Today is Malaysiakini’s 8th year as a free media. Really, how time flies. I remember joining the Malaysiakini family when it was a mere babe of 8 months. But this post is not about myself. It is dedicated to my former boss, Steven Gan, who made it all happen. In fact, he was the one who made the dreams of all of us who ever dared to dream of a true, independent press in Malaysia, come true. Not trying to carry your balls, Steven, but this is what I think.
Steven is an independent editor, who told me bluntly at my job interview in 2000, if you are supporting any political party, drop your membership. We are like judges, he said, we can’t be too friendly with any sides.
He is a shining example of what a courageous and brave editor should be and must be, if ever, journalists are too earn the respect they deserve. But more than courage or bravery, Steven allowed us journalists to be independent minded. He gave us freedom to pursue stories, topics and issues, which were relevant and controversial. As long as you can convince him that your news matters (as in Malaysiakini’s tagline ‘news and views’ that matter), you can have your story.
Steven believed in making democratic decisions which included the staff. He was often challenged and criticised in staff meetings but he took it all in his stride. He was hard-hitting and honest in his evaluation of us, but we had the chance to tell him what we thought of him as well.
Steven had very high standards but he was willing to train new journalists like me, who could write poetry and commentaries, but not hard news. But trained me he did, and I managed to produce some ground-breaking news and exclusives during my time as a Malaysiakini journalist. There were times I was ticked off by politicians who were upset with my stories, but my boss always defended me, which was definitely encouraging.
He was always making sure we do not parrot the style of government owned media. He was quick to change our leads if he noticed a wisp of ‘mainstream’ thinking. With Malaysiakini, we were told to flex our muscles, spread our wings, and venture into new territories.
Our main concern was to be a voice for the voiceless, for the weak and oppressed. Politicians must be made accountable, there must be hard questions, we did not sit and laugh together with ministers. In fact, as a journalist then, I remember pursuing my own stories, in order to escape going for press conferences called by the prime minister or his goons. Yes, the air-cond and the pastries would be superb, but no thanks.
Like I said, Steven was a tough act to follow. He worked long hours in the office and it seemed like nothing could drag him away from the computer screen. When he got married several years ago to one of the most brilliant woman I know, Prangtip, we were all very happy for him. And you can imagine why. Hahaha!
Well, the long and dark hours were taking a toil on his complexion that even Mr. Gan Senior looked younger than Gan Junior. You see, Gan Senior was a handsome man and provided us girls with some distraction when he walked in. He was very kind, too, as he used to bring us lots of papayas when he visited Junior in the office.
But like his dad, Steven had a good heart. He and his wife visited me in Penang when my father was dying in hospital in 2003. Prangtip brought me a green plant. To me, it signified “life”, though my father died within 3 months. And life was never the same again for me. I had to leave Malaysiakini at that time to take care of my mom in Penang, though I continued to freelance for the news website. Although we haven’t met for sometime, when Steven met me in Bangkok in May this year, he gave me a warm hug, as he often did whenever we met.
I really do not know what’s he like now but Steven was a very flexible boss. He allowed his reporters to sleep in the office after overtime, or those who went home, could come later the next morning. He was a simple guy who shared office chores with us like cleaning the toilet. We all did it volunatrily as the cleaning lady only came once a week. We had a cosy office in PJ Section 14 at that time. We shifted to Bangsar in 2001, and things were never quite the same after that.
It was never quite the same, because for example, we were told to wear formal clothes – no T-shirts and jeans. With our low-paying job, we couldn’t afford. Steven, too, had to discard his blue jeans for his white or blue shirt and dark blue pants. He didn’t wear any other colors. It became his uniform.
In Bangsar, we became much more “business-like” and much more “occupied”. It was noticeable in Steven’s dwindling editorials. He used to write on a weekly/fortnightly basis. Now we see his ‘quarterly’ editorial. Hope it doesn’t deteriorate further to a bi-annual editorial.
But more than that, we started covering more press conferences called by the PM or his machais. Why? We had to be “balanced” in our news reporting. We were already accused of being “an Opposition newspaper”. Sigh, the accusations were vicious. No government person wanted to talk to us at that time, not even (ex) Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He called us “traitor” on national TV. But now, being sidelined and ignored, he is a frequent guest on Malaysiakini. What an opportunist!
All in all, it was a good exprience, working for Malaysiakini, and having a boss like Steven. Daring to push the envelopes of free speech, testing the boundaries. It becomes a habit that is hard to break. Even now, I sometimes feel the urge to file stories, instead of merely cutting and pasting news by other agencies. When there is a “news that matters” on the horizon, like the Altantuya story, I am driven by my training, to respond, to inquire, and to investigate.
Malaysiakini taught me that a free media cannot exist unless the editors, journalists and the readers decide they want an independent press that tells the truth. A government owned media cannot be free, truth is limited, and independence non-existence, no matter how its editors and journalists try to justify their work and existence.
Which is why, I am so grateful we now have blogs. In fact, it was also Malaysiakini that drove me to start a blog. So I must say “Thank you, Steven Gan”. Thank you for the past 8 years. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of what Malaysia can achieve by having a free and independent press. Hope there will be many, many more “exciting and controversial” years to come for Malaysiakini.
Though, I am afraid, Malaysiakini can only exist in its true form, if Malaysians truly and honestly are prepared for a free and independent press.