We will soon go to the polls; it’s about time. We are or rather I am tired of waiting. The election has been delayed by five months because of Covid-19 and the Emergency and my bosses have frozen my leave until the election is over.
I have not left the state for more than a year now, damn the bloody coronavirus!
Anyway, the Election Commission is expected to announce the nomination and polling dates of the 12th Sarawak state election anytime in the next two or three days.
Political analysts — and ‘coffeeshop politicians’ — are predicting polling will be around the first week of December. Maybe, but whether it is held month-end or next month doesn’t bother me at all. Just finish off with it so that my bosses will allow me to take my accumulated leave.
Recently, our company organised a half-day election reporting workshop for journalists and editors which I found very useful. It was a form of a refresher training for me. It was conducted by local veteran journalist Rudi Affendi Khalik, who has been in the industry for more than three decades.
I have followed or covered nine state and 10 general elections since 1979. I entered the newspaper industry sometime mid-1978. I was only 19 then. My fellow journalist friend and former classmate Clement Hii Chii Kok (now a successful national corporate figure) encouraged me to take up journalism back then.
Even as a rookie reporter and later subeditor, I was roped in by my editor in chief to cover politics because of my keen interest in this field — especially on Sarawak politics.
A sudden turn of events in The Sarawak Herald — the paper I was working for — thrust me on the hot seat. The editor in chief decided to do his postgraduate studies in Singapore and the seat fell vacant.
When news reached me that I was to take over the post, I barged into managing director Francis Sia’s office and protested. I was not ready to take up such a huge responsibility. But management insisted that I should head the paper as no one was ready to helm the paper.
“Hey! Do I look as if I’m ready?” But my protest fell on deaf ears. I was given a miserable RM50 raise and told to move in to my new office the next day. Typical of Foochow-run organisations!
I became the editor on August 26, 1979, three days before nomination day for the third state election. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My dad encouraged me to take it as a challenge and prove myself, while mum said I should quit.
In the end, I decided to stay on and to this day I am still a ‘busybody newsmen’.
Polling for the third state polls was fixed for Sept 15 to 22 — over seven days.
Life was difficult for me. I was not well-prepared for the election and I had to edit so many news. I had only two subs to assist me. I was not sure which news was sensitive and should be spiked and which could be published. Fortunately, Clement (who was then with the Borneo Post) would give me some advice and it helped a bit.
I recall one incident when the then chief minister (Tun) Abdul Rahman Yakub called me up and ticked me off for publishing what was deemed a sensitive political sketch submitted by the Miri-based opposition party Sarawak People’s Organisation (Sapo).
I had published the sketch, which depicted a man from Malaya milking a well-fed cow feeding on the green pastures in Sarawak. Sapo’s message was clear: Malayans were siphoning off our resources.
The sketch looked harmless but I didn’t understand the political implication.
I reproduce here the phone conversation, which even after four decades, is still vivid in my mind:
Abdul Rahman Yakub (ARY): Murugaiah (he managed to pronounce my surname correctly). Where are you from?
Me: I am from Sibu, Sir.
ARY: Sibu? Mana tempat?
Me: Kampung Nangka.
ARY: Oh! I was about to get my officers to issue you a one-way ticket to Malaya. (He thought I was from Malaya.) Who’s your father and where is he working?
Me: N Murugaiah, Sir and he is with Jabatan Talikom.
ARY: You mean Murugaiah, the engineering assistant? I know him well.
Somehow, after the mention of my father’s name, his tone changed and he sounded friendlier. Before he hung up, he advised me to be careful and not to be made used of by the opposition.
That was my first brush with the authorities. There was another incident a few days later when I was called up by the Information Department director for giving “too much space” to (Datuk Seri) Alli Kawi’s Pajar, another state opposition party.
One day, several months after the state election, two Special Branch officers came a calling one afternoon for “publishing too many news” on the Moscow Olympics.
There were many other brushes with the authorities after that but somehow, I managed to get myself off the hook.