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Those black days when the Star was shut down

Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 08:15:32 am

Tales of the Dark Days – I
Beginning a short series by journalists looking back on the Shutdown

The Oct 27 editions

Klang Valley final edition

The early edition outside Selangor

By Charles Chan

Charles Chan in Auckland

Twenty-five years, a quarter of a century: a long way back to recall that black day when the government used the ISA to round up opposition politicians and other critics. The next day, on Oct 27, after The Star reported the event with a front-page photo gallery of those detained, the newspaper was banned, along with Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan.

We had got news of the detentions in the afternoon of the 26th and at our editorial meeting that evening discussed how to play up the news. What came out the next day was a brilliant effort by the subs desk.

At the time, I had been a month with the paper, having left Business Times where I was news editor. Now an associate editor, I was minding the store at the Star’s Business Desk, filling in for business editor PY Chin who was on assignment in Germany.

I believe it was NV Raman who got wind of the arrests and promptly informed the News Desk. I was shocked but not surprised. There was a lot of political tension at the time arising from a power struggle (Mahathir v Razaleigh) and a noisy campaign by Chinese educationists.

The government was apparently not happy with the way we had reported events connected to these two issues. When the newspaper was shut down, the editor-in-chief, VK Chin, was in Sarawak and there was concern that he, too, would be locked up but mercifully, that did not happen.

Burger-stall and lorry-driver journos

I remember that afternoon, managing director Steven Tan addressed an assembly of employees, urging them to stay calm. He pledged to do everything he could to get the newspaper back in action.

During the many months of suspension, employees of the newspaper survived on substantially-reduced salaries and many were forced to supplement their income with part-time jobs elsewhere. I know of a sub who set up a burger stall while another journalist picked up part time work with a motor company driving delivery trucks. (When it finally re-opened, the MD took steps to restore wages including back-pay to cover wage cuts during the ban.)

People mentioned

NV Raman, though assistant news editor, was the chief political correspondent. As one of seven people on Umno’s black list at Operation Lallang, he went to a desk job at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He returned to Malaysia for a few years in the late 1990s as a political consultant, and now works in corporate communications based in Jakarta.
K Nadarajah, then production editor, was editor on duty that day and responsible for the front page. Also one on the black list, he went to Hong Kong as regional editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, returning to Malaysia in 2007 to edit the Letters pages of the New Straits Times until 2010.
Andy Ng, then chief sub-editor, later became editor of The Sun when it was taken over by Berjaya group’s Vincent Tan. He is now editor of The National in Papua-New Guinea.
Ng Kee Seng, crime reporter, later became news editor of The Star in Penang, then Penang bureau chief and news editor in KL for The Sun. He now freelances as an editorial and political consultant.
Toh Lye Huat later went to The Edge and The Sun, and is now involved in starting a new business weekly newspaper for Clement Hii, former boss of The Star.
VK Chin became group editorial adviser of The Star after retiring as group editor. He died in June last year.
PY Chin, business editor of the Star, later became a business consultant.
Steven Tan, then managing director of Star Publications, publishers of The Star, became an adviser to the Kuok family for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

A handful of editorial staff were rostered for duty during the ban: they would monitor the teleprinters which were left running to receive foreign news and Bernama bulletins. To cut costs, most lights were switched off, as were the air-conditioners and fans. It was hot, stuffy and gloomy in the newroom. I had some of these shifts but soon got tired of it: there was really nothing to do apart from reading and stacking up foreign news reports.

I found other activities to pass the time – playing tennis at the ASTAKA with Toh Lye Huat, Andy Ng and Ng Kee Seng. When we could not book the court, we would play mahjong. I also went swmming often at the PJ pool next to the A&W.

Looking elsewhere

I cannot imagine how other Star employees, especially those in the lower income bracket, coped with the loss of income, the uncertainty and despair they faced daily as they waited for the ban to be lifted. I was rather fortunate that just before the axe fell I had already made arrangements to pay off my mortage with my EPF. But as my savings dwindled, I began to consider working abroad.

I contacted a Kiwi friend with whom I had previously worked at a Singapore newspaper and told him of my wanting to look for a job in NZ or Australia: I was only asking for information but he responded a week later with an offer from the editor of the Auckland Sun (now defunct).

It took me more than three months to make up my mind, and that only after my NZ friend reminded me that the newspaper could not wait too long for a reply.

The Auckland Sun hired me as a sub-editor, a job I had not done before, but the conversion was easy: in my capacity as news editor, I had been cleaning up and re-writing reporters’ copy for more than a decade.

