 1987 and the newspapers were suspended ostensibly to preserve harmony. For Sarawak Tribune, it was to cool hotheads upset over the publication of the Prophet's image.
This time, it was a report over profligacy that has stung the government, whose populist measures to maintain subsidies and certain rates did not help it regain the two-thirds parliamentary super-majority in the May 5 general elections.
While Parliament heard that the Prime Minister's official residence had consumed some RM2 million a year in electricity, Putrajaya started cutting subsidies for fuel and sugar, and allowing increases that have been described as a "tsunami of hikes" for the average salaryman and even manufacturers.
"There is a sense that Putrajaya is rather detached from the reality of daily life. It is spending public funds while asking Malaysians to save or pay more," a political analyst told The Malaysian Insider.
The Heat summed up the situation in its November 22 report, saying "Najib has built up a reputation as a big spender, using public funds in a manner that sometimes invites public criticism. Some news portals have emotionally panned him – and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor – as “spendthrift”.
"In many Parliament sessions, questions have been raised on various aspects of his spending, including the utility bill for his official residence Seri Perdana in Putrajaya, his use of government aircraft for official business, his penchant for using consultants and the mammoth budget allocation for the Prime Minister’s Department.
"People need to know how taxpayers’ money is being spent. However, there is no full access to information on such spending. The only source so far is parliamentary meetings, and opposition MPs are playing watchdog to the hilt," it said in the report which is still available online.
But Putrajaya has defended its tough if unpopular decision to cut subsidies and hike other rates, saying it was trying to protect the economy and keep investors' confidence.
"To keep Malaysia’s economy strong, we need to keep our public spending in check. That means raising some rates and cutting some subsidies. In the short term, this will be unpopular with some.
"But it is absolutely necessary to maintain investor confidence in Malaysia – and to continue the strong growth in jobs and income over the last four years," the government had said in a statement in response to a Merdeka Center survey that showed Najib's approval ratings fell 10% to 52% this month.
According to Merdeka Center’s latest survey, his approval rating for December is the lowest since September 2009 (59%) and is close to the 45% he had in May 2009, a month after taking over as prime minister.
"Taking out The Heat might cool the antagonism towards the prime minister. But it comes at the expense of being seen as undemocratic and unable to take criticisms," a diplomat told The Malaysian Insider, on condition he was not named.
"It is a step backward, but he has four years to go forward," he added, referring to the next general election due in 2018. – December 20, 2013.