Caring paper made ordinary people extraordinary

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MALAY Mail will forever shine with a deep-rooted reputation as the Pied Piper of the common man.

With a canny grasp of the little people’s problems, the paper justly expressed everyday concerns.

It lived up brilliantly to its once revered slogan “The Paper That Cares” coined on Dec 15, 1981.

Mirroring an intimate reflection of Malaysian society, the paper’s ethos was to always put the everyday Malaysian in the centre of storytelling.

It was also a wrecking ball that fought with frightening intensity.

So, it was incredibly emotional trying to recall the spectacular stories during my close to 40 years with Malay Mail.

Malay Mail has always been about people — the people who built it, the people who wrote for it but most importantly the people who read it.

The paper’s brand of journalism was to express not to impress.

There is a thought that the 1980s and early 1990s was an invincible era for the afternoon Malay Mail.

Readership, advertising and circulation figures soared dramatically.

Newspaper sales topped the 100,000 mark when stories such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug 2, 1990 and the killing of notorious criminal “Bentong Kali” on June 29, 1993 gripped the nation.

So, I will parcel these memories, package to that period.

The paper’s strongest selling points then were five mainstays: Hotline, Mail Expose, Mail Inquiry, Mail Insight and Sport.

Game plan: uncover stories, not just cover news.

Clearly, the paper turbo-charged integration and community relations; spotlighted inspiring Malaysians and feel-good stories; and corrupt practices.

Also exemplary was the sportsdesk that set a magical tone in sports coverage and unparalleled talent scouting for future sporting stars.

Even before the government began its austerity drive in the 1980s, the paper had a column Cutting Corners which focused on areas where money could be saved.

In Your Neighbourhood drew neighbours together and made residents one big family.

Slick Hotline, launched in 1981, was not just a breath of fresh air but a tornado that blew everyone away.

Hotline was the bane of the bungling bureaucrat and the indifferent powers.

The paper had an amazing ability to tug at the heart strings of the public to rally for a cause such as children in need of medical care and the 1982 People’s Live Telecast Fund.

Money for needy children’s medical expenses was raised within 48 hours as in the case of baby Allan who in 1990 needed RM250,000 for an emergency operation in Australia.

Mail Expose was much like a shark with the reporters being instinctive and having an unquenchable scent of blood in the water.

In 1990, the paper led the crusade against child abuse after exposing the case of baby Balasundram who was bashed by his mother’s boyfriend and left for dead at the city’s general hospital.

The death of Balasundram was one of several cases that acted as a catalyst to the introduction of the Child Protection Act in 1991.

The story that never went away was Malay Mail phenom R.Nadeswaran walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur in 1981 as a bedraggled man with handcuffs dangling from his wrist — looking every inch a dangerous criminal.

It was a unique experiment in which I tailed Nadeswaran with two police officers and cameraman Yip Yee Kheong to gauge public apathy toward crime.

The gripping escapade on Sept 3, headlined Shocking found the Kuala Lumpur public sorely lacking in support to curb crime.

On the heels of that story, we delivered another heavy-duty expose So Easy To be a Cop that revealed for a fistful of ringgit you could walk into a shop and leave with all you need to dress up as a cop.

We went cop-shopping after a “police hero” in full uniform who helped in a fire in Brickfields turned out to be imposter “PC Maniam”.

Nadeswaran as a B-grade reporter and I on C grade scooped the Journalist of the Year Award in 1982.

Then prime minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his speech that night encouraged the media to venture into investigative journalism.

We did things differently then, breaking ground.

Illustrious editors like Chua Huck Cheng who became the youngest editor at 30, K.C. Boey, Salehuddin Othman, Ahmad Sebi Abu Bakar, Maurice Khoo, Joachim Ng and A.Sri K.Nayagam inspired reporters to:

Push back screens, peer behind facades and lift rocks to unearth hidden truths.

The stories we did were a sign of the times, a daring-do spunk that extracts the best and the worst in people.

Like when Nadeswaran and I spent two days and two nights in the new open prison in Marang to find out how the prisoners and authorities were coping with the open farm concept.

Our findings astonished critics who had been pushing for maximum security in prisons because of a series of jailbreaks then.

Another explosive exclusive that had reporter Badrolhisham Bidin and photographers C.H.Loh and Goh Seng Chong in the forefront was Privileged Prisoner.

It involved businessman Abdullah Ang who was a free man despite serving a four-year jail term for criminal breach of trust.

Instead of being locked up, he was out in the open helping a family business in Kuala Lumpur.

The Abdullah Ang saga that originated from a tip-off to then news editor, the late Nayagam, resulted in a massive clean-up of the prisons in Malaysia.

The story got the paper the 1989 Malaysia Press Institute Journalist of the Year and Best Photography awards.

Special mention should go to the Seremban office where I began as a stringer in 1977 under the indefatigable Kek Soo Beng and later the relentless James Ritchie.

The tireless pair of Ronnie Krishnan and photographer Leong Weng Onn helped ensure Seremban delivered the highest number of scoops among all branches.

Hotshot Fabian Dawson spread the Malay Mail culture when he left Malaysia for Canada in 1988.

He pounded it into his Vancouver colleagues as assignment editor, news editor and deputy editor-in-chief of The Province.

Malay Mail stories were told through the prism of the affected rather than the rhetoric of pundits, politicians, public servants and police.

“It may not have always worked. But when it did, it provided clarity for the reader and the journalist,” said Dawson, now a media specialist.

Prolific is the word that springs to mind when one thinks about the opus and personality of Sheila Natarajan-Rahman.

The highlight of our investigative comradeship was in 1981 when we uncovered the controversial cult, the Moonies, who had set up base in Petaling Jaya.

Malay Mail print has had a complicated adventure but it will always be remembered as “feisty, fun and frank”.

It’s a credit to the celebrated alumni of this paper who over the years at their liveliest made the structure daring and disciplined.

Sometimes, it was fun and easy. Sometimes it was a bitch.

It’s not the end of the story. The current crop of Mailers who will focus on digital Malay Mail is the next big thing.

But now we say a sad but a very proud farewell to the loyal readers of a Malaysian institution that has breathed its last after 122 years.

Thank you and goodbye.

Frankie D’Cruz continues to pursue journalism with monastic devotion having spent some 40 years with Malay Mail, the last two as Editor Emeritus.