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COLUMN

Pix of a decade 2009 to 2019 compressedI started my career in journalism in 2010 at The Malaysian Insider (TMI), coincidentally the same year that Jho Low reportedly pumped US$9 million to fund the now-defunct news portal.

Although I worked long hours, I found my job as a political reporter covering national news extremely rewarding. There was hardly any censorship; we could write pretty much whatever we wanted. Politicians from the then-Barisan Nasional (BN) government cowered whenever TMI reporters showed up at their press conferences.

It was a steep learning curve though. Waze wasn’t invented yet, and I remember frequently stopping at petrol stations to ask for directions. I once got lost going to the US embassy in KL. It also took me a while to figure out what a news angle was (it’s the point of a story, or what my boss used to tell me, what you would tell your best friend if you had to describe it).

One of the biggest stories I wrote, just six months into my job, was about a senior Biro Tata Negara (BTN) official making racist remarks about the Chinese and Indians at a closed-door Puteri Umno function. I had managed to enter the hall unnoticed and reported what I heard directly from him.

Umno banned me from their headquarters in Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) for eight years until BN lost the 2018 general election.

Despite horrific deaths in custody, like political aide Teoh Beng Hock falling from a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission building, and numerous allegations of corruption against the BN administration, I took it all in stride, armed with the freedom to report the news independently.  

In the early years of the decade, social media hadn’t quite yet taken off. Party supporters mostly used blogs to try to discredit their political opponents or journalists, including me, who reported things they didn’t like. People still relied on media organisations, be they print, broadcast, or online, to get information.

Then some TMI journalists and I joined Malay Mail Online in 2013 after the 13th general election. We continued our streak in holding the government to account on various issues like corruption, mismanagement, and human rights violations. I also started a weekly column to comment on politics, civil liberties, and other sociopolitical issues, which I later compiled into a book titled “Unapologetic”.

Although Malay Mail focused mostly on national politics, I wanted to highlight stories of ordinary people because I found politics a little boring. One of my favourite stories were about the lives of the homeless in Kuala Lumpur, and how a hairstylist volunteers free haircuts for them, a much-needed service beyond giving food as people need to look presentable for job interviews.   

I honed my craft further and got promoted to assistant news editor. I had covered the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Vietnam when the plane was initially thought to have crashed there, and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) 2018 summit in Papua New Guinea.

Social media became more prevalent over the years, although Malaysians still got their news from online news portals, especially when the 1MDB scandal exploded in 2015.

This was one of the most difficult times in my journalism career. I deeply resented the Najib administration’s national media blackout on 1MDB. It was very frustrating to see story after story from the Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report expose the tantalising details of a global financial scandal that rivalled Madoff and put the Marcos family to shame, while the Malaysian media couldn’t report on what was happening in our own backyard.

It’s easy for the public to tell journalists to quit if they disagree with decisions by their media owners, but where would we go? As it is, hundreds of media workers have been retrenched from news organisations struggling with bleeding profits over the years amid the rise of social media.

The internet killed journalism.

I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way. Where once a few powerful corporations dictated who and what was worthy of public consumption, social media has enabled anyone with an internet connection to reach out to the masses. People don’t need to be high-profile figures in order to be heard. The definition of “newsworthy” is now irrelevant. What’s even better is that people can now hear directly from others without having to go through a third person – the journalist.

The internet truly democratised speech. Of course this means that people can spread anything on social media, where traditional media organisations would have previously checked facts before publishing. But despite the proliferation of fake news, I believe that the value of social media in giving every single person a voice and platform far outweighs the bad. This is democracy.

Media outlets now aren’t just competing with each other to break news; we’re also competing with ordinary people who can all be “publishers”. A woman’s Facebook post about how she had to bring her sister, a bedridden cancer patient, on a stretcher to an EPF counter got 14,000 shares, way higher than most articles published by news portals on a daily basis. 

Journalists today, however, are still useful in presenting the news, especially if it’s a complicated story. A story I broke on CodeBlue about the government’s decision to eliminate the “critical” allowance for doctors, engineers, and other professionals joining the civil service next year involved poring through several government circulars to explain what exactly a critical allowance is and which public sector workers are affected. I hyperlinked the various circulars so that the public can verify the story themselves.

People can, of course, just screencap the announcement itself in the pertinent circular, but this wouldn’t give the full picture to others who aren’t familiar with how the civil service works.

Having said that, I don’t believe that journalists are super-skilled people. My job as a journalist isn’t rocket science. It’s not like I’m curing people of a deadly disease. All I do is put the facts together in a readable story with a great headline.

After some eight years in journalism (I took a year in between to work at some child rights NGOs), I co-founded CodeBluea health news site, in 2019 to report exclusively on important health care issues and policies in Malaysia, and around the world, because I wanted to make health a political issue so that Malaysians would fight for their right to quality health care. Illness shouldn’t just be considered a matter of “God’s will”; if we have bad public health policies that result in disease and death, then we must speak up.

Code blue, by the way, is a term used in hospitals to indicate a medical emergency involving cardiac arrest (like a heart attack) or respiratory arrest (when someone stops breathing), which I suppose is an apt description of Malaysia’s increasingly unsustainable public health care system.

Health care is among the top issues people in the US and UK care about; I want the same in Malaysia. Instead of quarrelling over race and religion, Malaysians should agitate and advocate over things that affect everyone regardless of their ethnicity or faith, like health and mortality.

Running a health media startup forced me out of my comfort zone in journalism. Not only did I have to run a tiny newsroom (which comprises me and two other writers), I had to look for revenue, something which I’ve never done before. CodeBlue isn’t funded by any politician or political party; health isn’t quite yet political in Malaysia, and anyway, I want the freedom to operate independently.

I learned how to create a pitch deck and present to a room full of executives with tough questions. I had to figure out how to do marketing in an environment saturated with not just well-established media outlets, but also burgeoning news sites all craving eyeballs from people receiving billions of content on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Like I said, everyone’s a publisher now.

However, I relish my journey from reporter to entrepreneur. As a libertarian who believes in minimal state intervention in the economy, I’m excited that I’ve created jobs for people. Only two for now, but hopefully, as CodeBlue grows, I’ll be able to create even more jobs.

I also had to learn how to be a manager, although granted, I’ve had some experience in that in my previous job as an assistant news editor. I’ll always remember a former colleague of mine who once told me: “You’re so condescending, Boo”. (We’re good friends now).  

But calling the shots now comes with a heavy responsibility. As editor-in-chief, I’m sometimes forced to make difficult editorial decisions that would have angered me in the past as a reporter whenever my stories were edited, or even killed, because of political considerations.

How do you balance between keeping your organisation alive (including people’s jobs) and speaking truth to power? I must admit that I don’t really know the answer.  

It has been a wonderful decade. Entering the startup game at the age of 32 may be late by some measures, but it’s never too late to run your own business. I don’t know where the next decade will bring me, but I know that I’ll always achieve my goals.