Rookie reporter sees end of an era
Tales of the Dark Days – X
Recollections by some Star journalists of Shutdown days
By Delia Paul
I was perhaps still the newest reporter on board when the government pulled the Star’s KDN that October day in 1987. I had joined the paper just six months earlier, reporting for the Sunday arts pages.
The Star then was an exciting place to be; circulation was rising and we were giving the NST a run for its money. The Sunday Star had an excellent team culture: we had weekly meetings to discuss story ideas with colleagues, and the editor, Cheryl Dorall, had a large supply of international papers, including the Sunday Times, that we were encouraged to read in between interviews and filing stories.
The closure was a shock, partly because being a reporter was our entire lifestyle for many of us young singles.
A congenial bunch of us twentysomethings shared a house in Section 17, among them Section Two reporters T. Pushparani and Amy Chew. We had long, earnest conversations on the prospects of a Star stripped of its leading journos, and whether we’d find other jobs.
As a rookie, I didn’t feel I had much right to complain, when so many experienced people were wondering how to feed children and pay mortgages.
In the days immediately following the shutdown, people still came to the office. With fortitude and irrefutable logic, Cheryl decided to run staff training for the Sunday Star reporters on the basis that this period of enforced idleness should be well spent – hopefully, in her case, not behind bars.
We younger ones hoped that some deal was imminent, that we’d get our jobs back soon, and that we’d figure out the political ramifications later. No one seemed to have the full picture, and rumours abounded.
In the aftermath of the shutdown, there were parties, with a lot of beer, especially NV Raman’s farewell bash before he left for the US. Other leading lights had already gone.
It felt like an end to the era of the Star that we loved and were proud to belong to, the one that acted as a watchdog against the excesses of politicians and bureaucrats.
When even the reduced Star salary ran out, a former colleague hired me to work in Singapore on a glossy magazine dominated by ads for luxury goods. I spent a couple of slow months in Singapore, reviewing novels and dropping in on press conferences for very expensive watches. It was a far cry from the rumours and political foment of KL.
Then came a phone call from Jeswant Singh, Sunday Plus editor. “We got our licence back,” he said. “Come back to work.” In a heartbeat, I did, even at a Star salary less than the pay in Singapore.
I knew the Star would be different from before, but life in KL was better than Singapore in so many ways, not least in the kind of conversations you could have. The democratic space was shrinking, but it felt like there were enough people who wanted to keep it open.Staff attrition at the Star continued though. On the so-called women’s pages, there was a move towards more pictures, less text, and experimental layout. You’d think those pages would be less affected, being less political, but often it seemed the reverse was true. Editors of those pages, Shoba Devan, then Alistair Tan, later left, I don’t recall why.
The closure changed the newsroom culture far beyond the news pages.
While still learning my craft, I moved from arts pages to Section Two, covering general features, including environmental issues, then not yet a beat. I had my pick of stories.
This helped me get a communications job at the Australian Conservation Foundation when I moved to Melbourne in 1990. After those early days at the Sunday Star, an atmosphere of political idealism and easy camaraderie was something I’d always wanted, and I found something like it among NGOs in the 1990s.
Delia Paul kept writing about environmental issues. She now lives in Bankok and works freelance, often for the International Institute for Sustainable Development in their reporting services division.