There was one night when this newspaper almost didn’t make it to print.
As we celebrate 174 years of print journalism tomorrow,the New Straits Times had never failed to meet its readers, come rain or shine.
But one night in the early 1990s, an internal dispute had threatened to stop this newspaper from meeting its subscribers and readers. Very few people knew this.
Cool heads, personal relationships and a teh tarik at a street stall helped put the paper to bed.
With 174 years of existence behind it, this newspaper had witnessed and chronicled history in all its glory and shame.
In the newspaper business, you may have come across some of the country’s famous bylines. Many are household names.
I recalled a big argument between the then group editor Datuk A. Kadir Jasin and the production boss, Ahmad Jauhari Yahaya, one night in the 1990s.
There were delays in printing, which led to delays in distribution of the newspaper the following day. Kadir and Joe clashed heatedly in full view of staff on the production floor.
When tempers cooled, both retreated to their respective work stations, each licking their wounds.
I was a ringside witness to this outburst! I was again witness to a late night teh tarik soon after the outburst.By then, printing was good, prompting Kadir to remark: ‘When I hear the humming sound of the press at work, that is music to my ears.’
Before the NSTP moved its printing press to Shah Alam, all printing work was done at Balai Berita.
We worked 24/7 for 361 days of the year (minus shutdowns on Hari Raya, Chinese New Year,Deepavali and Christmas).
The backroom men and women are the backbone of the newspaper industry. They are found on the production floor.
Then there is the circulation staff who made sure that the papers are distributed to the correct addresses and as early as possible.
Then there is another group the union representatives who do battle with the management every three years for better pay and terms and conditions of service.
Many of us did our share of union work, either with the National Union of Journalists or the National Union of Newspaper Workers (NUNW).
Back to that one night when this newspaper almost didn’t make it to the newsstands. It was almost midnight when I got a call from Kadir asking me to see what I could do with the delay on the production floor.
I was still in the office going through my story, which happened to be an announcement by the then prime minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad that he was dissolving Parliament, thus paving the way for a general election.
That story was slotted for page one the following day, a decision that coincided with all other newspapers in the country.
As it turned out, the NUNW had chosen that particular night to flex its muscle in support of its wage demands.
Wage negotiations had broken down and ended in deadlock. On this particular day, the entire production staff, most of whom were loyal members of the NUNW, decided to go slow, a form of industrial action to back their wage demands.
What a moment to back their wage demands! From a trade union standpoint,that was a winning tactic.They had picked that day when the management was at its most vulnerable.
The union members were not going to print this newspaper, the Berita Harian and Harian Metro the following day if their wage demands were not met. Imagine the horror when the biggest news organisation has no newspapers available to carry what was then the biggest news of the day.
A midnight teh tarik at a nearby stall with my NUNW friends followed.I had sought to make a personal appeal to union members,a wish the union leaders granted.
I pleaded with them to print the newspaper because it carried my story on page one.I said forget about the importance of the story. Please save my professional face because my byline is on page one.
In return,I told them I would negotiate on their behalf for better wages and benefits.
The atmosphere was tense and noisy.I repeated my please many times.I then remember union leaders Ramadasoo, Sabar and Nash huddling in a corner as they weighed my personal plea.
One of them took a whistle and blew it many times. From all corners of the floor, staff who had earlier said they were sick, on emergency leave and not on duty came out rushing to their post to resume work to print the newspaper!
My personal appeal worked. It was really late, but all three newspapers were printed. I left office in the wee hours, arriving home at the same time the vendor delivered my copy of the NST!
My satisfaction at that moment was not to see my story on page one, but rather the teamwork that enabled the subscribers and readers to get their regular papers.
(As a matter of record, I was subsequently tasked by the management to negotiate for a new collective agreement with the NUNW, which ended very well all round.
Thank you Ramadasoo, Sabar and Nash- wherever you are now).
The writer is a former NST group editor. His first column
appeared on Aug 27, 1995, as ‘Kurang Manis’