Ismail Kassim: The Bridge That Used To Connect Malaysia, Singapore Journalism

Ismail Kassim: The Bridge That Used To Connect Malaysia, Singapore Journalism

The Malaysia-Singapore Bridge, or more precisely the Johor–Singapore Causeway, is the world’s busiest border crossing, and has connected for nearly a century two countries that used to be one. A so-called “Second Link” was established for the same purpose two decades ago. There was also, for years, a “third” link, known only to the journalistic fraternity that operated between the two nations.

That third connection was Ismail Kassim, a Singapore-born writer who operated virtually as a Malaysian for most of his long and distinguished career with Singapore Press Holdings Limited.

Ma’il, as everyone called him, was as astute a journalist as they come — the kind they barely make these days. And his writing style, whenever it appeared in, first, The Nation, and then, in the Straits Times, a Singapore tabloid and broadsheet respectively, was cogent and revelatory.


Ma’il articulated his well-trained thoughts in analytical English that everyone could easily comprehend, even the lamest politician, who diligently absorbed his neither fuss nor fury prose on backdrops, intelligence and backstories they aren’t privy to access.

He liked it that way, he sheepishly admitted: he wasn’t graced with the colour and creativity of the great books that he devoured, like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which became mine after Ma’il was done reading that literary canon.

I first stumbled on Ma’il in 1981, at the cramped hall of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the national literary center in the Malaysian capital.

It was the general assembly of PAS, the country’s conservative Muslm opposition party, and Ma’il was sitting cross–legged, notebook on his lap, pen tightly wound around his right hand, and ears strained to capture the hollering of a fiery orator on stage.

I had no clue as to who he was then, this wiry man of slight stature, neatly-cropped hair and a crisply manicured moustache, or what he represented. His base was Singapore but his footing was Kuala Lumpur.

From my narrow universe as a cub reporter, I eventually established that Ma’il was a major journo who wrote authoritatively on the political rumblings of South-East Asia, Malaysia in particular.

And there were a couple of complex — but useful — political books to his name that vaunted his imposing credentials.

“The books were to prove myself … nothing more,” he said, with a shrug, as he passed me a copy of his 1979 thesis, Race, Politics and Moderation: A Study of the Malaysian Electoral Process, as I got to know him better.


While Ma’il was a pro in political analysis, he still needed some coaching on Malaysia’s political subtleties.

In one dispatch about a Cabinet Minister, now long dead, Ma’il unwittingly inscribed the man’s fondness for the pint.

A bigwig with the UMNO party that ruled during most of Malaysia’s six decades, this Muslim politician was inevitably aghast at this piece of innocuous observation. Predictably, he berated that Ma’il should have overlooked his partiality for the ale, for the sake of posterity be damned.

For the life of him, Ma’il couldn’t fathom what the fuss was all about and it took a while for his bewilderment to cease and for him to “get it”. We would always have a silly laugh about it.

An important part of my journalistic education oozed from Ma’il: he didn’t set out to be a mentor or an instructor to anyone (he did start his career as a teacher) but for those who hung out with him regularly, like me, he “taught” with natural ease, patiently deliberative on his analysis, intellectual/political discourse and the big picture synopsis of any political enmeshment. It was illuminating.

Ma’il studiously gathers facts, intelligence, nuances, backstory, rumours and other tidbits, coaxing out of people nuggets of information and sometimes, the mother lode, to make up a nice, compelling — and most of all, accurate — read.


And when he was wrong, he was the first to admit it, without rancour.

My colleague Barani Krishnan at remembers Ma’il challenging him to a wager when he posited during the 1995 election that the UMNO-led coalition would score a landslide win in the northern Penang state. It was a stronghold of the opposition DAP, that, if captured, would be a plum psychological prize for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Barani based his conviction on a load of chats with the political jetsam of Penang, that included cab drivers and noodle sellers, during a 48-hour stopover in the state — that included six hours of flying and transit — just before balloting day. Ma’il, on his part, performed a surgical dissection of political Penang over weeks, picking the brainiest of analysts to endorse his findings. His thesis told him Barani was horribly wrong.

After Election Day, Barani remembers being deeply engrossed in a story at his Agence France-Presse bureau in Kuala Lumpur, when Ma’il walked in, unannounced, and bellowed: “Hey, where have you been? I’ve been trying to give your money!”


According to Barani, Ma’il not only handed over the wager but, over the course of the next half-hour, “interviewed” him animatedly on what led him to call the Penang outcome with such accuracy.

“Despite his slight stature, Ma’il was a towering figure in Malaysian-Singapore journalism,” recalled Barani. “And here he was, listening intently to what a gnome like me had to say. He didn’t have a trace of ego or the ‘I’ve-been-around-longer-than-you-so-I-know-more’ attitude, which is classic among senior reporters. Ma’il was textbook humility.”

