Thomas Lee, the coconut head
By Chong Cheng Hai
I first knew Thomas Lee Seng Hock when I was a junior sub at The Star, Pitt Street, back in the early 80s. He was an affable fellow who got along well with everyone, from the peon to the boss. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. And he was fast in his work too. He loved his food and kopi-o and bush jackets.
Fondly referred to as Reverend Thomas, as he had studied theology, Thomas was a generous soul who readily shared his knowledge and experience; he enjoyed mentoring rookies, be they reporters or subs.
His peculiar diction and pronunciation were the butt of many inside jokes and at one time, we even compiled a litany of his verbal gems into a Thomas Lee Dictionary to orientate newcomers. When he found out, he laughed along with us. He always championed the underdog and victims of unfair treatment, qualities he put to good use as a union leader and social and political writer.
The best illustration of this unique and forgiving character I remember was an incident at the Star office in Penang one late evening. He was somehow involved in an argument with a hot-tempered office assistant. One thing led to another and the guy hit Thomas over the head with a wooden stool which broke into pieces.
Thomas was still standing; despite our shock and concern, he went on to describe how he used to toughen his skull by breaking coconuts over it. As he spoke, we noticed a stream of blood dripping down his forehead. We had to literally drag him to hospital to be stitched up. When he got back to office, he forgave his assailant and refused to press charges.
His penchant of “selective hearing” was another source of frustration for those who engaged him in conversation. It was a convenient weapon he deployed to help him win arguments.
Thomas Lee was certainly one person who made a lasting impression on me.
Chong Cheng Hai is currently editorial adviser to the Malay Mail after retiring as editor of the Sun.
Thomas was quite a lively character during the early days of the Sun. He introduced me to the “house style” something a non-trained journalist like me, never knew existed. He will be fondly remembered.
Premesh is chief executive of Malaysiakini, which he set up with Steven Gan, after both left the Sun.
N Shashi Kala
Thomas was a real character – he looked out for me during the early years at theSun, though I first got to know him at The Star. His most famous line: “You are a gutt girl”. Thomas, you were a good guy.
Shashi is news editor of the Sun.
RIP Thomas. You were never afraid to speak your mind. You will be missed.
Anna, a stalwart of Penang journalism through Light Street and Pitt Street, retired as production editor of the Star (Penang) two years ago.
Thomas and I had worked for the same employers in a number of newspapers: the NST group, The Echo and The Star. As a journalist, he was dedicated to his tasks; he had some very strong views, and we didn’t always agree on operational matters but he could always be counted on to carry out his responsibilities. Now that he is in the Big Newsroom in the sky, I won’t be surprised he will be butting heads up there.
Charles Chan was the pioneer deputy news editor of the Star, via the Eastern Sun and the Malay Mail; he later became associate editor of the Star, via Business Times and the National Echo. He now lives in New Zealand.
Philip Lim Ching Guan
Thomas and I were housemates in Bangsar in the early eighties. He had a huge appetite for books as he did for instant noodles. He made friends easily and had many.
I remember him for educating me on the intricacies of union activities and on the finer points of Malaysian politics.
Our career paths then went in different directions and I lost touch with him for almost two decades. By the time, we met again, he was still more or less the same, still given to easy laughter.
I have some fond memories of him and our encounters through the decades were a learning experience.
Philip Lim, retired as chief sub-editor of NST Life & Times, continues to write on films, television and travel.
Rash Behari Bhattacharjee
Thomas Lee made an impression on everyone who knew him. I worked under him at the Star in Penang in the 80s. One episode I remember is when Ghazali Shafie’s plane crashed near Janda Baik. The Star headline was “King Ghaz is dead”, but Thomas, who was o/c of the sub-editing desk in Penang that day was adamant that it was wrong to presume so until a police report was lodged. He lectured all of us ad nauseum about the statute of limitation that says that a missing person cannot be presumed dead until seven years have lapsed.
