The rise and fall of Greater Malaysia

Kasun Illankoon

Over a Sunday breakfast, the former editor-in chief of Greater Malaysia Syed Amierul orders a healthy egg-white omelette, studiously avoiding a basket of complimentary, carb-loaded pastries.

Life is full of such choices, he muses, as he describes his decision to start an online news media outlet in Malaysia.

“In short, I was fed up with the direction where Malaysian news media is heading,” he said, adding that the Malaysian media “are divided among partisan lines, analysis is very difficult to access and there is an increasing tendency to sensationalise.”

“Given those three factors, I don’t think the fourth estate were performing their intended role in Malaysian governance.”

In a US election year, Mr Amierul says he was “fixated by the concept brought forward by Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight) and Ezra Klein (Vox) and wanted to bring a similar approach to Malaysian news media.”

“After fine tuning my pitch to a potential investor in Kuala Lumpur, my co-founder Aaron (who is tasked to handle the business-side) and I were given carte blanche to start a new Malaysian news site, and grow it fast,” he said.

Syed Amierul, former editor in chief of Greater Malaysia. Photo: supplied
Syed Amierul, former editor in chief of Greater Malaysia. Photo: supplied

Mr Amierul is from the city of Kuching which has an estimated population of 325,000 people and unlike its neighbour city Kuala Lumpur is still in a development phase.

The media landscape in Kuching was still in its infancy and this forced Mr. Amierul to consider his options in Kuala Lumpur.

“I needed investors. They were non-existent (in Kuching),” said Mr. Amierul.

Greater Malaysia was up and running in January 2015 but by the end of the year it had all come to an end.

It was a bitter end for a website that offered so much hope.

Even the model they followed was based on the successful Buzzfeed, using listicles.

Seven things Mahathir did for you that you didn’t know about.

Six facts about our economy that no one wants to admit.

Four questions answered about the state of Malaysian Airlines.

“We thought that one of the problems regarding how information is received by the majority of readers is that they are too densely packed and dry, so to speak,” Mr Amierul said.

“Thus, I wanted to democratise information by making it accessible to anyone – Buzzfeed’s listicles tend to do very well in terms of popularity, so why not use that method to present serious issues,” he added after a sip of black coffee.

Mr Amierul knew the task would be tough considering that consumers were used to getting news for free.

Revenue was a hurdle for Greater Malaysia as Mr. Amierul describes.

“In our initial proposal, Aaron and I felt that we had to come up with a new payment channel that is independent from advertising revenue.”

“Part of my agreement with the investor was that I will only have to worry about managing the creative aspect of the website, and have their business development team worry about making revenue.”

But Mr Amierul did admit that initially revenue was not a concern to him; it was more quality over quantity.

“I also understood that initially, revenue was not a priority as we were focused more educating our readers and leaving the business aspect to the business people.”

Apart from revenue there was another hurdle brewing in Malaysia: press freedom was being supressed.

In 2016, Reporters without Borders listed Malaysia at 146 out of 180 countries, when it came to press freedom.

According to Reporters without Borders, “the persecution of outspoken journalists extends to the Internet, where sites such as Sarawak and The Edge have been blocked for reporting alleged corruption involving government officials.”

Mr Amierul felt that although this was a concern there was more to talk about in Malaysia.

“We felt that even with the restrictions put in place, we still had a lot of ground to cover,” he said.

“There are many ways for a news organisation to convey a sentiment benefiting the zeitgeist, so we tried to some up with unique angles when it came to hot button issues like the implementation of GST, MH370 crash and the 1MDB scandal.”

In 2015, at the height of the Prime Minister’s 1MDB scandal, news outlets like The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini, and The Edge Markets would go on to reveal Prime Minister Najib’s alleged involvement in fraud.

The allegation was made that Prime Minister Najib and Malaysian tycoon Jho Low had embezzled more than four billion US dollars from a government project that was meant to help Malaysia’s people.

As a result of pressure from the authorities, The Malaysian Insider had no choice but to close down, while The Edge Markets was suspended for three months by the government.

The crackdown on media pressured advertisers to choose wisely about who they would do business with.

Greater Malaysia was forced to be more neutral and to avoid issues like 1MDB.

Mr Amierul said the site was “right at the thick of it when the 1MDB scandal broke.”

“At first, we wanted to do a very thorough analysis on what transpired,” he said.

“We even published simple summaries of the initial Wall Street Journal exposé of Jho Low.”

But the raid on the Malaysian Insider made his team rethink its strategy.

“We were just a startup so we could not go as far as brick-and-mortar establishments could. We ended up not being as comprehensive with our reporting of 1MDB,” he said.

Greater Malaysia’s head writer echoed the same sentiment.

“I know if I criticized Rosmah (Prime Minister Najib’s wife) or Jho low the article would have to be taken down eventually,” said Albert Kamahlendra.

But for Greater Malaysia media restrictions were not the only issue plaguing the site.

Internally trouble was brewing.

“For someone who was supposed to deal with the business end of things he tampered with creative decisions too much,” Mr Amierul said angrily of his former business partner Aaron.

“There was no long-term commitment to any piece of strategy we came up with, so nothing bore fruit. Eventually the investor had to pull out because he needed to focus his financial needs somewhere else, and we got the short end of the stick.”

Talking about eventual demise of Greater Malaysia was a bitter end to his breakfast.

Back with optimism he offered some advice to anybody in Malaysia who would want to start a business in the journalism industry.

“You need to want to make a change – the staleness and sameness in the Malaysian news media landscape is right for disruption, and even under the watchful eye of the government you will still be able to succeed if you have enough guts to do it.”

At the end of the day, he said, “you will have to know what kind of information people should have access to, and the next steps should be easier.”