Barani also remembers something else about Ma’il: a booming laugh that invariably came in a staccato of five bursts. “He always went ‘ha-ha-ha-ha-ha’. I’ve counted. There were five ‘ha(s)’ each time.”

Friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and perhaps contacts, could count on Ma’il for another thing: The finest of “street dining”.

He was, simply put, a connoisseur in roadside gastronomy. Abandoning the trappings of Michelin and other five-star establishments, he would stake out the side alleys of Chow Kit — the street in Kuala Lumpur where you could get “everything” during the 70s and 80s — as well as the shanties of Golok in southern Thailand, known for their spicy fare of again, “everything”.


While he allowed himself the occasional experience of a hotel buffet, it was the roadside food stalls and deceptive restaurants that fascinated Ma’il the most. Long before CNN legend Anthony Bourdain surfaced, Ma’il was exposing those in his world to his own version of Parts Unknown. Often, it was a soulful epicurean offering and story to be told, and under his generous expense account, the two of us wolfed down dishes of knowns and unknowns, many delightful and a few acquired tastes.

Once, he invited me to dinner with some of his friends at a favourite Chow Kit Road Thai food stall only a non-homey could find and on the table when I arrived, were at least seven dishes of exotic Southern Thai cuisine, which he personally ordered.

It was the same when he came over to Kota Baru, capital of the northeastern Malaysian state of Kelantan, where I was stationed as a staff correspondent for The Star. The moment he arrived, my task was to locate for him the most inviting Kelantanese fare, or, if need be, cross the Thai border into red light town Golok for an elaborate feast.


Another excuse for Ma’il to fly over to Kota Baru, aside from the useful stories of the UMNO-PAS imbroglio then in the early to mid-1980s, was his passion for fishing.

Fortunately, I was well-versed in the choicest angling locations, especially at the expansive Kelantan river mouth, but I wasn’t a maven in the construct of rod, reel, tackle and bait: that was Ma’il’s expertise.

He brought over expensive gear from Kuala Lumpur and I acquired the “selar” (horse mackerel) bait from the local market and we had funny moments catching either nothing or a bunch of menacing crabs, heaps of gelama (silver white croaker) and red carp or, horrors, the annoying puffer fish.

As usual with his generous benefaction, he left the fishing gear to me for keeps.

Another passion was golf: Ma’il wasn’t an ace but he was driven to learn by watching instructional VHS videos at my place, before hitting the links.

Ma’il noticed that I wasn’t an enthusiast of the game nor had I an inkling of interest, so he left it at that, though it would be unsurprising for him to pass me a set of golf clubs and regularly drag me to the public greens.


That Ma’il was a generous benefactor was an understatement: he readily gave away books of great literature or nonfiction after he finished reading them and even music cassettes of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach that he thoroughly enjoyed. I was one of the lucky recipients.

Ma’il was also an audiophile: his Singapore apartment (back in the 1980s) was decked with an expensive Cyrus CD player, amplifier and speakers set-up complemented by rows of CDs, mostly classical music and a slew of jazz masters powering his musical senses.

I can’t recall the last time I hung out with him. It could have been the early-1990s, a sumptuous dinner buffet at the Pan-Pacific Kuala Lumpur.

And then Ma’il retired. Somehow we lost touch for years. Colleagues told me that they heard Ma’il retired to a fishing village off Sekinchan in Johor (that would be him) before returning for good to Singapore.

One fine day as I was tackling a thorny political column I was about to pen, I was compelled to call Ma’il over the phone to seek his counsel about a certain incident that needed verification of which he was a witness.

The political chit-chat accomplished, we strolled on nostalgia lane extracting our early years, and finishing them off with big guffaws. Fifteen minutes, give and take, and that was that.


Years later, I reconnected with Ma’il on Facebook. In hindsight, his illness would have consumed him by then, not by him making an announcement, but by his reflective snippets on his FB timeline.

In his twilight years, Ma’il was whimsical, philosophical and circumspect on his outlook of life and how he fit into it, his illness probably motivated his little but enjoyable semi-poetic stanzas on Facebook.

Ma’il did give an indication of an illness when he allowed a photograph of himself checking out of a hospital, health intact. We were all relieved but there was a tad of apprehension about his long-term prospects.

Then came the bad news: Ma’il was gone and by the time I got it, already buried. It was lymphoma.

In essence, he left behind a legacy of accomplishments, profound little gifts in kind and kindness, and lovely memories.

To sum it up, Mail was the quintessential reporter and friend in good and bad times.

And a journalistic bridge between Malaysia and Singapore in his time.

  • by Azmi M. Anshar, Editor @
Ismail Kassim | 1942-2019


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