It is six months since I left the newsroom and all those people who predicted I would be bored out of my mind within a month, that I’d drive my wife crazy being a crochety old man and that I’d rot in front of the TV have been dreadfully wrong. I’ve discovered some wonderful things since I stopped doing journalism non-stop. The main thing is, I’m not the sort who will sleep in, turn on the TV or have afternoon naps if there’s no office to go to. Thank goodness for that! New things keep happening even as I try to figure out my Next Life. People keep asking me: “Don’t you miss the newsroom?” And: “What do you do, exactly, after you wake up?” Funny how nobody asked me what I did exactly after I woke up, all those years I went to work and the newsroom seemed to be my whole life. Now when they ask I tell them all sorts of things and mostly, I start with: “If I hadn’t left The Straits Times in September 2015, I wouldn’t have…”
First off, I wouldn’t have had the time to search for my old personal columns and certainly wouldn’t have written new ones. It took some audacity to pull it together and say: “Hey people. Look, I have a book, buy it.” I love that in a tiny market like Singapore, if you sell 1,500 books in a week you get to go around hollering: “Bestseller! Bestseller!” If my feet weren’t planted so firmly on the ground, I might have started believing some of it! So always start with a modest print run and when it sells out you can go: “Woohoo! Second print run in the works!” If Good Grief! hadn’t come out, I also wouldn’t have had so many people saying good things to me. The first were those I asked for back-of-the-book comments, and how generous they all were:
Tarn Tarn How, who was a teacher before he joined The Straits Times and worked with me at the Political Desk in the 1980s, before he became the famous playwright. He said about Good Grief!: “What a wonderful potpourri about friendship, children, travelling, work and living a full life. At times sweet, occasionally sad, it’s often very funny, wise, honest and deeply human. A highly recommended read!”
Kanwaljit Soin, who is the kindest orthopaedic specialist and treated both Hedwig and me at different times at her Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre clinic, and is an extraordinary Singaporean who has spent decades shining a light on important issues concerning women, ageing, injustice and family violence. She said: “Heartwarming, funny and authentic. I could not put it down once I started reading it. It made me smile, laugh out loud and occasionally sigh as I identified with many a topic of life.”
Han Fook Kwang was the good man I reported to for many years at The Straits Times, and the editor who let me do the best we could with the “Aware Saga” of 2009, after I learnt that a group of Christian women had mysteriously grabbed the leadership of Singapore’s best-known women’s organisation. His blurb for the book said: “Alan is not afraid to confront life honestly, and this collection of his writings reflects this brilliantly.”
Cherian George, who must take credit for egging me on to pull my columns together in a book always embarrassed me by saying the best things about some columns I wrote. It was hefty praise from an extraordinary journalism teacher, original thinker and a true bestselling writer. For the back of my book, he said: “Alan’s personal stories are pleasurable reads, but also leave you thinking about what it means to live well. Through his gentle tales runs a strong message of being grateful for every gift, open to everyday moments.
Constance Singam is someone I admire deeply for the way she remade her life after being widowed in her forties. She got herself a degree, and then another, became a civil society champion and author. She remains an inspiration for demonstrating that we all have the power to rewrite the scripts of our lives when everyone else expects us to sit quietly in a corner. She said about Good Grief!: “With rare and refreshing candour, Alan shares sometimes very personal experiences that offer wise and illuminating insights. This collection has a sense of wit that is often self-deprecating. A warm and delightful read.”
I worried that this was too much praise for too modest a collection of personal stories from someone pretty unknown. Through my years as a newsman, I was notorious for saying no to lunch invitations from the PR folk, and turning down invitations that landed on my desk, and did my best to avoid meetings with officials because I had a foot permanently in my mouth and a way of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. I had lunch from time to time with the veritable Jennie Chua from the days she was the dowager of the Raffles Hotel because she would tell all sorts of people that it was easier for her to have lunch with the prime minister than me and that even after saying yes, I’d stand her up. What can I say. I did my best work in the newsroom with the writers, photographers, artists and sub-editors I worked with and that kept me happiest.
Since the book came out, so many people keep saying they’ve seen more of me in The Straits Times since I left the paper than when I worked there. That’s thanks to the big splashes in The Sunday Times by Wong Kim Hoh and Cheong Suk Wai, the otherworldly launch event at Shanghai Dolly hosted by the Singapore Press Club, the Big Read session at the National Library and last Saturday’s appearance at Kinokuniya book store on Orchard Road. Publisher Susan Long and her amazing marketing man Ilangoh Thanabalan set things up and are looking at ways to put me on the getai circuit when the Hungry Ghosts Month comes along. I’m truly grateful for the goodwill shown to me by so many of my former colleagues. I’ve been receiving a lot of very lovely feedback from people I know and people I don’t know. There’ve been so many people turning up at various events, shaking my hand, taking photographs and saying the kindest things. I love it, love it, love it! This hardly ever happened in all the years I was a journalist and newspaper editor absorbing criticism and abuse from all quarters.
