Peers say ‘ultimate old-school journalist’ Wong Sai Wan will be missed for his kindness and generosity

·8-min read
Datuk Wong Sai Wan at the National Media Forum 2019 at Taylor’s University in Subang Jaya September 25, 2019. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Datuk Wong Sai Wan at the National Media Forum 2019 at Taylor’s University in Subang Jaya September 25, 2019. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, May 14 — The world of journalism has lost one of its finest media practitioners with the passing of Malay Mail editor-in-chief Datuk Wong Sai Wan early this morning.

Wong, a 40-year veteran of the industry, was known for his political acumen, as well as his knack for finding the best, most pertinent and current stories.

Starting off as a reporter with The Star, Wong covered events both locally and internationally, including the historic handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 when he was a correspondent for the newspaper in what is now a special administrative region.

Eventually joining Malay Mail as editor-in-chief, the 59-year-old has left an indelible mark on many media personnel, some of whom have gone on to become bosses in their own right.

Long-time aide to Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Datuk Ainon Mohd, told Malay Mail she had lost her mentor and brother today.

“I met him years ago when I was with NST (New Straits Times). He had his own unique way of reaching out to people and had a very big and generous heart.

“He didn’t care if you were a senior or junior. He would always help you out if you needed it. As juniors, all of us looked up to him as a big brother. He was like a very close brother-in-arms.

“I’m actually very sad. I won’t get his calls or messages anymore. He always used to call me, especially during these tough times, and ask “Apa kau buat hari ini?” (“What are you doing today?”) and I would always call him back after getting his WhatsApp messages.

“It’s a shock to me, hearing this news today. He will be fondly missed by everyone,” she said.

Bernama chief executive officer Datuk Mokhtar Hussain said Wong was one of the premier reporters when it came to politics in the 90s. They were both reporters when they first met each other while in the field covering events.

As time went on and their careers flourished, their friendship grew stronger and they shared a passion for the media and all that it entails.

“He is one of the most renowned editors in Malaysia,” Mokhtar told Malay Mail.

“When he was with The Star, he was the kind of reporter who would ask the tough questions. He was direct to the point. When he moved to Malay Mail, he would often update me on their progress, and even took my phone and downloaded the app when it came out.

“Apart from that, his knowledge was valuable as he has done countless workshops for journalists. He would share his experience and we loved talking about the future of journalism.

“In all, he was great company. We covered many overseas assignments together and knowing he was coming too made me happy. I will never forget this piece he wrote for Bernama more than a decade ago.

“In it, he made suggestions for how Bernama can improve and add more value for their subscribers with some pearls on how to move forward. That, to me, was a huge contribution and I will always be grateful to him for that.”

Former press secretary to prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Datuk Seri Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, told Malay Mail that Wong was a savvy reporter who knew all the Umno back stories and history.

He would regale Sariffuddin with stories about Umno’s history and was such a keen observer that he would be able to read between the lines and write an in-depth story that captivated readers.

Sariffuddin knew Wong when he was a reporter with The Star while he was in NST.

“He had an innate understanding of the issues at hand and he was so keenly attached to the political undercurrent that his stories had a lot of depth to it.

“His knowledge of the main parties was admirable. Barisan Nasional was the dominant party for so long but he had knowledge of every party.

“As a person he was well received. He had friends from all walks of life, was approachable, helpful, very articulate and easy to befriend.”

Malay Mail Managing Editor Leslie Lau recalled how Wong was bureau chief for The Star in Seremban, and upon returning to the Star main office in Petaling Jaya, became his boss in the news section.

He became close to Wong when they covered the deadly Nipah virus outbreak and complemented Wong for being someone he could count on when needed.

“He and I were very close when we went to cover what initially we thought was Japanese encephalitis which eventually became the Nipah virus that infected the people in Bukit Pelanduk.

“He’s been a close friend and colleague of mine for years and I was pleasantly surprised when he was brought into Malay Mail.

“He was very popular and always seen as very helpful to people and good fun to have around. In terms of editing stories, he will always look to put out a fair story and would allow reporters to have a relatively free hand,” he said.

Wong had a deep passion for golf. He loved the sport and wanted Malay Mail to be a part of the golfing scene in Malaysia. In fact, Malay Mail has been at the forefront of Covid-19 reporting golf wise as Wong was always on the lookout for golfers.

Former Media Prima Group Editor (News and Current Affairs) Datuk Manja Ismail and wife Datin Norzita Samad told Malay Mail they spoke to Wong only yesterday when he sent them a Hari Raya wish with a heart-shaped emoji.

He said Wong was the one who introduced him to golf and they have been playing together for years.

“My wife was with The Star 20 years ago and Sai Wan was her big brother. He was very close to me since we were both reporters starting out 40 years ago, since 1985, when I was with Berita Harian.

“We would play golf together, play competitions and our wives would tag along and it was never a dull moment with him. He is so jovial, easy going and if you’re having a hard time he’s not to go missing.

“He will be there everyday asking you if you’re okay, if you need help and so on. During these harsh times for the media, he would often check in on not just me but other friends as well to see if we’re alright. We are going to miss him dearly.”

Another of Wong’s close friends and hang out buddy is editor-in-chief of Oriental Daily Ding Lee Leong.

Ding told Malay Mail that Wong was someone who, despite being more senior to him, treated him as an equal, as a friend with whom he could be open.

They would meet up every week to talk about politics, the state of the media and especially digital media.

“I knew him as a reporter back when he was covering Umno and I must say he was a visionary.

“For me, he was like a dictionary. If anyone needs a history lesson, call Sai Wan and he’ll regale you with all the stories.

“As a person, he was very open minded, kind and a very good kaki (close pal) to have around. He was a good brother too, as he took care of his sick sister in Seremban, often travelling to see her.

“I will remember him as a jovial man who never got angry, a very happy guy and I’ve never seen him sad. He always looked on the bright side of things.”

Malay Mail’s deputy editor-in-chief Joseph Raj recalled how Wong was his boss when he was in The Star in 1992 and how smart and sharp Wong was when it came to politics.

“He had a nose for the news,” said Joseph.

“He knew which stories were worth writing as they were worth reading. He had a keen eye on what a good news article could be and he had very strong contacts with politicians.

“These were signs that he was a very hard worker. Over the years, working together with him, I’ve got to know him well as a boss and he was always on the ball and would often tell the editors which stories were worth looking into.”

The same goes for The Star Media Group adviser, Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, a longtime colleague and friend of Wong. Both men started their careers at the same time.

“It’s devastating to me because we entered journalism at the same time. He’s an ultimate old-school journalist who is on 24/7 mode.

“He has excellent connections with direct calls to our top leaders. There are less and less of such committed journalists. Many will miss him. Really really sad.”

As one of the pioneers in the industry, Wong leaves behind a legacy that will be carried by many of the top media practitioners in the country.

Many of his former colleagues and juniors have followed in his footsteps and become bosses in their own right.

All those who spoke to Malay Mail had nothing but praise for Wong, remembering him as one who even though had a high position in the company was an everyday man.

Despite his demise, Wong has left a lasting legacy in the media world that will be carried on in his peers and colleagues as well as Malay Mail.

The wake for Wong will be on May 15 and 16 as Xiao En Centre, 1 Jalan Kuari, Cheras, 56100, Kuala Lumpur. Visiting hours will be from 11am till 6pm.

A funeral service is set for 10am on May 17, with a restriction of 15 people.

* Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misreported Datuk Ainon Mohd's name, which has since been corrected.

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