KUALA LUMPUR, July 9 — Businessman Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary’s recent acquisition of Umno’s stake in Media Prima seems to be his way to “curry favour with the new government”, several observers have suggested.
Some political analysts polled have also suggested that the move may be linked to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad — who was previously close with the tycoon — and may even benefit his political stature.
“We must remember that Syed Mokhtar is a corporate superman and not a news guy... he made his name while in Johor Baru at a time when he was friendly with Muhyiddin and Anwar which shows that he is friends with everyone,” said political analyst Hoo Ke Ping, referring to Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Hoo pointed out that not many can afford the RM73.81 million price tag for the 123 million shares from Media Prima and that the order may have come from higher up — suggesting links with either Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman Dr Mahathir, or its president Muhyiddin.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia political analyst Azmi Hassan also believes that Syed Mokhtar’s motives are more political in nature and that news coverage by news outlets under Media Prima would now be more Pakatan Harapan friendly.
“It’s true that Syed Mokhtar has a close relationship with Umno but it’s via his relationship with Dr Mahathir, and now that Dr Mahathir is not with Umno anymore, the media coverage on Umno will be more critical and intense.
“This move may not suit his business strategy but it fits well politically for whoever he is backing,” the professor told Malay Mail.
He also added that the move will likely solidify Dr Mahathir’s power within the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
Meanwhile, former Singapore Management University Political Science Professor Bridget Welsh said the move was to ensure that Syed Mokhtar remains relevant in the eyes of the new government.
She felt having ownership will allow for more fluid content while making Syed Mokhtar a key political and economic player unlike in the past where media ownership was tied with party funds.
“This time, it is more about leverage and staying in the game. Bailing out Umno keeps Syed Mokhtar relevant and helps him shore himself up in the new context.
“Frankly, from a business point of view, it will be a struggle to turn these entities around. But given Syed Mokhtar’s large interests, this is part of a broader protection of his economic interests,’’ she said.
Welsh is also of the opinion that news coverage by agencies under Media Prima would likely remain pro-government as long as Dr Mahathir remains the prime minister.
Some observers are concerned that Syed Mokhtar’s purchase of Umno’s 11 per cent share in the media company together with his current stake in Utusan Melayu Bhd and business paper The Malaysian Reserve gives him wide-reaching media influence.
Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Assistant Professor at the School of Media, Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham said: “Press freedom was promised in the last manifesto but not a lot of steps have been made to implement it.
“So as long as there is no protection for media, there is always someone out there who can jump in and try to influence the agenda,” she added.
Last week, several sources were quoted as saying that Syed Mokhtar had bought Umno’s 123 million shares, which had been held in proxy by Gabungan Kesturi Sdn Bhd, for an estimated RM73.81 million.
The Malay nationalist party still retains, however, an almost 8 per cent stake in Media Prima.
The sale of the 11 per cent stake catapulted Mitsubishi UFJ to the position of the single largest shareholder with its 12.8 per cent, ahead of the Employees Provident Fund that owns 11.9 per cent of Media Prima.
Media Prima controls six terrestrial television stations, four radio stations and three newspapers.