Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Navigating the newsroom I

News Editor, Samani Amin,
was detained a week after
I was hired.
There were two other rookies---SS and MM---who reported to work on the same day on that hot and humid June morning in 1976. Like me, the two of them had failed their first attempts at the HSC examinations. Hence, they were elated to be chosen from the throngs of applicants and short-listed candidates who sat through the rigorous written tests and the gruelling interview sessions.

There were no formal in-house training in those days. We were thrown into the deep end and had to frantically thread water to keep afloat. SS and MM were eager beavers who wouldn't think of taking a tea break or playing truant before they obediently handed in four copies of their news stories into the stack of wire trays at the center of our corner. I tried to toe the line but, somehow or other, I was always late for the company transport (if one was available) or had inadvertently forgotten to book a photographer for my first few assignments.          

It made perfect sense then that I was the last of the rookies to earn a 'by-line' or credit to my news reports. It was well into the first month of our probationary period when Saad Hashim, who took over as news editor after Samani was detained, finally granted me my first by-line. It was based on a write-up of a PC by the Paper Dolls, a Filipino transvestite performing troupe. I was moved by his charity. He had generously overlooked my occasional tardiness and absent-mindedness. Alas, my joy was short-lived when he had my last name wrong!

How could he mistook a Badarudin for a Jusoh? Was he pulling my leg? Or was it just an after-thought? No matter, Nazir and my work-mates celebrated my first by-line. They assured me that I had grasped some rudiments of news reporting, that I was not totally out of depths. Still, I felt that I made through the three-month probationary period by the skin of my teeth. And my suspicions were confirmed when I was assigned to Jelita, a new women's magazine in Malay published by Berita Publishing (BP), the newly set-up magazine section on the top floor of the NSTP building. 

Although writing for magazines, especially women's magazines, was deemed as 'fluff' (imagine light and fluffy as cotton candy), it was a great opportunity to have well-known literary writers---Adibah Amin, Zaharah Nawawi and Salmah Mohsin---as mentors.

Endearingly known to underlings as Kak Adib, Adibah Amin was chosen as the first editor of Jelita. Like other fans of her popular column in the NST, As I was Passing, I was smitten by her keen observation and erudite writing style. Not only was she a graduate of the University of Malaya in Singapore in the early 1950's, but she was a former headmistress of a reputable all-girls residential school, a published author of two novels---Bangsawan Tulen and Gadis Sipu---by the time she was fifteen, a script writer and actor for radio dramas, and a champion of women's rights "within the accepted boundaries of Eastern culture"---mengikut batas-batas sempadan budaya timur!

(It was through Mad magazine that I was acquainted with the caricatures of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem---the icons of the Women's Liberation Movement in the 1960's. Some of Moon's 'groupie' friends at the Jay Bee Blues' Pot-Parties in the early 70's had gleefully supported Women's Lib---not by burning, no, but by dispensing with their bras---much to the delight of the band boys and their male hangers-on. 

When I was swotting for my Malay Literature paper in Form Six, I learned that the fight for 'women's emancipation' in pre-WWII Malaya was, ironically, championed by progressive male writers. Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi and Ahmad Rashid Talu were two authors who delved into taboo topics such as Love Marriages and Modernization of Malay Women in terms of education, movement and attire in their novels, Hikayat Faridah Hanum and Iakah Salmah?, which were both charged of being plagiarized.)  

I was full of admiration for senior journalists and editors like Cheong Mei Sui and Adibah Amin who went about inspiring and blazing the trail for junior reporters such as myself without so much as torching their undergarments. In fact, they were the epitome of femininity, with their demure clothes, dainty gaits and breathless voices. I felt rough and uncouth whenever I crossed their paths.   

I didn't know much about Mei Sui's background but Kak Adib had a ready-made role model in her mother, Ibu Zain (Zainon Sulaiman), an 'emancipated woman' who published magazines in the late 1930's (which was 'a first' for a Malay woman in the pre-Pacific War years) and ardently fought alongside her male compatriots for Malaya's Independence. 

Featuring 'First Woman' in male-dominated domains---First Woman Minister, First Woman Doctor, First Woman Judge, First Woman Director of a Government Agency, First Woman President of the Pan Malaysia Lorry-Owners Association, so on and so forth---was thought to inspire young women and girls to reach for greater heights in their chosen career paths.

However, in the actual newsroom, apart from Kak Adib and Mei Sui, very few women held top management posts. Many were content to be sub-editors and head Women, Features, Entertainment and Literary desks once they became wives and mothers. It was pretty much male-dominated and patriarchal. The male reporters in the Malay papers were, unabashedly, Male Chauvinist Pigs (MCP) and the females just shrugged them off and went about their work unfazed by the raunchy vocabulary of the editorial floor. 

Newspaper organizations then resembled large clans who tolerated members' idiosyncrasies and looked out for each other's welfare. Even the terms used were familial---Pak Samad (Ismail), Abang Samad (Said), Kak Sal and Kak Jee.                  

Big Sis---Fauziah Samad aka Jee

Best Buddy---Jalil Salleh aka Juwie
Role Model---Adibah Amin aka Kak Adib

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