Flower power

It’s September 21 2016,  forty years since I started work at The New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur. Here’s how I became a journalist and what my first editors taught me.

Ten minutes into the written test to join The New Straits Times I thought my life as a reporter was over before it had begun because the essay topics were just too tough. I cannot remember what they were about, but I do recall the panic at knowing I had nothing to say. Thankfully, there was an escape for candidates like me and I leapt for it. “Flowers.” I was so sure I would fail the test that after scribbling a page or so, I drew a big bunch of flowers where another 400 words might have been.

So yes, I was surprised to be called for an interview, and nearly fell off my chair when NST managing editor Noordin Sopiee told me the reason he wanted to see me was that he liked my drawing of flowers.

“There’s something here,” he said.

I had no clue What.

Noordin was the youthful editor with a PhD and a loud guffaw and in 1976 he was shaking things up at the paper by hiring a big group of graduates as reporters. Most of the people in the newsroom at the time were seasoned hands, non-graduates who had come up the hard way despite missing the opportunity to go to university.

When he asked if I’d written anything that had been published, I mentioned a short story that Her World magazine had run earlier in the year. He picked up the phone, called the magazine editor, told her I was seated in front of him and asked what she thought of my story.

“It was okay,” he said, repeating aloud what she told him, for my benefit. “English is clean. Looks like can write.”

He gave me the job. The first editor I met let me become a reporter after I drew a bunch of flowers instead of writing a serious essay on an important subject. He didn’t care about my mediocre Geography degree from the University of Malaya.

My first day at work in Balai Berita was on September 21 1976. The first two people who were friendly to me were Patrick Noel Anthonypillai and Philip Lim Chin Guan, who pretended they’d been there a long time when in fact they’d started the day before. Both remained friends for life, Philip until his death too soon, just before we turned 60. The first senior reporter who spoke to me was the guy who came up and said: “Get out of my chair.” Some people you dislike in the first five seconds, and it never gets better.

I was on the Newsdesk of the morning broadsheet The New Straits Times, and reported to the serious and low-key Philip Mathews, who was never ruffled and whose voice you never heard except when you were right beside him.

Philip took the whole bunch of recruits Noordin had hired under his wing, ran a training course for us and planned our first six months of on-the-job training. For me it meant a stint of court reporting, accompanying a more senior reporter to the lower courts.

Philip was simply the most decent editor a newcomer could hope for, who absorbed all the nonsense rookies are capable of, and edited our copy carefully and silently, explaining why he made changes.

The senior reporter I went to court with would go home from there to write his story and return to the office later to hand it in. I assumed that was the done thing.

One day I chanced on a good story, instead of the small cases about petty criminals that usually came my way, and I went home to write it. When I called Philip to debrief him, he said it was a good story and he wanted it.

Then he asked: “Where are you now?”

“At home,” I said.

“You should come in to the office and write your story,” he suggested, with no hint that anything was amiss.

After I turned in my copy, he edited it, said it would be a page lead – which was the biggest thrill – and then he added gently but firmly: “Don’t go home again when you should be in the office.”

I didn’t.

 

Hey there, Miss Malaysia

After about six months of news reporting I was moved to the Malay Mail, the afternoon tabloid with a lively team of young reporters who stayed in the office till late and then went out in a group to drink and dance.

I now reported to Tony Hermon who was always enthusiastic about interesting stories, had a sense of humour and showed from his assignments and the things he said that he liked having me on his team.

Rookie jobs included everything from writing up small crime stories to attending Rotary Club meetings in the hope that a lunchtime guest speaker might say something newsworthy, and human interest stories about honest cabbies who returned items left in their taxis.

I also got to cover the preliminary rounds of the Miss Malaysia competition, which brought together beauties representing all the states in the country. Every shapely young woman was Miss Selangor, or Miss Johor, Miss Malacca, Miss Sabah, Miss Sarawak and so on.

It led to a story I was especially proud of, about the farce of it all. It turned out that some of the finalists had been randomly selected by pageant organisers to represent Malaysian states they were not from, and others had competed in two or three state contests before winning a spot in the finals.

That year’s Miss Malaysia was Miss Pahang. She was actually from Perak but lost the contest in her home state. Undeterred, she then tried and lost again in Penang, before becoming Miss Pahang and earning her place in the finals. At least she took the trouble to try three times. Another finalist said she went to a party where she was told: “You can be Miss Trengganu.”

It was a good story that got good play and I would have been chuffed, except that the story appeared with someone else’s name on it by mistake. The subbing chief made up for that by giving my next half-decent story a big splash, with byline and all.

