The night I ambushed Ho Ching, and other tales from the trenches



March 25th, 2009

Karen Yap, a Malaysian journalist in Singapore on the inaugural Asia Journalism Fellowship programme, speaks to journalism students at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, NTU.

Good morning everyone. I’m honoured to be here today, to share with you my experiences. I want to tell you three stories from my life.

My first story is about love.

I first wanted to be a reporter when I was about 10 years old, after watching an evening news where a female broadcaster was reporting from a war-torn country. Aside from X-Men and Spiderman, I thought she was another coolest person that I could add into my ambition list – including the bullet-proof vest, safety helmet and the explosions and army tanks. Thirteen-years later, I did become a journalist but minus the war paraphernalia.

Little did I know that being a journalist is a lot of hard work. It is not as glamorous as most people imagine it to be. Unlike the most of you here, I did not go to a communication or media school until much later in my journalistic career. I came from the school of hard knocks: I was put in the deep-end without assistance, and was told to swim as hard as I can in order not to sink. Hence, my formative years as a journalist were a difficult phase, but with steep learning curves.

I spent long hours rewriting my stories, to get the grammar, context and quotation right, following heated exchanges with the copy editors. There were days where my stories went into the dumps. There were days where my name didn’t appear along with my story because the editors felt it was not good enough to warrant a byline. Or, the four walls of the newsroom could hear the silly mistakes that I did in the stories, no thanks to the screaming editors who were trying to meet deadlines.

Two things to remember: Like artists, journalists take it to heart when their works are criticised. You cannot please everyone. I know these feelings very well. It is normal to feel that way when you’re in the industry. To stay in the game, I have no choice but to swallow this bitter pill (and quietly curse the whole world) while vowing to find ways to proof my critics wrong. This is a lesson on endurance and persistence. Journalists need this trait to survive. For with a thick-skin attitude, a strong-will replaces shyness and you’ll find no qualms in seizing your subjects for answers. You will gain this lesson through experience and exposure.

While we’re on this subject, there was once where I waited for four hours at a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur for Madam Ho Ching, the CEO of Temasek Holdings. This was in 2004 when Temasek Holdings was rumoured to be seeking for an equity stake in a Malaysian bank. This is a sexy story because it has cross-border political and business appeal. Every business reporter in town were eyeing for an exclusive story on Temasek, specifically with Madam Ho Ching. I was assigned to this story, and I naturally called up Temasek for an interview but they declined, as usual. Then, I got to know that Madam Ho Ching was due to be in KL for a closed-door conference with bankers at a five-star hotel at 6pm.

On that fateful day, Business Times Singapore, Reuters, Malaysia’s Straits Times and The Star were there, staking outside the conference room like vultures ready to pounce on the next opportunity. As time passed, one reporter after another dropped out. By 10pm, I was the only one left waiting. I was hungry, doubtful and nervous because my editors were waiting for my news feed (that is if I can get Madam Ho Ching to talk). I also had this fear that perhaps Ho Ching might have gone home through a secret door.

Then, out of no where Ho Ching appeared with an entourage of assistants and bankers. As I walked up to her, the important-looking people with their expensive suits gave me the cold, hard stare. It is part of intimidation tactics, which you’ll encounter in the course of reporting, but because I’d developed a thick-skin, conditioned by criticism, and had the underdog mentality, the cold stares didn’t deter me from asking her the question.

I smiled at Ho Ching. She stopped walking. I introduced myself, gave her my name card, asked for a minute or so of her time, and before she could say yes or no, I immediately shoot her the question that is on every reporter’s lips: Is Temasek actively seeking to acquire a stake in Alliance Bank in the next six months? She did give an answer. In a nutshell, she said Temasek is actively seeking for buy opportunities in Malaysia’s banking sector as it liberalises. This says a lot from the commonly known tight-lipped Temasek. I phoned-in to my editor to convey the news; the editor decided to use it to beef up the front cover story, which was already written by my colleague. Ho Ching’s quote helped strengthen the story. By the time I reached home, it was already midnight. My stomach no longer screamed for food. This is love mixed with endurance and persistence for you. The following day, we were the only newspaper who had this exclusive story, quoting Ho Ching. The share price of the bank went up.

Truth be told, I learnt interviewing skills by observing others. I spent hours in front of the Bloomberg TV or BBC every morning, watching how TV reporters pose questions to experts, their body language during the interviews, and why they ask such questions. By knowing the intent of the questions, I learnt which stories are newsy. I also observe the questions that my competitors and peers asked during press conferences, and later read their stories to see the outcome. Really, it’s like connecting the dots.