How hard is it to trim a copy to required length, spot spelling and grammatical errors, improve a sentence and write a headline? Reporters everywhere – white, brown, black or yellow — make mistakes, creating a demand for subs. Even the editor who hired me had a spelling deficiency and sometimes it fell upon me to spot these errors in his editorials.

Whenever subs at The Star complained about having to spend too much time cleaning up poorly written copy, I would remind them that were it not for these errors, there would be no need for subs.

For Charles, life after newspapers is still full of drama

The suspension of The Star was a black day in Malaysian journalism. The government action was unjustified, a gross abuse of power, its consequences continue to be felt today in the decline of journalistic standards at mainstream newspapers.

For myself, it was a huge setback in my career. For the sake of my family, I had to make hard choices: migrating to NZ meant climbing down a few rungs of the ladder. Being a pragmatic fellow, I was happy to be able to work as a journalist in NZ, accepted by my peers, and able to provide for my family. I have a few regrets but I can live with them.

There were times when people I befriended asked me how I ended up in Auckland.

I gave them a two-word reply: “Dr Mahathir.”


Charles Chan once worked at the now defunct Eastern Sun, and was a member of the original editorial crew of The Star in 1971, as chief reporter and right-hand man to news editor K Sugumaran. He was later with the National Echo, Business Times and The Star.

  1. rom nain permalink
    Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 08:58:49 am 08:58

    Once again, thank you, uppercaise. I feel terribly sad reading this on a Sunday morning, but this series is necessary as we all need to be reminded of the injustice perpetrated on so many decent, innocent Malaysians by, essentially, one cruel man.

  2. tlchin permalink
    Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 09:58:35 am 09:58

    Charles, thanks for above article – brings back memories of those dark days! I was on plane bound for Hong Kong the day after. Really life-changing events, weren’t they?

    Tracey Chin

    • uppercaise permalink*
      Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 10:06:58 am 10:06

      How about contributing a couple of pars of your own story, Tracey?

  3. ch chong permalink
    Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 10:58:31 am 10:58

    Charlie recalls it like it happened yesterday. For many journalists, especially those at The Star then, time stopped that day.

  4. Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 13:50:01 pm 13:50

    It may have taken 25 years for what happened then to be revealed to day, but it is still better late than never for the truth to be told. Keep doing this, many thanks Uppercase.
    To prevent the abuses by the scumbags and parasites from Umno from repeating the above atrocity kick them out of Putrajaya in the coming GE !

  5. Sreela Kolandai permalink
    Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 16:09:02 pm 16:09

    Thank you all for your postings, a sad day indeed. Color of The Star’s Masthead “Black” clearly expressed the Nation’s sombre mood. Families and friends of those detained were bewildered, numb-shocked and devastated by the sheer injustice perpetrated on these innocent 106 people. I was in Holland when it happened, Dutch newspapers carried news and photographs of all who had been arrested. A sad reminder of a brutal regime, God save Malaysia.

  6. Anonymous 3f4b permalink
    Sun 2012-Oct-28 @ +08 16:21:48 pm 16:21

    If Charles Chan was still around at the Star today he will be the Group Editor in Chief instead of Wong Chun Wai who was only a junior reporter at that time.
    The same goes to the other staff forced to resign who will by now be in senior editorial positions.
    What a waste of human resource which have led to a mediocre Star today and the emasculation of a free and vibrant press.

    • uppercaise permalink*
      Mon 2012-Oct-29 @ +08 17:41:45 pm 17:41

      That’s a kind thought, but Charles is 70 this year and unlikely he could still be group editor on the grounds of age alone. The others forced out were also already in senior positions then. But there was definitely a loss in talent and experience when 30 or so others left on their own, realising the futility of carrying on. Mahathir emasculated the press, it is true, but there was no “free and vibrant” press, just a livelier and much less subservient one. Please dont make up fairy tales about some so-called golden era of Malaysian journalism. There never was one.


  1. A personal silver lining to Star closure « uppercaise
  2. Tunku’s lament, then off in search of jobs « uppercaise
  3. Learning the price of journalism, at great Risk « uppercaise
  4. A different Star newsroom culture after Ops Lallang « uppercaise
  5. After Ops Lallang: the voice of silence. . . « uppercaise
  6. Dreading the late-night knock on the door « uppercaise
  7. Wedding bells and tears – then turning to screws and hinges « uppercaise
  8. Hidden hands in the blackest day « uppercaise
  9. When the Sunday Star almost defied KDN « uppercaise
  10. Rookie reporter sees end of an era « uppercaise
  11. Return to an empty shell at the silenced Star « uppercaise
  12. My father, the Special Branch cop « uppercaise

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