Ordinary royals, extraordinary lives
As published in Malay Mail (June 13, 2015)
By Frankie D'Cruz
IT was a remarkable ‘newsroom’ filled with some of the biggest names in journalism, super rich with collectively hundreds of years of experience. With sacks of skills, these journalists told thousands of great stories, wrote thousands of headlines and made The Malay Mail your lunch companion.
These heady editors, sub-editors and reporters had a magical knack of knowing what Malaysians were thinking, and this sharpness made them some of the best journalists the country has seen.
All their gifts came together in irresistible abundance in a breathless recent catch-up of 18 ex-Mailers, from the late 70s and 80s, with former editor Chua Huck Cheng — now happily retired — who was on a visit here from New Zealand.
It was pure theatre. A convivial June 5, Friday evening had emerged at Pietro Ristorante Italiano in Damansara. Wine and stories flowed. Straight-talking rants and witticism ruled.
Prolific is the word that springs to mind when one thinks about the opus and personality of many of them such as Kek Soo Beng, a mentor who took me in as a stringer in Seremban and fought for me to get into the New Straits Times Press which then professed ‘rock solid’ English and had a tight recruitment policy.
Like Kek, when people like Chua — the youngest editor of The Malay Mail at age 30 — and other editors Philip Mathews, P.C. Shivadas, Lim Thow Boon, Tony Francis and Ben d’Cunha blinked, reporters were emboldened.
Our relationships took various forms, maybe not quite similar to mine with R. Nadeswaran, a streetfighter with pugilistic skills, now The Sun’s editor of investigations.
Nadeswaran and I were a combination of drinking buddy, excuse-maker, confidante, firefighter and witness to far more exceptional exploits than can be comfortably listed in a 500-page hardback of journalistic jaunts.
Champagne Sheila Rahman, who began reporting life as many of us under training ground sergeant-majors Chua, Philip Mathews and the late Ratan Singh and Sri K. Nayagam was nostalgia-bingeing.
“It was delightful to have the big bosses and forever journalists and listen to them reminisce the glory days. My life is like journalism every day … a new(s) day,” she gloated in a message to me after the party.
Standout sub-editor Soo Ewe Jin, who now writes a heartwarming weekly column ‘Sunday Starters’ in The Star put those times in perspective: “Many of us cut our teeth in journalism in The Malay Mail in the 80s.
“Those were heady days of exclusive investigative stories, the latest in world news (no Internet or 24-hour TV then) and unique community services like Hotline and People's Live Telecast Fund (PLTF). So, we are more than old friends.”
Pause. PLTF is a truly inspiring story generated by a call to Hotline by an insurance agent Peter Teo. A day after he had watched Belgium upset Argentina 1-0 in the opening match on June 13, Teo suggested that Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) allow the public to contribute RM1 each to pay for more live telecasts.
RTM began live telecasts of the World Cup from 1974, and continued this in 1978 and 1982, but up to that time football fans here could only expect live transmissions of the opening match, the two semi-finals and the final.
Then editor, Ahmad Sebi Abu Bakar, saw the potential in Teo’s suggestion and a story was published in Hotline on June 15. It triggered a lightning-quick chain of events such that by June 19, The Malay Mail launched the PLTF and handled the fund-raising.
PLTF’s aim was to collect at least RM60,000 for one ‘live’ telecast, and from the meagre RM228 that trickled in on the day of the launch, the donations swelled to RM66,116.45 on June 24. Each day, The Malay Mail listed the names of all new donors and the amount they contributed — and they included the king and prime minister.
Eventually, the PLTF soared past RM300,000, enough to pay for five matches. The pride-inducing phrase, “Ditaja oleh Rakyat Malaysia” (Sponsored by the People of Malaysia) became a buzzword. The intense interest shown by Malaysians that year influenced the corporate sector that subsequently sponsored live telecasts of all World Cup matches until 2006 when Astro took charge.
And last Friday — 2,039 days or 32 years, 11 months and 17 days later — we relished in the power of PLTF and the tone it had set for the tagline ‘The Paper That Cares’.
Several of us are still in the epicentre of newspapering. Then high-flying reporter, Lee Boon Siew, who recently retired as editor-in-chief of The Heat said: “This group's history dates more than 40 years. And some of them are still churning out great stories. Of the 18 present, nine are still practising journalism, either in writing or editing.”
D’Cunha, now with The Sun and Malay Mail sub-editor Ian Pereira, both in their mid 70s, exude marathon endurance in the profession and show no signs of winding down.
Once eternally combative photographer Chai Khian Chong who delivered stellar images and stamped his mark on ‘Page Three Girl’ is sort of winding down. He squared his jaw, grit his teeth and said: “I just want to enjoy being in this ‘newsroom’ with the best of the best.”
The more serious ones spoke about the hoary topic of the newspaper business, circulation challenges and current affairs. Such talk however took long breaks especially when engaging stories of Chua as editor were related.
Chua, who at times as editor resembled a bulldog chewing a wasp, looked like the cat that got the cream that night as he milked every moment of the occasion.
Much of journalism is about knowing when to press and when to withdraw. The temperature in Pietro, owned by former New Straits Times group editor-in-chief, Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan, never plummeted to sub-zero.
In many ways, this was a celebration of human relationship.
The reporting landscape could well be different if only today’s journalists embraced the life these newspaper elders knew. The life they loved. The life they enjoyed.
Pereira and I are now the only ones in this group whose days are governed by Malay Mail. Both of us continue to preach that the paper should herald itself as a beacon of liberal sophistication and objectivity.
Fortunately, that pride among the current batch is there all the time.