The 300th article – milestone or millstone?


  • Business
  • Saturday, 21 Jan 2017

Nahhh, this columnist isn’t going away just yet, and here’s why

THIS is the 300th instalment of Optimistically Cautious. I don’t know why, but I believe this is an occasion to write the column in the first person and to engage in a bit of navel-gazing, both of which I rarely do.

It was once my plan to stop at 300. I had my excuses lined up. For one thing, fatigue was setting in.

The column appears in StarBizWeek and I feel it’s only proper that it talks about business and economics, or at least something linked to these subjects.

The thing is, I’m no longer on the business desk of The Star and finding topics to write about is increasingly hard because I don’t follow corporate and economic developments as closely as I used to. I abhor the idea of producing irrelevant and trivial articles.

I was also toying with the idea of writing a column elsewhere in the newspaper, and I figured having two columns on top of my other work responsibilities would be overreaching.

For a little over eight years, I’ve been writing Optimistically Cautious every week – well, sort of, because had my output been more regular, I would have reached this milestone sooner. I thought 300 was a nice, round number on which to end a long but satisfying run.

Obviously, I’ve since changed my mind. It was a combination of encouragement by others and my own realisation that there are good enough reasons (to me, that is) to continue the column.

I see now that coming up with the column doesn’t have to be a chore. It’s fulfilling and meaningful work that helps me grow as a journalist and a person. Here’s why:

> I like to learn

Through Optimistically Cautious, I try always to highlight issues and developments that I think deserve more attention and understanding. When possible, I discuss overlooked ideas and perspectives.

In writing the column, the things that matter most to me are those that are likely to significantly shape our thoughts and actions in the medium and long term.

All these require me to look beyond our typical news coverage. It’s also important for me to consider more than one side of an argument and to seek insights into how people think and behave.

In other words, I’m constantly learning, and that usually makes me happy.

> I enjoy writing

Storytelling is a huge part of the job. That can be particularly challenging in business and economics because the subject matter is often dry and esoteric.

There’s a lot of explaining to do at times. And people read the business pages for different reasons and with different levels of interest.

I relish translating into stories whatever knowledge I’ve gathered. On a good day, the writing process in itself is rewarding.

It may seem minor and subjective, but framing the story in a suitable format, choosing just the right word or phrase, and crafting a sentence that underscores a point, are all aspects that put joy in this writer’s heart.

> Writing the column imposes discipline

Optimistically Cautious started in December 2008 because the then head of the business desk, managing editor P.Gunasegaram, wanted all the senior journalists to have weekly columns.

I was already writing the occasional commentary, but with this change, I had to commit to filling some editorial space every week under the banner of Optimistically Cautious.

(The title is simply a dig at how companies are terribly fond of saying they’re “cautiously optimistic” about their prospects.)

Maintaining a weekly column means me spending a fair bit of time not just on writing, but on thinking about what to write and doing the necessary research to back up what I assert in my column.

I find myself living inside my head quite a bit. Over the years, I’ve become more conscious of my thoughts. When I have ideas and opinions, I tend to question where they come from and test their solidity.

To me, when you put on paper – a newspaper, in fact – your thoughts, you ought to be responsible, consistent and sincere. That calls for discipline, which is not a bad thing at all.

> I’ve things to say

I didn’t count, but probably more than half of the Optimistically Cautious articles are about corporate governance or accounting and audit.

These are areas that I know pretty well and that I care about. And I believe they have major roles in how business is conducted.

One day, I may decide that there’s nothing left for me to comment on, but for now, there is plenty going on in governance and the accounting world that warrants some discussion.

And of course, there are so many other facets of business and economics that will continue to prompt me to speak my mind.

> Believe it or not, it can be fun

A column is a licence to be creative and have fun. Even though business and economics are serious subjects, there’s no rule that says we’re not allowed to aim for some levity, sarcasm and ribbing when writing about them.

I get a kick out of trying new ways to tell stories and get points across in my column. Sometimes, they don’t work and might even be cringeworthy.

Anyway, I’m perhaps not the best judge of how successful I’ve been in injecting humour in some of my articles, but I certainly had fun writing the open letters to Oprah Winfrey, Sir Alex Ferguson, Pamela Anderson and Donald Trump.

I suppose I’ve also been responsible for fake news, having concocted memos, a schoolboy’s essay and absurd listicles.

Recently, I fabricated an imaginary interview with Bob Dylan, using his lyrics as his responses to questions on business and the economy. That took a considerable amount of legwork, but I’m glad to see the result.

And sometimes I get to be sneaky by saying what I want to say without exactly saying it. That’s fun too, right?

Executive editor Errol Oh doesn’t know if he’ll reach No.400 (or even No.350), but while the columns lasts, he’ll try his best not to waste anybody’s time.

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