I found myself at a loss for words, shocked by a late-night WhatsApp message that I received on Aug 22. The message read: “Khabar sedih dan dukacita. Tuan Openg Onn telah menghembuskan nafas terakhirnya pada malam ini di SGH.”
Spontaneously, I slumped back into my chair, eyes wide open and momentarily unresponsive. My hands started shaking. I just couldn’t believe the message and I was praying it was not true.
Only 12 days ago Openg was in my office, discussing a project that we were working on. Yes, I knew he was suffering from terminal illness and had undergone chemotherapy but he appeared okay and was able to move around just as any healthy person.
I knew he was in hospital waiting to undergo a delicate surgery; we were texting each other until Thursday, Aug 19. When I did not receive any response to my texts the next day, I felt uneasy but consoled myself thinking he would be resting.
On Aug 21, I texted him again; still no response and the previous messages had not been read. Again, I thought he must be recuperating following surgery.
Then that fateful message came around 10 at night on Sunday. It dawned on me that my buddy was gone forever.
The death of a friend or colleague is a tragic moment which I find difficult to accept. The last time I had to cope with the loss of a colleague and friend was the passing of my deputy Jimmy Adit. A year has passed and I still haven’t gotten over his passing. And now ex-journalist and buddy Openg, only 62 years old.
Friendship is one of the most important things in life — the support we get from friends is invaluable — believe me.
I first got to know Openg when he was in RTM in the early 80s. Can’t remember exactly when, but I think it was in 1983. At that time, I was the sports editor in The Borneo Post.
We used to meet in our favourite kopi tiam over a cuppa and mee rebus to exchange ideas. We had common interests, writing and reading. A well-read person, Openg would frequently argue over politics.
Our views on Malaysian politics, in particular, were miles apart — I was very critical of federal policies while he was a moderate. Nevertheless, after prolonged arguments we would laugh it off, over a second round of teh tarik. That was Openg — never to leave on a sour note.
He had a keen interest in literature just like me. He was also into theatre plays and one of his greatest achievements was the immensely successful staging of the Bahasa Malaysia play ‘Rosli Dhobi’ featuring the Sarawak nationalist and freedom fighter by the same name.
Though I was not much into plays, I offered him some points. I even lent him some of the historical photos, especially the one on an Indian (Sikh) policeman (a family friend) arresting Rosli Dhobi following the assassination of Sir Duncan Stewart, the second British Governor of Sarawak.
I remember skipping an important family event — my dad’s birthday dinner, I think — just to be present at Openg’s play that night. I didn’t regret it; it turned out to be an emotional play which I vividly remember to this day.
Our friendship strengthened during his days in Bernama.
One day, in the late 80s both of us decided to organise a Malay song singing competition at the Civic Centre in Sibu. The competition was my idea to make some money, part of which to be donated to charity.
It was not easy as anything to do with collecting funds and sponsorships required green light and permits from the authorities. I was not familiar with all the red tape, but there was Openg who managed to get things done smoothly because of his close contacts with government officials and the police.
Response to the competition was not that great, but okay-lah. We donated 60 percent of the money from the event and split the balance three ways. The other partner was my colleague in Utusan Borneo. Thank God, we didn’t end up making a loss.
The zenith of his journalistic career came when he was posted to Jakarta as Bernama’s foreign correspondent for six years until 2004.
In the words of the national news agency’s former editor-in-chief and chairman, Datuk Seri Azman Ujang: “The highlight of his service as a journalist at Bernama was his six years in Jakarta. Openg did his job brilliantly in reporting the unrest in the big country which was, among other things, hit by political crises and the frequency of leadership changes at the presidential level.”
I thought Openg did an awesome job compiling the coverage by Indonesian dailies on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s policy speech during the opening of the Umno general meeting in Kuala Lumpur in June 2001.
Most of the prominent dailies front-paged Dr Mahathir’s criticism against the western media’s unfair news coverage of Malaysia.
Openg also highlighted Koran Tempo’s article under the headline, ‘Mahathir: Umno Will Become A Minority’.
He was also the co-founder of the now 14-year-old Bernama Radio. He has a 600-page book to his credit — Indonesia Dari Sebuah Jendela: Catatan Seorang Wartawan.
He is survived by wife Sabariah Zaini and seven children.
As a mark of respect to Openg, I am including his mugshot in my column.