Don’t take umbrage: My ex-life as a Straits Times journalist

Part 1.1: The ex-bosses of my life

by Oo Gin Lee

The whole SPH Media break up saga has caused me to reflect back on my previous life as a journalist.

I joined ST in the year 2000, simply because I was crazy about Intel motherboards and video games. I didn’t even really understand what the whole media business was all about. But the opportunity to carry the title of tech journalist – wait, it was tech correspondent as I was a mid-career joiner at 31 years old – just made it cool. In fact, I didn’t even know what was a tech correspondent – aren’t correspondents the guys that get sent (and hopefully don’t die) to the war zone?

When I look back now, joining ST changed my life, completely. The first thing I learned about ST, is that you have many bosses.

My first boss, Tan Tarn How, is a funny guy. He is always lost in his thoughts and has a deep intellectual capacity and two degrees, combined with a dry sense of humour. I remember my first day of work, he sent me out on my first assignment – covering some technopreneurship event in the dot com era. When I returned to the office for a debrief, he gave me a nasty look – the kind of look that I now understand in hindsight – why am I speaking to an idiot?

You see, he asked what “was the news” and I really had no idea what he meant.

I remember starting my story like this: “Yesterday, there was an event attended by 300 people (I actually tried to count them) at Suntec City. They were there to listen to venture capitalists talk about what they look out for when choosing to fund start-ups…..”

Any newsman would clearly be aghast with such an intro (as I do now) but back in 2000, even though I had a mastery of English, I was really clueless on “what was the news.” I remember Tarn How giving me an exasperated look (even if he didn’t realise it), pausing for a long five seconds, before telling me to sit my ass down while he fixed my story.

I worked my ass out as a rookie reporter trying to please Tarn How and to meet his standards. After many months of hard work and trying to understand the news, I finally got my break, my story would hit the prime pages (think it was pg4) of the newspaper. I wish it was some major scoop but actually, it was a huge photo of two pretty founders of a dot-com company holding out bras that they were selling online (yes, selling bras on e-commerce was news in 2000). My contributions, apart from discovering the pretty ladies and sending the photographer, was a caption of about 100 words.

Today, Tarn How is a personal friend. I visit his wife for my dental checks and we often talk for hours when we do meet up (I don’t even know what we talk about).

Our much beloved Tech & Science Desk sadly did not last more than 18 months and when it was broken up (it always happens at ST) the team was absorbed into the local news team. It was there that I met my next boss, Dominic Nathan. I didn’t get to know Dom that much in the early days, but I always saw him as a very competent and fair newsman and editor (the ladies say he looks like George Clooney, but I think they are just fangirling). I left in 2002 to do freelance writing after my first child was born, but when I returned in 2007, Dom was the news editor.

In my mind, he will always be my best news editor. I was a good salesman, and somehow he always seemed to believe that I was good in my tech stuff and stories (I am good, but not that good). Dom was a tough boss and the bedrock of the newsroom. When I get to the office, I see him there. When I leave the office early (and yes, I always try to do this) I still see him sitting in his space (it’s like he didn’t leave that spot). If you needed to check on something, you can just go straight to Dom. We are really good pals now, not just because we live a few blocks away, but because we both have a love for good Italian red wine while reminiscing the good old years when SPH had hundreds of millions of profits.

When I returned to ST in 2007, my direct boss was Grace Chng. Grace was feared by the entire tech industry, and rightfully so because she was the veteran who was there from the early stirrings of Computer Times. People who don’t know Grace will be terrified of her, but beneath that steely surface, I know Grace is always loyal to her friends and we had many many many laughs together. It was Grace that gave me the opportunity to become her No 2 at Digital Life, and eventually, I would take over her position when she left. I haven’t met her for a long while, and my resolution this year must be to catch up with her again.

Warren Fernandez was news editor when I left ST in 2002 and was the man that hired me when I applied to return in 2007. He left a few years later for Shell and returned in 2011 to be the head honcho of ST. In my last four years at SPH, he was my big boss. By this time, I had become the tech editor and I spend quite a bit of time with him. People are often scared of what to say to Warren (he is after all the big boss) but I have always found him to be firm but fair.

I learned a few things about working with Warren. If he is in agreement with me, he would immediately say so, but if he hesitates, then I should stop pitching and try again another time. I would then go back to him a few weeks later with the same proposal, but with bolstered facts and figures to support my case. Usually, if what I say is logical and makes good sense, he would not decline. As a boss, Warren was always supportive of my efforts to grow DL, from running our annual DL Awards and running gadget giveaways to our readers and fans.

I felt bad handing in my second resignation to the same man, when I left in 2015. I know Warren is a gym nut (we last met for coffee at a café near his gym!). I haven’t met him in a while now, but I suspect he is still in great shape.

Next week (or when I can find the time) in Part 1.2, I will cover more of my ex-bosses including Bertha Henson, Han Fook Kwang, Sumiko Tan, Angelina Choy, Alan John and Ignatius Low (yes, seriously I really had a lot of bosses).