A generation of Malaysians and readers around the world have grown up with Seah Chiang Nee’s columns on Singapore. Illness, however, has forced him to ease up and he has decided to stop being a columnist in The Star. In this farewell interview with Soo Ewe Jin, Seah gives his readers an insight into his illustrious career as a journalist.
FOR the past 28 years, readers of this newspaper have been given a weekly analysis of the goings-on in Singapore through the column of veteran journalist Seah Chiang Nee, Insight Down South.
Seah began his career in 1960 as a Reuters correspondent based in Singapore. During that 10-year stint, he was in (then south) Vietnam for 40 months to cover the war.
He joined the Singapore Herald in 1970, as Malaysia bureau chief and later as news editor, before it was forced to close after a run-in with the Singapore Government.
From 1972 to 1973, he worked for The Asian, the world’s first regional weekly newspaper, based in Bangkok, to cover Thailand and Indochina – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
He then moved on to be news editor of the Hong Kong Standard before returning to Singapore in 1974 to serve as foreign editor with The Straits Times.
From 1982 to 1985, he served as editor of the Singapore Monitor. And in 1986, he started writing for The Star. Seah also became the first South-East Asian to undergo a heart transplant at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital back in 1985.
And he already belongs to that rare club of those who have lived for more than 20 years as a heart transplant patient.
Because of age and health reasons, Seah will no longer be writing his column. In an email interview, he reflects on this journey with The Star.
> Can you share with us your thoughts about being a columnist in The Star?
With a heavy heart, I have decided to end my column in this newspaper. I am grateful to The Star for the writing platform it has provided me all these years, and you readers for making it possible.
Nearly a generation of Malaysians who were interested in Singapore trends – including current affairs, politics, business, education, and healthcare – have grown up getting their information here.
When I began writing, very few Singaporeans knew about it. This soon changed with the arrival of the Internet. The reason: within hours of The Star Online appearing, many social websites had reproduced the article, crediting The Star but often rewritten. I launched my website, Littlespeck, on my articles in The Star to ensure people get the original version.
> Can you share with us some of the key moments, which article generated the most response, and also whether you had any trouble writing about your own country for another?
The most significant story was the first loss of a group representation constituency in 2011, the five-member Aljunied, that could open the door to further losses in future elections. That changed the face of politics in Singapore.
The second was the forthcoming Singapore-Malaysia high-speed train that would only take 90 minutes to commute between Singapore and Malaysia. This would change the lives of many Singaporeans and Malaysians in terms of jobs, businesses, education and shopping.
The third was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s crackdown on the Internet which has significantly reduced the amount of anti-government comment.
The crackdown on my writing has been less severe during the regimes of Goh Chok Tong and now Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong than under Lee Kuan Yew’s rule.
Several times I provoked angry retorts from the authorities, once when I quoted Devan Nair, for years Lee Kuan Yew’s comrade, on why he was moved from the National Trades Union Congress to be Singapore’s President in 1981 and why he resigned in 1985. Lee told Parliament it was to get treatment for alcoholism.
Another was when I once wrote that the government had begun practising pork barrel politics during an election. This provoked a strong denial from the Singapore High Commission. Several days later as the nine-day election campaign period started, the pro-government main newspaper published a large front-page photograph showing a long queue outside a POSB bank of people cashing out their cash, given for the first time. Until then the government had dished out top-ups to their Central Provident Fund or reductions to conservancy changes.
The way to reduce official complaints here is to make sure you get the facts right. Use refined language, with no exaggeration. Accuracy, objectivity! When it does well, give it credit; if it does badly in the eyes of most people, say so.
> As an old-school newsman, what do you see as the future of journalism, with the advent of social media when everyone thinks he can be a citizen journalist?
Frankly, I am not a techie. When something goes terrible wrong, I still scratch my head and get a friend to help.
The World Wide Web is the wave of the future, but it will take a very, very long time to completely take over from print. The reason is a general news reading habit.
You take the paper to bed or the toilet. Housewives and many seniors are still not familiar with online news.
Of course, managing a news website objectively and with balanced reporting has its benefit, though it has nothing to do with money.
The knowledge that I can put up a website in this northeastern part of tiny Singapore that can be read anywhere in the world – from Alaska to Zambia – 24 hours a day, every day is reward enough.
> Share with us your health journey, especially your record as being the longest surviving heart patient in the region.
Last Nov 12, I was reminded by my wife Pat that it was 28 years ago I had a heart transplant. Since then, I have become one of the longest surviving heart transplant survivors in the world.
When my heart went bad, it affected several organs – eyesight, hearing and of course, the kidneys. Although the new heart gave mean extended life, it did not change the other organs.
On the contrary, the anti-rejection drugs had caused the kidneys to worsen despite the doctor’s efforts to slow down deterioration.
Two and a half years ago, they collapsed and I began my peritoneal dialysis four times a day at home through a rubber tube through the stomach. Each session lasts about 30 to 40 minutes.
> Is there anything you want to say to your readers as you say goodbye to your column?
My renal failure also causes anaemia, a shortage of red blood cells and their oxygen-carrying capacity. It is called Erythropoietin, which results in fatigue, weakness, dizziness and drowsiness, all of which have impacted my writing capacity.
As a result, I have to bid goodbye to my column’s readers in Malaysia rather than provide below par work. Thank you all for your support . I wish all of you and Malaysia the best of luck and happiness.