MALAYSIA: Takeover of newspaper not political, says Berjaya boss

Vincent Tan says editorial stance, which highlighted opposition parties' issues and criticized the government, was not expected to "significantly" change

The Straits Times
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

By Leslie Lopez

KUALA LUMPUR --- Malaysian tycoon Vincent Tan Chee Yioun says his takeover of The Sun newspaper was motivated solely by business considerations, dismissing widespread speculation that it was due to political pressure.

'This was purely a business transaction. We already own such a big stake, and it only made sense for us to take control,' he told The Straits Times.

Tan Sri Tan's flagship corporate vehicle Berjaya Corp last Friday announced a deal to acquire a near 36 per cent interest in Nexnews from businessman Tong Kooi Ong for RM139.24 million (S$61 million).

The sale of Mr Tong's entire stake in Nexnews pushed Berjaya Corp's holdings in Nexnews to over 54 per cent. The deal effectively ends the five-year media alliance between the two businessmen.

Nexnews is the holding company that controls The Sun, a feisty free tabloid that has become popular in recent years because of its often bold coverage of government corruption, politics and religious issues.

Mr Tong is the majority shareholder of the media group that publishes business weekly The Edge in Malaysia and Singapore.

Forbes magazine last year listed Tan Sri Tan as the 14th-richest Malaysian, with assets of US$380 million (S$540 million).

Financial executives close to the two businessmen say talks are under way for Tan Sri Tan to sell his interest in The Edge back to Mr Tong.

The main cause of the break-up was their disagreement over the newspaper's editorial stance, which had begun to irk Malaysia's political elite, the executives said.

But Tan Sri Tan said he had no plans to significantly alter the paper's editorial stance.

'It will be status quo. But as owners (of The Sun), we would prefer to be friends with everyone,' he said.

Tan Sri Tan started The Sun in 1993, but it struggled financially because it could not draw advertisers. In early 2003, he turned to Mr Tong, who had established himself as a serious media player because of his stewardship of The Edge.

The two men consolidated their respective media holdings under the management of Mr Tong and his team, led by senior journalist Ho Kay Tat.

The new team radically altered The Sun's business model, turning it into a free publication and boosting circulation to the current 265,000 copies daily.

The loss-incurring newspaper company turned a small profit last year by luring away advertising revenue from rivals The New Straits Times and The Star dailies.

In recent years, The Sun has distinguished itself from its two main rivals by its bold coverage of mismanagement at government agencies and municipal councils.

But these moves drew sharp attacks from politicians and government officials, who complained that the paper was prone to championing issues promoted by opposition parties and portraying the government in a less than positive light.

Executives at The Sun say Mr Ho was often asked by officials from the Home Ministry to explain the paper's independent coverage.

Tan Sri Tan has dismissed suggestions that he and Mr Tong sharply disagreed over how The Sun should be managed.

'I have no problems with Tong. Overall, he and (Ho) Kay Tat did a great job to make The Sun the recognisable brand that it is today,' he said.