Don’t be afraid of ‘stupid’ questions. If your source gives you a vague or complex answer, ask him or her to elaborate. You can say: “I want to make sure I clearly understand this so I can explain it in simple terms to my readers.” Or, you can say: “Let me make sure I understand correctly. Did you mean to say …” Sources will usually relent because they want articles to be accurate. There are, of course, stupid questions. Don’t ask a politician what a Parliamentary system is. Or, don’t ask a banker what is an interest rate. You should do your homework in advance.

I remember clearly my first time asking questions during a press conference. My hands were sweating profusely; my heart was racing and if you were sitting beside me, I bet you could hear thud, thud, thud; my mind was in a jumble as I try to formulate the questions in my head so that I don’t sound stupid. Because I was so intent in getting the questions right and when I did ask the questions, everything in the room seemed invisible to me – it was just between me and the subject, throwing questions and answers at each other. It takes several press conferences to get used to, but before long, you’ll be able to approach your subjects with confidence as if they are old friends.

The other thing to remember is that those who do not speak well, does not often mean they are bad writers and vice versa. Speaking and writing are two different sets of skills.

My second story is about courage.

I must say my love for reading helps tremendously in knowing which issues make news. When I was in college, I love to read the Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune and Reader’s Digest because I found the stories engaging, entertaining, and very much human. I marvelled at the effortless, concise and beautifully-crafted writings. To be a well-informed journalist, you have to get your hands on reading. To improve your writing, observe how your favourite news stories were written. As a practice, try reading poetry or religious books such as the Bible, Quran or Buddhist scriptures. You’ll find beauty in how words were crafted and string together in such books. That aside, I have a weird habit: The first thing that I do in any country is to visit the bookstores or newsstands to get a fix on the local papers and magazines.

Why did I say reading is important? It would be easier for you tackle a subject matter if you are aware of the surrounding issues. For instance, I was on familiar ground when I pursued a story on Burmese refugees in Thailand. I knew about the repression, human rights violation and atrocities in Burma from Human Rights Watch reports, books by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, news reports, and activists. More importantly, I’d ground experience to be familiar with the Burma issue. I’ll tell you how I arrived to have in-depth information.

It was during a press conference in Bangkok that I met Khun Banya, a Burmese refugee activist based in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. I told him that I’m interested to see with my own eyes the situation in the refugee camps in Thailand for a feature report for my news organisation. I proposed the idea to my editor and it was approved.

But first, we had to sort out a tricky situation: You see, the refugee camp was guarded by Thai authority and no one is allowed to stay overnight including the doctors, teachers and volunteers assigned to work at the camp. The authority rarely grants permission for journalists to go to these camps. So we decided that the only way to get in is through the backdoor, which is a five to nine hour trek in the dense forest, depending on your fitness level. On hindsight, if we had not unlawfully entered the camp, I would not have seen what’s festering there and subsequently write a story about it. Sometimes, you need courage to pursue certain stories.

That was the start of an unforgettable experience. Khun Banya and I trekked for six hours in a dense forest that borders Thailand and Burma. It was a different world there. Along the way, we bumped into hill tribe people who were on their way to the nearest market to sell vegetables and handicraft. Burmese refugees, who managed to escape from the camp, were on their way to the nearest Thai village in search of jobs. The trek turned out to be dangerous with most of the paths as narrow as half an inch next to the ravine. It is not surprising to hear cases of refugees who slip and fell to their deaths during the monsoon season. If not for Khun Banya’s agility and quick thinking, I would not have been here sharing the experience with you today.

In my excitement for this story, I overlooked a fact: safety. It slipped my mind that the forest is laden with landmines. I went for the trek with one aim: to get a story. Period.  The landmines and my lack of consideration for my own safety only seriously registered a few weeks after the publication of the story, while I was talking to a fellow Thai reporter, who highlighted the landmines, and concluded that I was mad enough to have done the trek. I felt lucky then. Perhaps, ignorance is bliss, sometimes.

I stayed with the refugees at the camp for three days. Without knowledge of the Thai army, the camp’s self-appointed leader, formerly a Burmese teacher and artist, concealed me in an abandoned, dilapidated shack when the army came for their daily evening inspection.

While in the camp, I met 18 children, aged between seven to 19-years-old, who walked for a month in the forest from Burma. Their quest? Merely to seek for education in Thailand. Their parents sent them away, knowing that they may not see their children again. Why, you may ask. The schools in Burma are either too expensive due to high inflation or the children may end up serving the army. One of the children lost her leg when she stepped on a landmine in the forest.

