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Roller coaster ride with Malay Mail

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ON the last day of our journalism course in 1990, then New Straits Times group editor Datuk Kadir Jasin solicited questions.

Mine was simple, and perhaps rather naive: Can I join The Malay Mail?

From Kadir’s mouth, a curt reply daggered my way.“You can decide when you become the group editor,” he said, effectively ending all debate on my placement upon graduating from the Pre-entry Journalism Training course.

A few days later, I was inducted as a rookie reporter with The Malay Mail — the start of a colourful, roller coaster journey lasting 16 years under the NSTP group, and then another five under Gabungan Kesturi Sdn Bhd and Redberrry Media Group.

Why The Malay Mail?

It had all the right ingredients of a paper with a mission: fighting for the average Joe without fear or prejudice, prioritising human interest, good story telling opportunity, ability to enact changes, countless crusades to champion right causes…and all the while, perched closely to being apolitical.

Its staple was a daily dose of investigative reporting, the crowd favourite Hotline, racy entertainment pieces, sports section, and its Classifieds segment.

It was really more than a newspaper, it was a big brother that could be depended on.

Through its Malay Mail Charity Fund, for example, it had helped raised millions for the underprivileged, in need of medical funds, started campaigns such as the crowd-funding 1982 World Cup via a suggestion by a Hotline reader that Malaysians chip in RM1 each to bring the world’s biggest sporting events “live” via the telly when sponsorship was hard to come by then.

I once read a book on famous quotes by Malaysian personalities, and Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, when asked if there was a need to set up a hotline for a cause which has escaped my flailing memory, cheekily replied: “We don’t need a hotline. Malay Mail already has one”.

It was both a paper that cares and scares; soft and empathic when championing causes of the downtrodden; unyielding and hard when confronting the wrongdoers and criticising for the better.

One particular case I vividly recall was the case of a missing boy in 2007. We printed 10,000 posters in the weekend edition to get people to assist in locating Mohamad Nazrin Shamsul Ghazali, or Yin as he was fondly referred to.

He was just five at the time when he vanished while shopping in Kuala Lumpur with his parents, who hailed from Perak.

The paper had asked the help of Malaysians and it gained traction with motoring clubs, bloggers, the Malaysian Bar, among others, joining in to locate Yin.

The late Rehman Rashid wrote how in mosques, temples and churches across the land, special observances were held for Yin.

“Within the first week of his disappearance, newspapers, radio and TV were calling out his name in all languages; The Malay Mail distributed 10,000 posters of his picture and the numbers to call, then reprinted it as a full page in the paper every day for a week.

“By email, SMS and the Internet, the word went out to look for Yin. People offered money. Ministers lent their weight; political parties and non-governmental organisations their personnel. This wasn’t just the work of a few key individuals and good Samaritans. Yin’s disappearance gave the nation a visceral clutch of fear and anger.”

Two weeks to the day after Yin vanished in April that year, a woman emerged with the boy, his head shaven.

He had been looked after by a family of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, living with them at Sentul Pasar.

For years, the father would send me Raya greetings to express his gratitude, via the paper, to Malaysians who had helped.

I had served under Sallehuddin Othman, Datuk Fauzi Omar, Datuk Ahiruddin “Rocky” Atan (twice), Zulkifli Jalil, Tony Francis, A. Sri K Nayagam and worked with legends like Frankie D Cruz, R Nadeswaran, Badrolhisham Bidin, Eddie Chua, Lionel Morais, Yusri Azmin, Ian Pereira, Johnson Fernandez, Jaffry Azman, to name a few.

Under Sallehuddin and Fauzi, we were a Klang Valley newspaper and up till 1997, was the single most profitable unit in the NSTP group.

The Asian financial crisis in 1997/98 saw the paper losing its grip on classifieds, and along with it, circulation numbers.

When Rocky became the editor, the paper went regional; starting offices in Johor Baru, Malacca, Ipoh and Penang.

In slightly more than a year, the circulation grew from sub-30,000 copies to more than 60,000.

That journey was, again, short-lived, and a decision was made to revert back to being a Klang Valley newspaper.

It went through a radical change, converted into a lifestyle brand, and some would have remembered the suspension of Weekend Mail.

It was testing time for all Mailers then.

Circa 2008, it was sold to Gabungan Kesturi, under Datuk Ibrahim Nor, with a hybrid focus on Klang Valley and national news.

Under editor-in-chief Tony Francis, it tried to revive the old flavour, albeit with some national news infusion.

There was growth but was a financially difficult model to sustain. The paper was then sold to the Redberry Group under Datuk Siew Ka Wai, and became a free paper before being printed as a paid model as a morning newspaper.

It has been a good journey.

And we have put up a valiant fight.

It is an emotional day that this is the Old Lady’s final day on print but she is far from her last breath. Still, the legacy lives on…

Datuk Yushaimi Yahaya is
currently editor-in-chief of New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd