DATUK SERI WONG CHUN WAI
MEDIA’S LEADING MAN TAKES A BOW
Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai is an amazing , down-to-earth and brilliant person who knows his craft. W hat’s even more astounding is his experience and his stories. Having met him and interviewed him on his journey in the media industry, he inspires us to do more and be more. Read on to find out his 34 years of illustrious career and why he says it’s time to take a bow.
WHEN DID YOUR PASSION FOR JOURNALISM SPARK?
It actually started when I was very young. I was a voracious reader who read various kinds of books and comics. Reading was a very significant part of my life and I always toyed with writing. When I was in Form 4 or 5 in St. Xavier’s Institution, Penang, although it was a Catholic school, it was a very liberal school that encouraged students to speak up. There was a student newsletter and I was part of this vibrant space called the Literary Debating and Dramatic Society. I was quite an eloquent speaker, so naturally writing and speaking were part of my life then. As a student, I used to write a lot to The Star (as a reader) too.
YOU JOINED THE STAR, PENANG AS A JUNIOR REPORTER AFTER SIXTH FORM. CAN YOU PLEASE SHARE THAT EXPERIENCE WITH US?
After completing Form 6 in 1980, I applied for a job in The Star and I remember that the editor who interviewed me recognised me from my letters to The Star. I was accepted as a junior reporter but for a very brief period because I was actually waiting for entry into university. During my time there, I realised that if I were to continue to stay at the Star, based on my then Higher School Certificate, my salary wouldn’t be as good as if I were to attain a university degree. I was accepted into Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and re-joined The Star in 1984, the very next day after I completed my final paper.
In my years in university, I still continued writing for The Star and I also actively contributed to the university campus newspaper. Everybody knew that it was something I wanted to do. I didn’t take up journalism in university; I studied political science. I have been with The Star for 34 years; it’s very unusual in this age where people skip jobs every three years. Even as the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Star Media, I continued to write. In fact, I think I have spent more time writing now. I must be the only CEO and MD of a company that still writes. I have started a new column called Off the Beat which is featured every fortnight in Star 2. It’s basically an unconventional and off-thebeat visits to places. I don’t consider myself a tourist, rather a traveller. For example, people flock to Japan for the lavender season. I did travel to Japan also to see the lavender, but chose to visit a huge cemetery filled with lavender. I also visited the suicide forest in Japan, at the foot of Mount Fuji.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE STAR RATHER THAN AN ESTABLISHED NEWSPAPER?
Because I’m from Penang and The Star started off in Penang, reporting the news there. I liked the news they reported about and their manner of reporting which was easy to understand. Despite being paid only RM300 a month, I still enjoyed it.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST ARTICLE YOU WORKED ON?
My first by-line could have very well been about the shortage of condensed milk.
HOW WAS JOURNALISM LIKE DURING THAT PERIOD AND HOW IS IT NOW?
Journalism then was actually very local. It was so local that it was merely news reporting. There was a lack of analysis and commentary. Editors then were also not too good either in reflecting. They taught me how to write precise news reports but lacked analytical and research ability probably because they themselves lacked reflection skills. You have to understand that my superiors worked as soon as they finished high school. When I went to university, I had better training in research and became one of those early Malaysian journalists with a university degree and began to write in a different format, including more statistics and looking at things in a more indepth manner. So that changed the landscape a bit.
The present need from a journalist is to be able to handle all platforms, including online, video and present themselves in front of the camera looking professional. The manner of reporting has also changed completely because it’s a different generation of millennials now. I think that with the new government, the media environment is better and healthier now.
CAN YOU TELL US THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER THUS FAR?
The highlight of my career was when I was appointed as the CEO and MD of The Star six years ago. I think I reached the pinnacle of my career; there hadn’t been any journalist who went from a cadet reporter to CEO and MD of The Star. It was a milestone in my career. After six years, although my contract ends in 2020, I told myself I needed to leave when I make the Star profitable. I can safely say that The Star will remain profitable and I want to leave on a high note. The company has been kind enough to let me stay on as group advisor.
WHAT IS THE PROUDEST MOMENT OF YOUR CAREER?
As a journalist, my pride actually would be winning an award for an exclusive I wrote on Malaysian terrorists undergoing arms training in
Afghanistan. This was long before Sept 11. I had started digging about terrorist training and when I came down to KL, I wanted to feel KL. I remember spending a lot of time at the Jalan Masjid India area where strange guys hung out. So I used to immerse myself in this atmosphere, sitting down in the coffee shop listening. One day, I stumbled onto a bookstore selling books on Islam and found one book about a guy writing about his experience undergoing arms training in Afghanistan for jihad and there were pictures on it. It led me to more information and the feature I wrote won me the prize for Best Journalist of The Year in the English section. Soon, Sept 11 happened and all the other media around the world started picking up about terrorism; it was really a pride for me. My partner and I also did an expose on an Indonesian man by the name Hambali, who was the third highest ranking terrorist in Asia.
AS THE MD AND CEO OF THE STAR MEDIA GROUP, YOU OVERSAW THIS MEDIA EMPIRE. HOW DID YOU ADJUST TO THE ROLE COMING FROM A GROUP CHIEF EDITOR BACKGROUND?
I started by educating myself, it was not easy. I wasn’t speaking the language of a CEO. The company actually prepared me for this role because they sentme for financial and leadership courses in the US. For every weekend for a year, I attended courses conducted by Bank Negara Malaysia before I attended the University of Southern California. I also learnt how to look at the balance sheet and banned accounting terms. It was nothing more than being hands-on, really. IN 1987,
THE STAR WAS ONE OF THE NEWSPAPERS WHOSE PUBLICATION LICENCES WERE WITHDRAWN IN ‘OPERATION LALANG’. AT THAT MOMENT, DID YOU REGRET CHOOSING TO WORK THERE?
The suspension of The Star was a sad period for us. I never, for one moment, felt regretful of working in The Star. I felt proud, in fact.
WHAT WAS THE MORALE LIKE IN THE OFFICE DURING THAT PERIOD?
Morale was low because it was an uncertain period. There was tension in the air as the nation had plunged into a difficult phase.
HOW DID YOU LEAD THE COMPANY THROUGH TUMULTUOUS PERIODS AND CAME OUT UNSCATHED?
It has never been easy. In all my 34 years, we have always been governed by restrictive regulatory rules. We have gone through many brushes with the Home Ministry, we would push the envelope, but sometimes it’s a cat-and-mouse kind of situation. Sometimes we would get a slap on the wrist, or got called up by the Home Ministry, and we have received threatening letters from clients too but it has become a daily routine; that’s what the media is about, all around the world. I have learnt to deal with it and could still sleep at night after getting angry calls or death threats because I took it as hazards of the job.
HOW ABOUT THE MOST CHALLENGING MOMENTS IN THE SPAN OF YOUR CAREER?
I think as MD and CEO because of the fact that most media organisations around the world have been affected, not because of the shift to digital media but essentially because the economy has gone pretty soft. The Star online for example first appeared 22 years ago, long before bloggers and portals, and when a lot of people thought we were mad. Twenty years later, we are in a steady position with a business model. The challenge is actually to deliver the revenue to The Star as the CEO and broaden its horizon with the addition of exhibitions, events and etc.
YOUR CAREER HAS TAKEN YOU ALL OVER THE WORLD. ANY HAPPENINGS THAT YOU REMEMBER VIVIDLY?
Thirty-four years in The Star has given me the opportunity to travel and meet a lot of people. I have travelled to more than 80 countries, including from South Africa all the way up to Sudan. People see the pyramids in Egypt but don’t get to experience the pyramids in Sudan, where the Nile river begins. The job has allowed me to meet Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton (twice). Meeting Bill Clinton was really amazing because when I was in New York for work, somebody asked me whether I wanted to meet Bill Clinton and I eagerly agreed. What was supposed to be a 20-minutes interview lasted an hour and we had a great time discussing all kinds of subjects. When he came to Kuala Lumpur after my interview with him, we met up again and had a ball of a time. Later, he wrote a letter to me expressing his fondness for our relationship and I found that immensely touching.
YOU HAVE TWO BOOKS PUBLISHED. ARE YOU WORKING ON ANOTHER?
Actually, I have been toying with the idea of writing a book about the 100 personalities that I have met in my life. I should work on it soon and I think it would be interesting.
COULD YOU SHARE WITH US ABOUT YOUR BOOK, PENANG’S HISTORY, MY STORY?
Penang History is actually a compilation of weekly articles that I had written about the names of roads in Penang. They were written in a lively and candid manner, to make history interesting. Most of us have bad memories of our history teachers but I wanted to prove that history can be lively.
YOU HAVE ACHIEVED GREAT HEIGHTS. WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO ASPIRING JOURNALISTS AND WRITERS OUT THERE?
My advice is to always keep improving yourself, sharpen your skills, set career goals, and be passionate in what you are doing.
WORDS BY HIRANMAYII AWLI MOHANAN
PHOTOGRAPHER : THE STAR
VENUE : KLAS @ JALAN UTARA