Sweet memories of ‘Typewriter MP’ Lee with afternoon tabloid

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KUALA LUMPUR — The country’s oldest English daily Malay Mail was the paper to read for Kuala Lumpur news and still brings back “sweet memories” for social activist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye.

Lee, 72, spent his 21-year political career keeping in close contact with the media, including Malay Mail, after he was elected an assemblyman in 1969.

The relationship with Malay Mail became even closer in 1972 when Lee was elected to Parliament.

“I was so close to them to the extent that I used to bring my typewriter into the Malay Mail office, and I started to prepare my press statements (there) and give it to Malay Mail.

“One day, Philip Mathews said, ‘It looks as if we have a new reporter who has joined us’,” he said, referring to the former news editor from the 1970s.

Typewriter MP is born

Lee would continue to bring his typewriter to the offices of news agencies until around 1980 when he started using fax machines.

As the Bukit Nanas assemblyman and MP of various seats, including the now-defunct Kuala Lumpur Bandar and Bukit Bintang, Lee said his public service included highlighting issues linked to the then numerous squatter areas and pothole-ridden roads, as well as helping hawkers and petty traders.

“I used to make statements every time these hawkers came and complained to me that they could not get a licence. I would take up their case, I would go to Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur, I would fight for them. Every time I took up an issue, I would issue a statement to the media to let the people know what I have done,” he said.

“I still remember the ’70s. Malay Mail was the paper in KL. In my constituency everybody wanted to buy Malay Mail. When people asked me what I had done, I told them read Malay Mail. ‘You want to know what I have done, what I have said, please buy Malay Mail. My views are all inside’.

“I am indeed indebted to Malay Mail because it gave me very prominent coverage, and as a result I was known among the people of Kuala Lumpur. Every time there was a problem they would look for Lee Lam Thye.”

Lee went on to garner several nicknames before retiring from politics in 1990, such as the “Father of Hawkers”, “The People’s MP”, and “The MP with the Typewriter”.

But even after retiring from politics, Lee continued to be a regular contributor of the “Letters to Editors” section in the paper, where he touched on non-political issues such as national unity, safety and health at work, mental health, social ills such as drug addiction, and problems faced by youths.

News at noon

Remembering Malay Mail as being a newspaper for urbanites in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, Lee recalled the paper’s noon edition in the Klang Valley that carried all the latest news.

“I still remember during lunch hour, even before I had my lunch, the first thing I did was get a copy of Malay Mail. And all my friends went out and bought the paper, too.

“The favourite of Malay Mail were the local authorities. They wrote a lot about hawkers’ problems, flash floods, fires … we had big fires, squatter houses got burnt. Malay Mail also focused on social problems about drug addicts, and sometimes about crime,” he said, adding that the newspaper’s circulation then was an impressive 40,000 to 50,000 copies.

Lee recalled the popular columns by former editors such as the late Tan Siong Hoon, or S.H. Tan as he was better known, noting that readers would buy Malay Mail to read Tan’s columns which could include “juicy stories” and topics of human interest.

“He was a great writer. People looked forward to his column. Malay Mail was very popular. Everywhere you went, people talked about Malay Mail, especially S.H. Tan’s columns.

“He wrote about things which were very interesting; he wrote about life, anything that came to the mind and they were a wide range of subjects … talking about how to pick the right person to be your wife,” Lee said, adding that the editor was a committed man who worked long hours.

Lee also recalled working closely with former Malay Mail staffers such as the late Sri K. Nayagam and M.A. Razman, better known as Ratan Singh.

Digital reality

Lee, who confessed to be of the “old school” generation, still prefers touching and flipping through physical copies of newspapers.

He said he continued to keep up his practice of the past 38 years of cutting out newspaper clippings and sorting them according to topics as his own personal research archive.

“I would very much like to see the print edition of Malay Mail continue, but of course I also know the reality. We have to be realistic about what’s happening.

“News in print is no longer on the wishlist of many. Now all people are interested in is news they can get instantly with just a touch of the finger on all the gadgets,” he said, observing that the trend of immediate access to news online had caused newspaper sales to fall.

“This is something which is irreversible. Now people talk about the new era, the digital age. It’s something that is global, the whole world is living in the digital age. Malaysia cannot be left out from the mainstream. We have to move with the times.

“I still feel sad that I will no longer have a print copy of Malay Mail.

Lee said he did not know how long newspapers would be around, adding that “there may come a time when all these newspaper companies may have to see whether it is still worthwhile doing print”.

Congratulating Malay Mail over its print run just barely shy of its 122th anniversary, Lee said: “All these, to me, will remain sweet memories. Very nostalgic, as it takes me back to my early days when I had so many friends around and when I used to bring a typewriter to the newspaper offices. Brings me back to those years … It was fun for me, it was great.”