The Straits Times, August 26, 2010
KUALA LUMPUR: Last week, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein paid a well-publicised visit to the offices of Malaysia's largest Chinese newspaper, the Sin Chew Daily.
He was not the first high-ranking Umno leader to do so. In the last 12 months, Prime Minister Najib Razak has visited Sin Chew twice, once during a Chinese New Year celebration.
Rarely have the Chinese newspapers received such attention. But a look at the readership data will explain why Sin Chew did.
Like the other Chinese newspapers in Malaysia, Sin Chew's readership has been climbing steadily, despite tough competition from the Internet.
According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, its sales have risen from 324,000 a day five years ago to 380,000. Other Chinese papers such as the China Press and Oriental Daily have also shown increases.
In contrast, the English and Malay serious newspapers have reported a decline. Analysts attribute this to the intense competition posed by online news sources, which are more opinionated and speedier and offer room for a wider range of voices.
Sales of the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia have fallen from 213,000 a day five years ago to 169,000, while those of the English-language New Straits Times have gone down from 139,000 to 111,000, and those of The Star from 310,000 to 286,000.
Unlike the English-language papers, however, the Chinese papers have faced less competition from the Net, as the few existing Chinese-language news websites were started only in recent years.
One simple reason for the growth in the Chinese newspaper segment, said Sin Chew executive director Rita Sim, is the rapidly growing number of Chinese-literate Malaysians.
According to a 2008 Nielsen survey, 93 per cent of the 4.1 million Chinese aged 15 and above in Malaysia said they spoke Chinese the most. Only 5 per cent said their preferred language was English.
About six times as many Chinese read a Chinese paper daily compared with those who read an English paper. There are 6.5 million Chinese in Malaysia.
These numbers no doubt contribute to the wide readership in Malaysia.
As Ms Sim noted, the six Chinese newspapers in the peninsula and eight in East Malaysia have a combined circulation of one million copies every day, compared with about 600,000 for English papers.
With Chinese literacy growing as the result of more Chinese parents enrolling their children in Chinese schools, the numbers are set to rise.
About 95 per cent of Chinese primary pupils are now in Chinese schools, according to official data. Statistics from the United Chinese School Teachers' Association show that the numbers have begun rising steadily since the 1980s.
That was when government schools started becoming more nationalistic and academic standards began to drop, said Chinese educationist Kua Kia Soong, a former principal of the New Era College run by the Chinese education movement Dong Jiao Zong.
Dr Kua, who reads the Chinese newspapers daily, said the Chinese media has retained credibility because of its political independence. He recalled that when he was detained under the Internal Security Act in the 1987 crackdown, fellow detainees from Parti Islam SeMalaysia would ask him to translate the Chinese papers for them as they carried opposition news.
Political commentator Josh Hong, who is Chinese-educated, also said the Chinese newspapers have a tradition of being liberal and inclusive, and have long been a symbol of identity for the community.
But he felt that their reputation was dented after the four major newspapers were bought by a tycoon several years ago. 'They are now owned by just one company,' he said.
The growth of the Chinese-speaking community has created a new political dimension, especially for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which is still struggling to reconnect with the community whose support it has lost ever since the 2008 general election. A good 80 per cent of Chinese voters now support the opposition.
Like many others, Ms Sim thinks the ruling coalition needs to rethink its tools of communication, in particular the language, to reach out to the Chinese masses.