The other important people that I met were the child soldiers, who were robbed of their childhood that so much so they view life with incomprehensible maturity beyond their age. I was taken aback by such contrast to my own childhood. About 11 to 14 years old, they were already talking about how to make money and migrate to a third country. There was no sparkle in their eyes due to their flight and plight. My heart truly goes out to them.

It was difficult to write about the child soldiers. As a journalist, you have to maintain your credibility, ethics and fairness. You also have to respect your subjects. I chose not to photograph the child soldiers because they were under-age and more importantly, I was afraid of inviting retribution to them.

For once, I did not treat a story with much bravado as I usually would especially on big stories such as this one. I didn’t care about the competition. I didn’t care if I was the first. That was a turning point for me as a journalist. The child soldiers, in their own ways, taught me that there is more to a story than just being the first to report it, or getting recognition, or seeing your name in print. Although I started out seeking for this big story because like any journalists, I titillate for the recognition to be the award-winning or best journalist – contributed by this underdog mentality – and I ended up, not only feeling lost, but I started to question my principles as a journalist and as a person. For the first time also, I felt small, paralysed, and angry against society and governments for allowing such heinous acts of violation to fester in Burma and elsewhere in the world. I had a tough time writing this story – not because it was a difficult subject but because I had to balance it, to be fair to the Thai government as well. After completing the story, I felt depressed and cried very hard for the children. I was angry at those who were leading the lavish lifestyle with no care in the world or to those who turned their backs to societal problems.

I say this because if you are seeking for fame and fortune, journalism is not the right place. As a journalist, we have a role to play. We have to report the truth, to be the bridge between the government and the people, to inform, to educate, and to protect the interests of the people.

My third story is about understanding.

The other thing that I want to touch-on is dealing with perceptions and prejudices. In Malaysia, it is easy to grow up prejudiced against Islam. The religion is constantly deemed as a ‘sensitive’ subject in the country. Non-Muslim parents fear for their daughters or sons would end up marrying a Muslim. Tragic stories such as mothers losing custody of their children because they were deemed to be unsuitable than their Muslim-born spouse in raising their children in the faith, were common. Sometimes, we hear of families fighting for the body of their loved ones because the deceased had converted to Islam. Then, there are tales of women who convert to Islam to marry a Muslim man, only to have their Muslim husbands marry another, and sometimes, yet another, because they could. 9/11, the 2005 London bombings, and recently the attacks in Mumbai made matters worse as Muslim communities were thrown into unfavourable light. Through several occasions, I met people – Westerners or Asians alike – who are Islamicphobia due to some of the reasons given above. It is disturbing, not because of the differences in opinion, but because of the perceived notion that is behind disliking people of the Islamic faith.

One of the great things about being a journalist is that you get access to the experts. Through numerous encounters, interviews and discussion groups about Islam, I’ve learnt that Islam doesn’t promote polygamy. Scholars say anybody – Muslims or non-Muslims – has a right to speak about Islam and question its practices. Similarly, jihad is not at all about taking revenge. Jihad means to struggle. Resistance such as writing or campaigning against corrupt practices is jihad. Being away from loved ones to pursue higher learning is also jihad. Quietly defend your principles when nobody seems to agree with you is also jihad. When you have been wrongly accused and you stood your ground that is also jihad.

We, as journalists or aspiring journalists, have to debunk our perceptions and prejudices first – on any issues – before we could start writing because without understanding, it would amount to a half-baked story or worse, promote disparity, narrow-mindedness and bigotry.

I’m not sure about you but I do believe that there are reasons why you meet someone or being thrown into a situation. Only when I started working in Thailand and India, I was forced to deal more with Islam and Muslims due to the conflicts in Southern Thailand, Kashmir in Northern India and Pakistan. Several people made it possible for me to better understand the faith and its community: the villagers in Southern Thailand, Kashmiris, a butler from Kolkata, clerics at a madrasah in Pakistan, and the Afghan refugees.

Before I end my talk, I want to say the painful realities of being a journalist are often tempered by the joyous struggles of the profession: dogged reporting, graceful writing, ethics, all within a moral framework of a profession that continues to draw our best and brightest – young journalists, and older ones – who are determined to beat journalism’s reaper as well as deadline’s ticking clock.

Journalism is a business of proving yourself anew every single story, every single day … None of us are in this for the money or the acclaim. As you begin a career in journalism in the near future, I wish you all to stay anew every single day.

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