The Paper’s People

Best friends: A reunion of former employees in Sydney on March 24,2012 at the home of Khoo Teng Guan and Muriel Speeden with guests (standing from left) John Santiago, SF Yong, Michael Aeria and Teng Guan and (seated from left) Tan Thean Peng, John Chong, Muriel, Geh Guat Beng and Ooi Kim Kee. All of them worked with The Star previously.

BACK in the days when The Star had its office in Jalan Travers, Kuala Lumpur, one of our bosses used to say: The first language here is Hokkien, second is Tamil and English is a poor third.

If you had dropped by the office then, you may be surprised to see N. Dorairaj from the sports desk and the Circulation Department’s SP Ramasamy (Samy) conversing in Hokkien with their colleagues.

Or if you happen to walk into an evening editorial meeting, it is not unusual to see those present lapsing into Hokkien after a heated discussion in English.

Dorairaj, who rose to become executive editor in 2012, and Samy were from Penang and were transferred when The Star moved its head office to Kuala Lumpur.

There was a “forced” exodus of journalists and production staff from the Penang office in the late 1970s.

Additional production staff were recruited from the nearby Brickfields area. Hence the common use of Tamil in the premises.

I was one of those who had to report for duty at the Kuala Lumpur office after working less than a year in Penang.

Although we had to suffer for many years, I was glad I went. It was a terrific experience to work with a unique breed of people, from the early pioneers to the idealists who were drawn to join the paper because of what it stood for.

Many of the employees stayed with the company for over 25 years, and for some the paper was their sole employer throughout their working life.

The move to Kuala Lumpur was a logical step. The paper, founded by KS Choong in 1971, was already the number one paper in Penang.

The more exciting and colourful tabloid had no trouble overtaking the over 100-year-old broadsheet Straits Echo.

Times were hard then. The pioneers were poorly paid and had to work long hours, sometimes up to 16 hours a day, six days a week.

I was paid RM300 a month while my friends who graduated with me were paid RM900 in the civil service.

Many who came from Penang were forced to stay in crammed dwellings.

I shared a room with two other strangers and paid only RM50 a month.

My fellow workers, especially those from the production department, were not so lucky. I visited one of these places where six or seven of my colleagues were crammed into a room.

“Our living conditions were similar to those experienced by the present-day migrant workers from Myanmar and Bangladesh, ” said Loo Bok Seng, one of the pioneers from Penang, in a joking sort of way.

Surprisingly, we did not complain much. We just accepted that this was part of working life.

Editor-in-chief H’ng Hung Yong persuaded a few experienced newsmen and some management staff from the New Straits Times (NST) to join, all having to take a pay cut in the new paper.

Among them were PC Liew, SF Yong, Khoo Teng Guan, PY Chin, K. Sugumaran and NV Raman.

PY made an impact almost immediately in the business section. His first big scoop on the collapse of an insurance company was so comprehensive that our rivals could not do any follow-up stories.

The business section was very popular with readers and one of the major reasons for the growing popularity of The Star then.

The first lesson I learnt on the editorial floor was that people on the newsdesk don’t like the subs (sub-editors) very much.

On my first day at the job, Sugumaran, the news editor, made me follow chief reporter Raman out on an assignment.

“Forget everything you have learnt about the inverted pyramid in the writing of a story, ” said Raman.

“You must write in such a way that the subs cannot touch your copy at all.”

To which Sugu added: “These subs must change a word or a comma to show that they are working.”

On most occasions, the news editor or his assistants would crumple your copy and chuck it to one side, leaving you wondering what you did wrong.

Most of the teaching was done after work at the nearby Pines food court over a few bottles of beer.

Don’t worry if you did not catch what the news editor was trying to tell you. He would repeat the story again and again.

Newspapers are all about scoops and how you beat the rival newspaper. So, night after night, we got to hear those stories.

One of my favourite is M. Menon’s scoop.

Menon was Sugu’s assistant in the Penang office and that was when a battleship limped into the Penang harbour. This was during the India-Pakistan war.

Menon managed to sneak on board and had an exclusive interview with the ship’s captain.

The front page of a rival paper the next day blared: “Mystery ship sails into Penang” while The Star story read: “Ship’s captain tells all”.

We rookie reporters at that time all wanted to be Menon.

Many of us also hero worshipped PK Katharason. One of his most memorable scoops was the Kuantan Port fiasco.

The day after the story broke, Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn was asked for his comment. He was reported to have said: “Read The Star.”

The paper slowly gained a reputation for speaking up on issues.

Crime stories sell, and there was none better than Ng Kee Seng at coming up with one exclusive after another.

For many of us from Penang, coming to Kuala Lumpur was a cultural shock. The people here speak a strange language: Cantonese.

Luckily for me, there were helpful photographers like CH Loh and CT Fong. They also happen to be from Penang.

They were experienced newsmen, so they knew what questions to ask and sometimes even suggested the angle I should use in my stories.

The Star continued to attract more journalists from NST like K. Nadarajah, Gobind Rudra, Cheryl Dorall. And over in Penang, we were joined by Ng Poh Tip, Khor Cheang Kee, Koh Su Chun and Anna Cheah.

