An unforgettable first job

Riding high: Cheah during his days as a reporter on his motorcycle outside The Star office in Weld Quay, Penang in 1972.

MY first full-time job, when I was 17, was in The Star. I didn’t join as a journalist; rather, I was one of a crew of about 30 people, mostly women, employed as casual labour to fold the newspaper overnight.

This was in December 1971 in Penang; The Star had launched that September, and was printed on an old Heidelberg printing press purchased from Germany, producing broadsheets which required folding by hand.

At the end of each shift, just after dawn, my face was black from smeared ink.

As someone who grew up in poverty, I accepted hardship as ordinary; from nine, after my father died from illness, I had worked after school hours, often as a “pung mee” (hawker’s assistant) who served noodles from street stalls and washed the dishes in a plastic bucket afterwards.

In my teens, I was engaged at my uncle’s pineapple stall as a delivery boy, ferrying big bamboo baskets filled with the spiky fruit to street hawkers, balanced precariously on a creaky bicycle almost as tall as me.

From boyhood, I loved reading, with frequent use of the Penang Library, and this took me into a world of imagination far away from the reality of being a street urchin.

In Penang Free School, where I received my secondary education on a scholarship that covered school fees, I began writing as well, and although I didn’t know it at that time, this would open the door years later to The Star.

Just after New Year’s Day in 1972, The Star‘s founder and editor-in-chief K.S. Choong somehow heard of my existence from his friend Lee Kok Liang.

Lee asked that I be given a chance to move up (literally, from the basement where the press was situated to the newsroom on the first floor).

Choong made me a cub reporter right away, starting at RM120 a month. (Lee, a lawyer, died in 1992; he headed the Penang Literary Society and was impressed when the London literary magazine, Transatlantic Review, published one of my short stories in 1969.

It’s said that a person’s first job is the one that reaches deepest into his consciousness, and that’s certainly true for me, even though half a century has gone since I was in The Star.

As it would turn out, The Star became one of the greatest success stories in Asia’s media industry.

I can recall that from the earliest days, everyone took pride in their work, even though the publisher was desperately poor and it was just a small-town Penang newspaper.

Cover material: A front page report written by Cheah that was published on June 9,1972, marking the writer’s first page-one byline.Cover material: A front page report written by Cheah that was published on June 9,1972, marking the writer’s first page-one byline.

Operating out of a shabby building in the Weld Quay port area, right opposite the floating villages erected by the poor on stilts dug into the smelly seabed, the new paper was Malaysia’s first tabloid, colourful and naughty.

Under the leadership of Choong, the paper broke new ground, giving the public what it actually wanted. In the beginning, The Star modelled itself on the British tabloid, The Sun, copies of which were passed around in our office, to be carefully studied by everyone.

Thus, we had the same screaming headlines, emphasis on gossipy and scandalous stories, short and punchy reports, and even a daily Page Three “model” – a photograph of a scantily clad girl.

Often, this feature was lifted directly from The Sun, under a licensing agreement between the two companies that gave

The Star reproduction rights.

I can still recall The Star’s legendary news editor K. Sugumaran instructing me as follows:

“Keep your reports tight. Use simple words. No sentence should exceed 25 words, and where possible keep it to 15 words or fewer. Short paragraphs, please. The most useful device in news writing is the full stop. Use it often.

“And always use active sentences. Say ‘dog bites mans’, never say, ‘man bitten by dog’.”

Also drilled into me was the importance of the five Ws – every article, except the trivial stuff, must cover a basic checklist of “when, where, what, who and how”.

Doing it in style and The Simple Subs Book, two textbooks from British newspaperman Leslie Sellers, were our operating manuals.

Good habits were inculcated, intended to make us objective and fair. For serious reporting, where possible, we checked out the situation on the ground rather than rely on secondary sources.

We were taught to fact-check, tell both sides of the story, carefully separate facts from opinion, and identify our sources of information to the best extent possible, so that readers would know from where the story originated.

It wasn’t only the editor-in-chief and news editor who shared their knowledge. Chief sub-editor Khoo Kay Peng and other senior journalists, and even staff photographers, such as Chan Looi Tat, instructed me.

For me, a breakthrough occurred in mid-1972, when my byline appeared on a page one story for the first time.

A policeman had shot himself with his revolver at a Chinese temple, and I rushed over, the first and only reporter present. The man was still breathing, a bullet hole drilled neatly into his temple, blood spilling out, and I had been trained to ask lots of questions.

So in the Hokkien dialect, I asked, “How do you feel?” His eyes were staring blankly at the sky, he was gasping for air, and about a minute later, he died.

My lack of common sense – or devotion to my profession – became a standing joke in the newsroom, but the editor felt I deserved a page one byline, albeit a joint one with senior crime reporter Tony Chew.

Even after all these years, I cannot imagine better basic training than what I received in The Star.

My news reporting ranged from politics to entertainment and sports.

I wrote editorials on weighty subjects, such as the Vietnam War, and I contributed articles to the weekly magazine. I even took turns writing for Dear Pansy, an “agony aunt” column.

I rose to become the acting chief sub-editor, a senior position with responsibility for the paper’s front page, including designing the page, creating the headlines, editing the copy and putting the paper to “bed”, typically by midnight.

When I left The Star in late 1974, I was paid a monthly salary of RM350, considered an attractive salary in Penang at that time.

I was 20.

Today, as an ex-journalist (from the late 1980s, I became a fund manager), I have asked myself what are the one or two key insights I gained from journalism.

The first thing I can say is that the size of Malaysia’s talent pool is large. Malaysians are quick learners and are easily motivated, given a bit of encouragement.

My second insight arose from my grounding as a youth in Penang, a book-loving intellectual and a trainee reporter.

This is about the need to possess curiosity, and to always seek truth from facts. This insight has served me well all my life.

I am convinced that to live means having the ability to find the truth, and to die means losing the ability to be fair and objective.

Datuk Seri Cheah Cheng Hye, who maintains a home in Penang and Hong Kong, is the co-chairman and co-chief investment officer of Value Partners Group Ltd, one of Asia’s largest asset-management firms. He also serves on the Board of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, one of the world’s largest stock-exchange operators, as an independent non-executive director.

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