I started my career as a crime reporter and have always enjoyed the company of policemen.
Thanks to my father who was a renowned crime buster, I was more interested in chasing crime stories and criminals rather than burning the midnight oil.
I joined the Straits Times in July 1972 when Malaysian journalism was on the verge of going on its own. Within six months we broke away from the Singapore-based Straits Times and formed the NST or New Straits Times.
Since my resume stated that I was former sports teacher at the Malacca High School, Kedah under-23 cricket player, and Kedah and Sarawak state athlete I was first recruited as a sports writer with the Malay Mail which was part of the NSP group of companies.
But former Singapore journalist and news editor Felix Abisheganaden (who was familiar with my father John George Ritchie, a famous 1930s Singapore All Blues rugby skipper and later renowned young anti-secret society police crime-buster) had other plans.
On the advice of the editor-in-chief at that time, Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee (whose wife Lee Eng Lin was my father’s cousin), I was placed in the newly formed Crime Desk which was an amalgamation of NST, Malay Mail and Berita Harian reporters under the fearsome former police inspector Rudy Beltran, a talented musician with Filipino ancestry. As rookie crime reporters in the early 1970s with Berita Harian’s Mohamed Noor Khalid (or “Lat” as we know him) and I often found ourselves looking for the juiciest crime stories.
Lat had the worst of the lot as he was often assigned to visit the mortuary at the general hospital on a daily basis to check the list of the dead. In exchange for a copy of the NST or Malay Mail, Paul the Indian mortuary attendant would, on a good day, take a reporter on a tour of the icebox section and deliberately pull out a sliding tray and let us get a good look at the face of the corpse.
A crime reporter also needs to have a nose for the job, pun intended. In our case, when there was a powerful stench permeating the premises, it was usually a drowning case and the smell of death would cling to our bodies and attire. This was part of our routine. Here I would venture a guess that it was these quiet moments that Lat drew inspiration from and started his “Kampung Boy” cartoon series.
Twenty years later when I was NST correspondent in Kuching, Lat did me a favour and drew a cartoon of the then chief minister of Sarawak Abdul Taib Mahmud and his wife as a “present” from a struggling timber concessionaire who is now a multi-millionaire.
Some of my biggest “scoops” as a crime reporter in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s was the assassination of Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Hashim, the demise of deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail for which I was rewarded with a cash voucher for RM50 by Editor-in-Chief Tan Sri Samad Ismail and the murder of Klang beauty Queen Jean Sinnapa@ Jean Perera.
With my Suzuki 250cc weaving through the city traffic at top speeds, I was often at the scene of a crime well before others.
Then there was a triple-killing case where an elderly European couple, who was cheated of their life savings, killed their lawyer with a pistol before disappearing from the scene. During the week-long search I was the first to find the body of the wheelchair-bound wife and husband who committed suicide in a forest outside Kuala Lumpur. I was the first person to discover putrid remains of the duo before the police arrived.
There was also the kidnap-for-ransom case of Seremban millionaire, Tan Kar Lay. Being the first at the scene of the killing, I helped the police carry the victim’s body in a stretcher to a police Land Rover. Until today the murder remains unsolved. While covering a police raid in 1978, I helped in an anti-secret society ambush by rugby-tackling a fleeing addict who was member of Seremban’s famous Butterfly Gang. I later offered my trembling catch a cigarette as he was being arrested by detectives. He said he was most grateful.
My first big Sarawak crime story — even though crocodiles cannot be labelled as criminals — was the killing of Iban headman Penghulu Banan Pali who was devoured by the infamous reptile nicknamed “Bujang Senang” in 1982.
Together with cameraman Adnan Hassan we also had a photo scoop because we arrived at the scene of the attack on June 26 just as the upper portion of the remains (only the head was intact) was brought to the front of the longhouse where wailing family members gathered.
As morbid as it seems, this was part of my job. Since then I have covered numerous stories on crocodile attacks and even published three books on man-eating crocodiles of Borneo, one with Sarawak’s top Malaysian novelist Jong Chian Lai.
Of course the scoop of all scoops was when I broke the story of Bruno Manser on November 16, 1986 in the forests of Long Seridan in Ulu Baram. Bruno went on to form the BMF Foundation which, 30 years later through BBC journalist Clare Rewcastle, exposed the 1MDB scandal which toppled a Malaysian Prime Minister. Looking back, we reporters are not looking for accolades — we just want great stories which hopefully will be shared for posterity by future generations.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.