Home > English (General) > I was a woman in a man’s world

I was a woman in a man’s world

T seems like yesterday that I joined the Straits Times as a cub reporter. March 1961.

Still a teenager and extremely vulnerable, my early days of reporting were frightening, to put it mildly. Having led a sheltered life and coming from an orthodox Hindu family, I was extremely shy, particularly around men.

I often asked myself whether I was in the right profession. But I suppose God knew best as he had charted my life.

Today, I have no regrets, after having completed 50 years of uninterrupted service with the Straits Times and later the New Straits Times.

I feel proud that I have soldiered on while many have come and gone.

The joie de vivre, excitement, satisfaction and the knowledge gained in various fields are immeasurable. People are surprised, even shocked, that a person can stay in one job for such a long time.

Having finished my secondary education, my Form Six, then known as Higher School Certificate (HSC) at St John’s Institution, my ambition was to read for a law degree. I wanted to work, save and go to university. I was then waiting for my HSC results. My father, who hated to see anyone wasting time, encouraged me to take up a three-month course in shorthand and typewriting.

One day, after my evening class I was chatting with my shorthand teacher when he said: “You have a good command of English and you communicate well. Why don’t you become a reporter?”

I didn’t quite know what the job entailed. Nonetheless, I applied to the then Straits Times and was called for an interview.

I was asked why I wanted to be a reporter and in all innocence answered that I was waiting for my Form Six results, bored and did not want to waste my time. Looking back, at that point I should have been sent back home!

I was interviewed by the news editor, the late Felix Abisheganaden.

A few days after my interview, I received a letter of appointment signed by the editor-in-chief L.C. Hoffman asking me when I could start work. I telephoned him and he told me to report for work on April 1.

Thinking it could be an April Fool joke I asked: “Why April 1?”

He asked: “When can you come?”

I replied: “How about tomorrow?”

After a split second hesitation he said: “All right. See you tomorrow at 9am.”

On March 31, I was asked to go to the cashier to collect my salary and was scolded by him because he apparently had a difficult time working out the paltry sum he had to pay me.

My starting salary? RM150 (S$61) a month. Confirmation after three months earned me another RM110 — “a high cost of living allowance” of RM50 and a transport allowance of RM60. That was the beginning of my career in journalism.

Felix always teased me about how I first showed up for work — in a long black skirt, blue blouse and two pigtails.

When I asked him why he selected me if he thought my appearance was not sufficiently impressive, he said: “I knew there was substance in that brain of yours.”

He was my first guru in journalism. Others who guided me were Hoffman himself, his deputy Lee Siew Yee, leader writer Allington Kennard and managing editor Tan Sri Dr Noordin Sopiee. They madAfter the May 13, 1969 riots, I was one of the reporters who received a letter of appreciation from Hoffman, together with a gift of RM100.

I still remember my first day at work. I was assigned to follow a senior reporter on court rounds. My news editor told me that was the best place to learn the ropes, how to gather facts and write accurate stories. The trouble was the senior I was following was not keen to teach me anything because he thought journalism was not for women. He would often tell me I should be a teacher, like most women.

Writing stories I had to learn myself and, believe me, you learn pretty fast when the chief reporter makes you rewrite a story not less than four times until he was satisfied!

Today, I am grateful to him for his contribution in moulding me although at that time it was torture. I have covered most fields of reporting although I specialised in court reporting.

My colleagues often wondered how anyone could enjoy court reporting. I did. To me it was an arena with numerous players, myriad experiences, a tantalising mix of human behaviour, master plans to commit crime and mastery in analysis and whodunit.

Some of the famous trials I have covered include the Jean Sinappa murder trial, murder trial of former youth and sports minister Datuk Mokhtar Hashim, corruption trial of former Selangor menteri besar Datuk Harun Idris, corruption trial of the then Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, and the trial of the notorious criminal Wong Swee Hin, better known as Botak Chin, who was sentenced to death by the High Court for offences under the Internal Security Act.

Another very interesting trial I covered was that of 32-year-old Kingsley John Lewis, a Colombo Plan expert who was charged with murdering his wife Maria Theresa at their home in Bangsar Park, Kuala Lumpur. Maria Theresa, who was said to be a philandering and abusive wife, was slashed, cut up and then stuffed into a trunk on April 3, 1975. The trunk was buried in their garden.

Lewis said he killed her to stop her from harming their 14-month-old son. The jury found Lewis guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and he was only jailed as it was a crime of passion.

Gender discrimination was prevalent in the 1960s, not among my bosses but my peers. They did not want a female in what they termed was a man’s world.

One of the key players in the campaign to oust me was a reporter who decided to play on my fear of creepy, crawly creatures.

One morning I found a frog in my drawer and let out a scream so loud that it brought the entire floor running. On the days that followed I found a lizard, a baby crocodile, a snake and a cicada. I ignored them and the reporter soon got fed up. The creatures were, of course, all imitations.

Today the editorial floor is filled with women — reporters covering news, crime and politics, doing economic writing, features, education and entertainment. Name it and we have it. There are also female graphics artists and photographers, and sub-editors who work till 2am.

My newspaper has come a long way from its Robson House days, sandwiched between two motor showrooms — Wearne Brothers and Orchard Motors. That building now houses Magnum.

I have had great experiences with the newspaper. How many people can say they have had tea with Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne and spoken to them? This was on Feb 22, 1972, at Istana Tetamu in Kuala Lumpur when they were on an official visit here. The Queen showed tremendous interest in women’s affairs in Malaysia and said she was happy to see a female reporter in this country.

I have also interviewed one of the early Raja Permaisuri Agong, former United States president’s wife Lady Bird Johnson, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, Indian classical singers Dr M. Balamurali Krishna and Dr K.J. Yesudas, veena player Chitti Babu, and bharathanatyam dancer cum actress Vyjayanthimala, to name a few.

One of the unforgettable characters I have known was the former Lord President of the Federal Court, the late Tun Mohammad Suffian Hashim, who told me to always be humble and do my job well without expecting rewards — and that God will look after me. He lived true to his words. His advice to me, pearls of wisdom, were shared by my other mentor, the late Dr G.A. Sreenevasan, an urologist.

And how can I not mention the late Datuk David Marshall, a criminal lawyer and Singapore’s first chief minister, or Federal Court judge the late Tan Sri Harun Hashim who match-made me with my husband who was then a court interpreter.

Another lovely personality I came to know was the late Tun Sir James Thomson, the first Lord President of the Supreme Court. This was formerly the title of the head of judiciary in Malaysia.

What about the late Tan Sri H.T. Ong, also a Chief Justice, who proposed the toast at my wedding. All these people were such fine personalities with high principles who left indelible impressions in my life.

I have so much to be thankful for. I have loads of experiences and happy memories. If I could live my life again, I would relive my last 50 years with the New Straits Times.e a tremendous impact on my life.

Source: New Straits Times

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