Friends and family have been totally supportive, turning up at my public appearances and buying multiple copies of the book and saying the best things. My wife’s classmates from Tanjong Katong Girls’ School and National Junior College and their husbands have been champion buyers and cheerleaders. My schoolmates from St John’s Institution and the University of Malaya have reconnected and are Whatsapping kind messages, asking if there will be a book event in Kuala Lumpur and wanting to meet. Mrs Kamachie Ramanathan, an 87-year-old neighbour from United Garden in Old Klang Road, KL, came to the Big Read session and then had Hedwig and me over to tea at her son Jairaj’s Bishan home. I hadn’t seen her in 30 years. I worked with Phylis Ooi at The Malay Mail for two years in the 1970s before she took off to a new life in Silicon Valley, California, with her husband Allan. We’ve remained friends all these years, and I sent her a copy of the book. Last week she Whatsapped to marvel at how we’d spent just two years in the same newsroom as 20somethings but our friendship has lasted a lifetime. In Melbourne, my friend and classmate Kim Low gave the book away to his family and friends there. In New Jersey, another SJI buddy John Reyes texted to report that his wife Nancy was sobbing over the book. From Paris, my friend Tessie, the Infant Jesus nun I wrote about in the book, sent me a lovely letter bridging the years, saying the book “brought back treasured memories.”
It feels like Good Grief! has prompted many readers to think about their own lives and reflect on special individuals, places and turning points along their way. This book is not a memoir. But perhaps because the stories start in 1981 and stretch to 2016 and I go from a young man arriving in Singapore all the way to retirement, it strikes some readers as somewhat a memoir. I’m struck by the number of people who tell me that reading these stories from my life is making them nostalgic about stories from the different seasons of their own lives. And some have been looking at their old family pictures and contemplating writing some notes for their children or grandchildren to find one day. Some readers have been taken aback by my writing about being estranged from my family in KL, and are anxious to hear that things are on the mend. I’ve received offers of help, and my dear friends Agatha and Jessie offered a Mass for me at St Francis Xavier Church in Petaling Jaya, just outside KL. But that part of the book allowed many others to reveal to me that they too have broken family relationships they don’t talk about. At the National Library Big Read event, a man meeting me for the first time told me he was convinced his brothers were stealing from their millionaire father’s bank account and it had caused a huge rift in his family that was still playing out and eating at him. We suffer this myth of the happy family, when the reality for many is that family relationships can make for plenty of pain and for some, it festers. Most of us just muddle on.
I received an e-mail from a man I did not know, who said he too attended St John’s, was a few years my junior in school and, like me, was head boy. He’d read in Kim Hoh’s story how I’d described my 13 years at that Christian Brothers school as a game changer in my life, because it provided a firm block of stability after the turmoil at home caused by my father’s sudden death at 47. I did not know that this schoolmate was a senior banker because he’s done so well staying out of the limelight and I said yes when he invited me to lunch. We met at the Fullerton Hotel’s rooftop Italian restaurant with stunning views of Marina Bay and for 90 minutes he told me the story of his life. St John’s and the Christian Brothers had proven his game changer too, setting him on a path to success quite unimaginable given his family’s humble circumstances. He described his key turning points, the specific individuals who made a difference along the way and how they helped make him the man he is today. His is a story Kim Hoh must tell in The Sunday Times.
So no, I haven’t had a chance to be bored.
Along the way I put out a new edition of Unholy Trinity, the book of the Adrian Lim child killings of 1981. That led to public acknowledgment of the work done by Sister Gerard Fernandez, a Good Shepherd nun and death row counsellor at Changi Prison. If I hadn’t left the paper six months ago, I wouldn’t have met this remarkable woman who told me her story and described so vividly her gift for giving love and receiving love. That was a precious experience I might have missed. The Adrian Lim book also led to much-needed publicity for PAVE, the family violence agency that will receive the royalties. I’ve been on PAVE’s management committee for several years, keeping my hands clean attending meetings every two months and doing little else. In a moment of weakness I said yes when the social workers asked if I would help facilitate a men’s group for men ordered by the family court to attend counselling for violence towards their wives or children. This has proven a whole new and ongoing journey like nothing I’ve known before and although we meet the men for two hours once a week, there is plenty to read and learn and prep and sweat about before and after! I certainly wouldn’t have said yes if I was still in the newsroom.
And later this week I get to do two things I’ve been wanting to do for many years. I’m heading to Kelantan in the north-east of the Malaysian peninsula, to look for a lighthouse at the end of the Malayan Railway line. It should still be standing in the tiny town of Tumpat, and it’s where my father posed for a photo in 1952 – a year before I was born and four years before his death. I have been fascinated by this photograph my entire life, because I have no memory of my father, and I don’t know the sound of his voice or anything significant about the man he was. He is just 43 years old in the photo, and how could he have known that he had just four more years to go. If he had known, what would he have done differently in the time he had left? It’s crazy to think about too long, I know. But maybe that’s also why I am the way I am, always surprised to wake up in the morning and always impatient to pack in a little living in each day.
My old friend Chin Kin Yong, who goes all the way back to my earliest days at The New Straits Times in KL, heard about my lighthouse quest and said he’ll drive with me and we’ll be two geezers on a road trip. That’s what friends are for. The other thing we’ll do is drive across the East-West Highway that cuts through rainforest and promises some priceless sights. Because I want to, lah.