A voice for the people

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OVER a lifetime working as a journalist across social, cultural and political boundaries, no newspaper or latter-day portal has so touched me as The Malay Mail.

The oldest newspaper going back to the Federated Malay States first blushed [note to ed: plse retain ‘blushed’] me with the SYTs of SH Tan as a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old cadet to its heyday as Public Servant #1 22 years later, when I left in search of learning of my calling.

Public Servant #1 is a big claim to make, but as colleague of later vintage Frankie D’Cruz would remind us, The Malay Mail has the “paper” to show for it.

No newspaper that I knew of before The Malay Mail, or since, had fostered in its readers such faith in a paper’s servanthood — and sense of service in themselves — as to inspire this audacious idea of people giving RTM RM1 to televise live to the rakyat all of the matches of the 1982 football World Cup as it was able.

As “Soccer Fanatic” Peter Teo put it, what’s to stop RTM if a million Malaysians were to put their hands in their pocket to contribute RM1.

Teo could not have dreamt up the idea were it not for the go-to Hotline 443002 service of the then 86-year-old The Malay Mail, at the time emerging after seven months revamped as The Paper That Cares.

That was the tagline the paper had adopted after its transformation the
previous December.

With the revamp came Hotline 443002, for which Prime Minister Datuk Seri (later Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad presented The Malay Mail the Public Service Award in 1983.

Not least of the reasons was for the People’s Live Telecast Fund that Hotline 443002 sparked, which brought people on the street, Prime Minister and King at times rousing at dawn to watch the matches from Spain.

Hotline 443002 hit on the voice-of-the-people genre hitherto disdained as “longkang” journalism, for the drainage, potholed roads and telecoms woes the rakyat brought to the paper.

Yet it served a suppressed need of a people at a loss for voice against entrenched red tape. Hotline 443200 quickly became a rich vein of news-breaking front-page headline stories, precursor of today’s whistle-blower investigations in the pioneering spirit of justice of luminaries such as R. Nadeswaran, Frankie D’Cruz, Fabian Dawson and Ho Kay Tat.

News-breaking stories spun out into Malay Mail Insight behind-the-headlines investigations launched in company with Hotline 443200 in the revamp.

To conclude “the rest – as they say – is history” would be to consign the contribution of The Malay Mail in Malaysian media to the scrapheap of print journalism.

The “minnow” of media in Malaysia had found its way within the limitations of the time. It fired the imagination of the people on proactive engagement the way the media had to play the game – bringing the rakyat together through caring.

The ideas were drawn in-house, teased out at the end of the workday by a masterful then group editor of the New Straits Times Datuk Noordin (later Tan Sri) Sopiee, after the morning’s edition of The Mail had been put to bed.

As workings of the day allowed, over a period of weeks, staff headed by then editor Chuah Huck Cheng and news editor M.A. Razman would huddle in the room of Noordin brainstorming ideas, building on the signal event the paper then long owned, the Malay Mail Big Walk.

On December 15, 1981, The Paper That Cares was launched, with it, Hotline 443200 and the beginnings of a voice for the people in the media.

K.C. Boey feels privileged to have been among the brains trust of 1981 who went on to reap the benefits by association as editor from 1986 to 1989.