He changed the Penang edition’s heading to “King Ghaz feared dead” and got a memo from HQ for that. Of course, he was proved right in that instance. I will have many good memories of Thomas and a few bizarre ones for those times that old journos get together to remember the good old days
Rash Behari, who is production editor of The Edge, is a second-generation journalist. His uncle, B.C. Bhattacharjee, was a long-time radio hand who joined the NST, where he wrote a motoring column, and later moved to the Star.
Joseph B Fernando
Great guy, i knew him from 1976, when Thomas, a former NUJ general secretary, said we must fight the management with the pen and not black arm bands. Well it was the first collective agreement and we got it right.
Joe Fernando (“Joe Kuda”), a stalwart of the National Press Club, has retired as racing editor of the Star and is planning a new racing publication.
Errol de Cruz
Way back in 1988, I was “committed” to the Business Subs Desk of The Star by an editor who loved me very much. Thomas, knowing that my forte was the entertainment and live music beat, and certainly not business, came by every evening, to make sure I wasn’t using headings like “Khazanah’s Long and Winding Road” or “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights for MAS” or “Stormy Monday for Bursa Malaysia”. Thanks, Thomas. Vaya Con Dios!
Errol de Cruz is subbing copy at the Malay Mail when not engaged in country&western gigs. The de Cruz brothers Errol and William share a family connection to the Straits Times through their well-loved mum, a familiar voice of Balai Berita.
Shah Adyll Dadameah
We were colleagues and fellow union members but not many people cared to think we were friends because of our different religious pursuits. We had many good working and casual discussions about all kinds of goings-on happening within and outside of work. He was loyal to the profession albeit with his own mind about how (political) things happen. He has also his own share of personal anecdotes about various issues and the people involved. His work may have touched some people … and turned off others, but that was Thomas Lee and there was nothing Thomas Lee could do about it.
Shah Dadameah was a pioneer reporter with the Star in 1971 and after retirement has been asked to continue at the news desk, supervising reporters and their copy.
I knew Thomas for a while. Although we worked for the same papers, NST, Star, Sun and lastly, Sin Chew, we never worked together: when I joined one paper he would have left or when I joined another, he would have rejoined the earlier one that he had left. Invariably our paths criss-crossed.
Thomas was not a collector of toys or things but he was proud of his own private library. He is about the only person I know who has a compete set of all the state constitutions plus the Federal Constitution, of course. He knew his law more than most journos would. Thomas was a wordsmith, hammering away at the anvil to temper his craft into art.
I was also general secretary of the National Union of Journalists but we were from different periods so again never worked together as trade unionists. We were also pay preachers, but again our paths never crossed at the pulpit.
But I know of Thomas as how and what a working journalist should be – without malice. As a trade unionist, he was working class to the core. As a Christian, Thomas was obedient and lived by faith knowing his God would provide, as always. His humility knew no bounds. Not too long ago, he was willing to take a job as a night watchman when he was out of a job.
As those close to him would have known, Thomas was living testimony of a God who heals. He told me recently he should have died many times over but the Lord healed him in a most miraculous way. This time, the Lord decided to take home and he went in peace. What a man, a God fearing man. Obedient to the last.
There are a few things on which we may not have seen eye to eye, but this did not affect our friendship and fellowship. Life was bigger than that for Thomas.
Thomas, my brother, we’ll meet again on the the side of the shore.
Bob Teoh, , a comrade-in-arm and a brother in Christ, worked with the Star, NST, Sun and MySinchew and was general secretary of the NUJ. He now spends time in Kalimantan with a Christian NGO working with children.
One of the things that struck me about Thomas was that he cared for others. When I visited him in hospital, his leg was giving him a lot of pain even with only slight pressure. There were friends from church visiting at the same time but despite his suffering, he was advising a boy on how he should nurture his interest in innovation and invention.
When I was at the Sun, I would ask him to buy new shirts for himself as sometimes his collars were frayed: he would say he would buy new clothes to give away to the poor but wouldn’t change his shirts.
In many ways, Thomas was like our Lord – courageous, outspoken, warm-hearted and sacrificial. Look forward to meeting you again, Thomas, in a place without pain and tears. You wil be much missed.
Dorothy Chen now works at HELP Institute