Balai Berita: More than a newsroom with Munir Majid

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By New Straits Times - 

EDITORS who had led the storied 'New Straits Times' speak about the newspaper's legacy and its future as the paper turns 174 years old today.

Describing his tenure as group editor as the “wonderful New Straits Times years”, Tan Sri Mohd Munir Abdul Majid, who was with NST from 1979 to 1986, said the newspaper was a venerable institution.
 

Comparatively, NST was established 174 years ago and was older than The New York Times (168 years), although not as old as The Times of London (234 years).

 

“My time at the NST is only a small part of its illustrious history, but they were truly wonderful years.

“Starting as leader writer at the beginning of 1979 until I left as group editor at the end of March 1986, my greatest memories are of the spirit about the place, the many strong characters and some of the very best journalistic writers in the country.

“Yes, there were challenges, such as being kept on a tight political leash, and therefore on the back foot against The Star newspaper, which was conceived as anti-establishment and independent.

“Of course, it was not, being owned by MCA,” said Munir, 71.

“It is good now that we are moving to a situation where the media is not controlled by political parties. In any case, if the conventional media were politically-controlled, it will soon be totally swallowed up by social media,” he said.

“We pushed the boundaries as much as we could... we still managed to write some crisp leaders and feature articles.”

Munir covered extensively the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Manila, the Philippines, in 1979, and on many overseas trips interviewed personalities, like the then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Pakistani president General Muhammad Zia ulHaq and Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said, among others.

“One of my bittersweet memories is being snubbed by (the then British prime minister) Margaret Thatcher in 1985 after she had hurried to Malaysia following (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad)’s effective ‘Buy British Last’ policy.

“She claimed, in her repair job, how close British-Malaysian relations were.

“I contradicted her, reminding the audience it could not be, as she was only the first British prime minister to visit Malaysia since independence in 1957, and that too because she had to retrieve the situation.

“At tea, she walked past me when I was being introduced, and refused to shake my hand,” said Munir.

He added that they met subsequently but she clearly did not remember the incident. But Munir does.

Munir recalled launching a series of investigative reports in TimesProbe and TimesFocus, and also did personality pieces on Man Against Corruption.

He added that NST had a great number of talented and eminent journalists during his time. He singled out Adibah Amin, Malaysia’s best-loved writer in those days in Malay and English.

There were also Halinah Bamadhaj (Helen Todd), who was a hard, sharp, no-nonsense writer, and Supriya Bhar (Singh).

He named many others like Kee Thuan Chye, Rehman Rashid, Thor Kah Hoong and Khor Eng Lee, not forgetting sports editors Norman Siebel and Mansoor Rahman.

He recalled Kadir running Business Times, and who also used to write occasionally for Berita Harian.

“And good-old P.C. Shivadas, my deputy, a calm and amiable character, who I used to call my ‘Gandhi’ and to tease: ‘If you turned around and saw someone about to stab you in the back, you would say I like the way you are holding the knife!” said Munir.

He added that he wanted to make special mention of Zainah Anwar for her groundbreaking “Kafir Mengkafir” series, which exposed the extent to which Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and PAS were playing God in Terengganu, and deciding who was and who was not a true Muslim, with consequences from cradle to grave.

“Oh, there were so many others, who must forgive me if I do not name them all.

“Yes, my girls, as I used to call them, in the glass room who did the Women’s section, and those who covered entertainment. Some of those girls were crazy, one or two still are, and difficult, but always fun.

“A lot of strong characters, who clashed, and had to be managed,” he said.

Munir remembers Nada (New Sunday Times editor Nadarajah Arumugam Pillai), who was called ‘The Incredible Sulk’ (because he rarely smiled) and Johan (Bagley) and his ‘Bag of Marbles’.

Johan was a European who had served as a military scout during the Confrontation with Indonesia, and who converted to Islam.

“Johan could eat with his fingers the hottest of sambal tumis in the warong around Balai Berita. I could never match him.”

Report by Adrian David, Hana Naz Harun, Teoh Pei Ying, Teh Athira Yusof and Suganthi Suparmaniam