One day Tony asked me to helm a weekly column on Petaling Jaya, the growing satellite town on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. And so the Inside PJ column started. Becoming the “PJ Correspondent” may sound hilarious now, and even then I was teased, but I was more than pleased. It meant I had my own beat, was free to go and find stories, and owned a page in the paper every Monday.

I wrote about municipal issues and garbage collection, flashers terrorising convent girls, truants, the growing pub scene, eating out, the lack of greenery in the new housing developments that sprouted as the town continued its unending sprawl, and the boom in demand for rooms by thousands of out-of-town students needing accommodation. Re-reading those yellowed clippings today, some of the stories leave much to be desired. But Inside PJ was a big break for someone in his first year of reporting and I was grateful for it.

I thought I was on a roll as a reporter at the Malay Mail when there was a sudden shortage of sub-editors after a number left to join The Star, a relatively new, rival English Language paper that had moved its headquarters to Kuala Lumpur.

 

All quiet in the subbing pool

Practically overnight, I was in a bunch of rookie reporters despatched to be sub-editors, to work the night shift as part of the back-end team who designed pages, wrote headlines and picture captions, trimmed and checked reporters’ copy.

Tony clearly didn’t care for my move. As I packed up to cross the newsroom to the subbing pool, he said: “You’ll hate it.”

He was right. I loved that guy.

But I gained some valuable lessons for life at the subbing desk of The New Straits Times.

I learnt that every story could be cut. I learnt to trim copy sensitively to fit, so that I did not ruin the writer’s story or leave out critical information. I learnt that every writer needed an editor and the best writers appreciated good help. I learnt my first lessons in layout, headline-writing and picture cropping. And I learnt that sub-editing had the shortest hours in the newsroom, if you did not mind working nights.

But from very early on, I knew that subbing was not for me. The sub-editors were too quiet. After being among noisy reporters who could take off for a tea break any time or stretch lunchtime, this felt like incarceration. One time a couple of my reporter friends came over to chat with me, and the next thing I knew, the subbing chief growled: “Tell those reporters keep the fuck out of the subbing area.” Nobody visited me again.

Working in silence was deadening. But this was the critical last stage of producing the paper, doing checks and trims and cuts while watching the clock to meet deadline. You took a timed dinner break and got back quicker if you could.

There were many experienced hands here, including David Tambyah the excitable but affable night editor who calmed down only after putting the paper to bed, and then he would regularly buy a bunch of us beers and supper at a place in Brickfields.

Soft-spoken Michael Foong, CPS Laxana and John Khoo were all kind to new sub-editors learning the job and demonstrated their own unique ways of absorbing deadline stress and staying unruffled through the night.

And there were some exciting nights at the subbing desk too, when big stories happened. Like the December 4 1977 hijack of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH653, which crashed in Johor killing all 100 people on board, and the sudden death of Pope John Paul 1 in September 1978, barely a month after being elected to succeed Pope Paul VI.

When big stories happened late, everyone just hunkered down and worked as fast as we could in the time we had. The subbing desk provided the best lessons about developing strong shock absorbers to stay calm no matter what news breaks, when.

I learnt to do the work, but did not think I could do it long-term. Those who took to sub-editing welcomed the less unpredictable back-end routine compared to front-end reporting and editing. There was also plenty of overtime work to be done for extra pay, because the shortage of sub-editors never eased.

At least once a fortnight throughout the time I was a sub-editor, Tony Hermon would make sure to say to me: “Are you hating it yet? You should be writing, not subbing.”

 

‘You’re good, but you’re not brilliant’

Thankfully, I got to write on the side while working as a sub-editor.

New Straits Times senior editor Adibah Amin was the paper’s most prolific writer, and aside from her long-running column As I Was Passing, which she wrote under the pseudonym Sri Delima, she also produced a weekly page of TV previews and reviews.

Despite being a junior sub-editor, I worked on her TV pieces regularly and was innocent enough to make changes where I saw fit. Adibah noticed, checked who had edited her copy, then came over one day to say hello and thank me.

It could have all gone another way, but she was the first person who showed me that the best writers welcomed and appreciated good help. And that every writer needs an editor.

Adibah was in charge of Capital Perspective, a series about Kuala Lumpur that ran in the paper’s Op-Ed section. One day she asked me to contribute something, and I wrote a piece about having Kuala Lumpur for my hometown, unlike many others who came from across Malaysia to work in the capital city.

With Adibah’s encouragement, I soon became a regular contributor.

Sometime in 1978, before I’d hit two years in the paper, another senior editor, Ng Poh Tip, asked if I would write for The New Straits Times Annual, the glossy publication which came out at the end of each year with articles mainly by the paper’s most senior writers and editors. I was both thrilled and petrified, not least because my name would appear on the Contents page alongside the paper’s best people.

