A taste of a reporter's life - Abdullah Ahmad

17 Aug 1996

. . . continued from page 1

Getting people to agree to an interview can be tiresome. A senior and influential Malay civil servant who has since died and who was an old Malay collegian offered me an attractive job in the government service so that he would not have to refuse my fourth request for an off-the-record interview. He became my major source of information between 1957-1960.

The most accessible man was the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra - an easy man to interview, and a particularly gracious leader and host. Tun Razak was very selective who he saw.

I would find as much information as possible about my subjects, what they liked or disliked, if he was an old Malay collegian I would normally start off by talking about Kuala Kangsar, his Malay College days, and then subtly steer him, or rather we gradually found ourselves straying, towards the subject I had come to talk about. So likewise, with the others.

I would draw them to talk about their school days or university experiences. I never failed to get them to share their joys achievements, frustrations or disappointments at school.

The significance of this was to act as the frame for the questions which would make my subject comfortable with me and I with him.

In my first interview with the Tunku, I asked him why he was not sent to the MCKK like his older brothers. He gave me a long explanation and spoke fondly of his alma mater the Penang Free School (PFS). He, however, sent his only son, Tunku Ahmad Nerang to MCKK. He was a year ahead of me, but left MCKK before completing his studies.

I did not do a one-to-one interview with Tun Razak until nearly two years after I joined The Straits Times. He and his wife, Toh Puan Rahah (now a Tun in her own right), were kind to me.

I was a general reporter as opposed to being a specialist such as a crime reporter or a sports writer. Although I was a generalist, my superiors, Miller and Felix Abisheganaden, (now editorial advisor of Tattler Malaysia), normally assigned me to cover Umno and Malay politics. They were good to me, though task masters. I learned a lot from them.

I never knew anyone until then, who could write shorthand and transcribe as fast as Felix. He seemed to take everything verbatim and in full context to keep alive the immediacy of two persons conversing.

Interviewing and writing about famous Malaysians of all races was in many ways my education at the hands of those different people in their different professions. I owe each of them a great debt.

For young reporters I need to tell you this: my days as a reporter (journalist or correspondent if you want to be pompous) were great fun. There were not many orgies, but I do recall there was plenty of sex and many scenes of tremendous drunkenness. However, work never suffered. Then, all newspapers were published every day of the year Christmas, Hari Raya, Chinese New Year or Deepavali, no matter!

I would also advise young Malaysian journalists to seize an opportunity to take an initiative - even a stupid one for that is what is valuable about journalism and politics. And remember to "read, read and read" as widely as possible so that you can be both a storyteller and a reporter simultaneously. And, you need not have to have a first class honours from Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford or the London School of Economics to make it to the top.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the
United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )