Learning the price of journalism, at great Risk
Tales of the Dark Days – II
Recollections of some Star journalists who lived through the Shutdown days.
By Purwaiz Alam
I was at work that Oct 18 evening in 1987 when word came that some shooting had been going on in Chow Kit. Most people were saying it was racial strife and that some people had been killed. We were all stunned momentarily: deep inside, I knew this was the beginning of worse things to come. (I would only find out a week later how much worse.)
At about 10pm, I told the chief, Michael Aeria, that I had to go home to check on my old lady (not so old at that time), her brother and his girlfriend. We lived in an apartment in Kelana Jaya then. While driving there, I just hoped nothing untoward had happened. (As if I need to remind – those were the days without handphones, WhatsApp, Skype and the like.)
It was a great relief to see her smile when I got back, but the smile turned to a frown when I told her what had happened. Call it paranoia but we started planning for what to do if there was an attack. This cautiousness stemmed from memories of the May 13 Incident in Penang when I was just nine and lived in the heart of George Town. I was to see the bloodshed in front of my eyes.
Planning an escape route
Her brother tied bedsheets together in case we needed to escape through the third floor window…just in case. We kept a couple of knives and a parang in strategic places for self-defence…just in case. Then I left for the office again: I was still on duty and more than that, I wanted to know the latest developments.
I can’t remember what time I went home that day but I recall the security manager, Teoh Ee San, giving orders for the main gate to be kept locked until they were very sure everything was all right.
Days of tension passed. On Oct 27, when I walked into the office at 2pm as usual, a hush of silence greeted me despite the number of people around: in fact, there were more than the usual swarming over the editorial floor.
I asked someone what was going on and the reply stunned me: the Star had been ordered closed.
Just a few months before, I had returned to the paper after leaving it for the New Straits Times and reconsidering after a month. Some people had said I had made a big mistake in coming back. Why didn’t the wise guy with the crystal ball tell me earlier that the newspaper would be closed just months after my rejoining?
Taking the grand Risk
Over the next few months, we survived on one-third salary. My wife, also a Star employee, found work as a part-time typist in OUG, for 10 to 12 hours every day, so we could pay the rent and the interest on the loan for the tiny house we had booked just months earlier.
Me, I became a bumpkin of sorts. I would be in the office every day, improving my skills at Scrabble and chess and also mastering that boardgame called Risk – ironically a game about having the rest of the world at your mercy.
As the months went by, I started to worry even more. I had to get another job because the savings were depleting and Risk expertise was not going to feed me. But then, with just five years’ work experience under my belt, the CV was not on my side: openings were few. Yes, in those days you were still considered a greenhorn even after half a decade, unlike today.
I started asking around: some friends suggested Brunei, Singapore and even Hong Kong. I did land an interview with the Singapore Straits Times but I didn’t get the job.After nearly five months, there were some “positive vibes” that “negotiations” were making good progress towards getting The Star re-opened. By this time, I was close to panic mode: the savings had almost disappeared, the wife was working day and night for a pittance, and I was conquering the world via Risk.
We sold our video cassette recorder to get some extra cash — just in case.
And then, a week later, the good news came. The Star would re-open in a few days. Our relief knew no bounds. We had been “saved”.
But on the first day that the Star re-opened, most of us knew things would never be the same any more. The journalism that we had learnt and knew well would wither away soon enough. As the months went by, it became obvious that my job (and that of hundreds others) had been saved at a price, a very hefty price.
All of us are still paying for it 25 years later.
Purwaiz Alam rose to be deputy production editor before leaving earlier this year to be a senior editor at sports247.my, an online sports newspaper.
Michael Aeria, deputy production editor in 1987, was to be group editor, then vice-president of the Star’s multimedia and online division; he retired after having spent his entire career at The Star.