Veterans like VK Chin and Charles Chan (both from National Echo) also joined the paper.

The newsdesk was strengthened by senior journalists from Bernama, people like Nizam Mohamed, Chua Yew Kay and Lim Chye Khim.

Chua, who has a very good command of English and Bahasa, was helpful in the paper’s coverage of Umno assemblies where the paper for the first time reproduced verbatim the speeches of party leaders in English.

He was also helpful in our dealings with the Home Ministry.

Newsdesk’s Wong Sai Wan, who sadly passed away recently, used to recall one session where he was asked to explain why Galaxie, the paper’s entertainment magazine, published some sexy photos of women.

His reply: “Mr Chua said it was okay.”

To his surprise, the ministry official told him: “If Mr Chua said it’s okay, then it’s okay.”

Chua was respected by people who knew him.

Life at the subs desk was a case of swim or sink. On my first night manning the subs desk alone, I was terribly nervous. My teachers that night were Bok Seng and Kesavan from the paste-up section and Samy from the telex room.

As a sub-editor, you have to go through stories coming in locally and from the foreign wires, edit them and make changes to the pages.

Bocky, as Bok Seng is known, consoled me, saying: “Michael, don’t worry. Just send the stories you want to use in single columns and leave the layout to us.”

Our hero on the subs desk was John Bois, a master technician. His design of a Page One was featured in Newspaper Design by Harold Evans, a must-read book for all sub-editors.

His layout and use of photos were excellent.

We rookie subs would sneak into the production department to have a look at his dummy (layout design). Of course, none of us even came close to mastering this skill.

But that’s not a problem if you have friends in the paste-up section.

John Santiago Iruthiyam, or JJ to his friends, had this problem of occasionally sending his stories miles long.

When the paste-up artist approached him, he would just tap the guy on the shoulder and say: “Macha, thinichidu (Brother, adjust lah)”.

Guess what? The page would come back with all the stories perfectly fit.

Everyone on the production floor was a macha (brother) to us, so that’s how a lot of things get done.

The bosses at the subs desk were just as “mean” as the news editors.

Mistakes were not tolerated as we were taught that the subs desk was the last line of defence.

Our chief sub, PC Liew, was feared by all of us but we learnt a lot from him.

He would curse and swear if you made a mistake but he would defend us, even against the editor-in-chief. However, he would control his temper when there was a lady around.

So, to Ong Chye Ngoh who was the sole woman on our desk, and to Ooi Kim Kee, who joined us briefly, thank you for your calming presence.

When the women were not around, sub-editor David Yeoh would warn us about PC’s mood. He would be the first to arrive for work, and if we see a motorcycle plier on the desk, it meant the boss was in a bad mood.

In Hokkien, when a person is in a foul mood, we say his nerve is not straight. Hence, the plier was to help straighten his nerve.

The mood on the desk changed when Khoo Teng Guan became our chief sub. Working under him was fun. He would push us to close the pages early for the first edition so that we could all go out to play the pinball machines in the nearby arcade.

A more comfortable environment did not mean we worked less. There was one night when we changed our Page One four times.

That was when Teng Guan came out with this slogan which was adopted by the subs desk: The difficult we do now. The impossible will take a little time.

One night, the halogen bulb in the printing plate exposing unit was blown. And there was no spare halogen bulb. That was how poor The Star was then.

Bocky took the page negatives and printing plates to the NST printing plant, our rival. Much to all our surprise, he managed to convince the NST production people to expose the printing plates for him. The paper managed to hit the streets the next day.

And there was Koh Beng Huat, who started as personnel manager and rose to become the general manager. Koh was tight-fisted with the company’s money and was known to always go by the book.

However, I saw a different side of him when a colleague, Mordecai Kwok, was hospitalised with a brain tumour.

As Mordecai was still under probation, the company was not likely to continue employing him once his six-month stint was up.

I appealed to Koh to make an exception.

He thought for a moment, and said: “Michael, I am going to sit on his file, so Accounts and HR cannot pursue the matter.”

Mordecai continued to work with the company until he died a few months later.

When we first came to Kuala Lumpur, people would give us a blank look when we told them we were from The Star.

“What is that? An entertainment magazine?” was a common reaction.

When I joined The Star on Jan 24,1977, the paper had only 32 pages, was black and white, and had a circulation of 30,000.

When I retired on Oct 6,2009, the copy of The Star had five sections with a total of 200 pages, including a Metro Classified section of 44 pages. Daily circulation had crossed 300,000.

This is a remarkable achievement for a newspaper by any standard.

The third stage of The Star’s growth fell on the shoulders of Datuk Steven Tan who became the managing director in 1986.

Tan built on the achievements of his predecessors and eventually listed the company.

Kam siah, mikka nandri. Thank you for a wonderful journey.

Michael Aeria is a former group chief editor. According to him, several old timers like him had always talked about penning a book about The Star “but we only got so far as writing the book title, The Paper’s People; courtesy of former executive editor Teh Eng Huat”.

NOTE: The following is a clarification by former group executive editor Gobind Rudra regarding several assertions in the article above.


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