Dreading the late-night knock on the door

Tales of the Dark Days – VII
Recollections of some Star journalists of the Shutdown days

By M Veera Pandiyan
(4 November 2010)

The White Paper tabled in Parliament in 1988 stated that various groups had played up “sensitive issues”, creating “racial tension” in the country (leading to the Operation Lallang crackdown in October 1987). But it smacked of being orchestrated and being allowed to escalate before the swoop took place, in a dangerous strategy of brinkmanship.

Let me share memories of the dark days when my colleagues and I were jobless for five months.

The most productive and fruitful use of time was said to have been put in by Wong Chun Wai, who cast aside his troubles to pursue one of his biggest challenges – courting a girl in a bank who had caught his eye, former state athlete Florence.

Three other colleagues in Penang set up a pizza outlet while others drove taxis, set up pasar malam stalls and such.

ND Raj who had blown most of his money on his wedding earlier in the month and the rest on a lavish Deepavali bash, was among those in dire straits. He took a job as a carpenter, mostly turning screws into an endless number of hinges each day.

As for me, then Malacca staff correspondent, I accepted the first job that came along – fisherman. Together with Charles Cham, the head of the editorial art department in our headquarters in Peta­ling Jaya (who has since made a name for himself as an artist around the world), I went fishing with the father and son team of Lionel and Martin Theseira.

Two days of being tossed about in a tiny boat made us both sea sick and put paid to any chance of my making it a career.

The Star only paid us a quarter of our meagre salaries during the five months, making life truly tough.

The first few days of Ops Lalang were particularly daunting, especially when almost all the politicians whom I knew well in Malacca were detained, beginning with the first two to be picked up – Guan Eng and Kerk Kim Hock.

One friend in the police Special Branch gave hints that journalists might be in the “next wave” of arrests, suggesting that the racially sensitive Bukit China development issue which I had covered could include me in the dragnet.

I was mentally prepared to be taken away and often woke up to the slightest sound of barking of dogs or cars passing by outside my house. One night when my wife was on the graveyard shift at her electronics factory, a car stopped outside the house at around midnight. There were tapping sounds on the iron grille.

I was so ready [to be picked up] that I had even packed a plastic bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, sarong, a T-shirt, underwear and two books to read. After kissing my sleeping two-year-old son, I went to open the door.

Veera Pandiyan on politicians

But the expected “SB” turned out to be only my two sisters and a relative returning from a temple event. They had forgotten the house keys.

As for work, it was a terrible time of inaction and lethargy. At our headquarters in PJ, most reporters ended up in the office playing scrabble. It was a great relief when The Star’s licence was reinstated in March 1988.

For many of us, those five months showed who our real friends were, especially from among the usually publicity-hungry politicians.
– Along the Watchtower, 4 Nov 2010

Veera Pandiyan, Malacca correspondent, is an associate editor at the PJ news desk on contract after retirement. He writes the weekly column Along the Watchtower.

• Wong Chun Wai, a reporter at the Penang office, is group chief editor and executive director on the board of the publishing company.

• ND Raj, a sub-editor at Penang office, is deputy executive editor in PJ