I had two of the smaller pieces in that year’s annual, one on Shah Alam, the new state capital of Selangor, and an essay on the minibuses that had appeared on Kuala Lumpur’s public transport scene, adding to the chaos. Poh Tip asked me to write for the next two annuals. In 1979 I had a feature on Malaysians taking over at exclusive clubs that once were the preserve of British colonials, and a smaller story about the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. The next year I wrote about the little known Sabah death march at the end of World War II. I’d stumbled upon the Kinabalu War Memorial while on a working trip to Sabah and learnt about the 2,400 Australian and British prisoners of war who had been marched to their deaths by panic-stricken Japanese captors who had learnt that the fortunes of the war had turned against them.

Adibah and Poh Tip kept the thrill of journalism alive for me during the time I spent as a sub-editor.

Writing on the side helped me persuade my bosses to let me out of the sub-editing pool. I became a feature writer at The New Sunday Times during my last year at NST and landed a month-long assignment to Sabah, where I got to climb Mount Kinabalu on a whim.

I left NST at the end of July 1980 to take a job at The Straits Times in Singapore. For a long time after I left, people would ask me why, when it looked like I was doing well in my first four years at the paper with no shortage of opportunities. I’d reply: “Because my editor never spoke to me.” This was true. My last editor was a taciturn man who kept interaction to the minimum and would never tell me if a story was good, bad or needed fixing. It drove me nuts. I would turn in my work and nothing would happen. Days would go by until I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer and would ask how it was. Then I’d get some monosyllabic response that left me no wiser.

It was just awful. I thought I was weird and maybe too needy. It was many years before I learnt that every writer craves a response and feedback from the editor. Good, bad, anything. Only react.

Ironically, it was my subbing stint that got me the job in Singapore because The Straits Times was also short of sub-editors when I responded to its advertisement.

I’d been blissfully unaware of the shared history of the two newspapers and the politics behind the decision to move The Straits Times’ headquarters and senior editors from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in 1959 when a People’s Action Party victory at the elections was imminent.

From KL, the Singapore paper seemed livelier and more interesting to me. Copies were kept at the Balai Berita library and many nights after work I would browse through the papers and felt a pull. Singapore’s constant emphasis on meritocracy also appealed to me and I wanted to know if I might survive there. If it didn’t work out, I could always return home.

I handed in my letter of resignation after I was offered a job as a sub-editor in Singapore. I still didn’t like the idea of sub-editing, but this was a foot in that door. Noordin asked to see me and said he could not understand why I was leaving when I’d been doing well enough. I mumbled some stuff about wanting to test myself outside of Kuala Lumpur and he interrupted me.

“But, Singapore?” he asked, incredulous. “You’re good, but you’re not brilliant.”

He said it so affably in his Noordin way, with that big grin on his face, that the sting did not hurt rightaway. Besides, I’d never pretended to be brilliant. His put-down eventually sank in and helped me move on from my KL days, though I never forgot that parting shot from the man who gave me my start in journalism after I drew a bunch of flowers where an essay should have been.

Balai Berita was where I was bitten by the Journalism bug, learnt to be thrilled by the Byline, the Big Story, even the vicarious pleasure to be had from someone else’s good work, and the utter joy to be invited to work on something special.

I was at The New Straits Times at the best of times, when it was Malaysia’s best-selling English Language paper and a broadsheet, and the talent in the newsroom was clear to see from the editor-in-chief down. Later this great title founded in 1845 – and sharing much of its history with the Singapore paper I moved to – would be surpassed by The Star and, sadly, shrunk to tabloid size.

I learnt there that nobody did journalism for the money. I was hired in September 1976 as a cadet journalist at $780 a month with a transport allowance of $100 a month. I left in 1980 as a Journalist Grade A earning $1,085 a month with a transport allowance of $180 a month.

I’m not brilliant. But I went on to learn that diligence, hard work and the audacity to accept an unlikely challenge all helped. That an abiding love for telling stories will keep the thrill alive. And that the editors you work with can inspire you to stay another day or get the hell out of there.

Although I did not keep in touch with most of the people I left in Kuala Lumpur, there were many times in the years that followed when I remembered the best of the editors I’d worked with and appreciated how the lessons I’d learnt in four years helped me over the decades when I was an editor too.

This, belatedly, is my bouquet for them all.

 

One thought

  1. What a wonderful way to start your career, with great mentors that you had!Reminds me of my start to my career at about the same time, with good mentors around.

    Like

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