Subramaniam Harihar: The Journalist Who Taught His Gardener About Fonts

Till his last breath literally, Subramaniam Harihar, possibly Malaysia’s oldest working journalist at 79, was thinking of “the story”.

On the afternoon of his passing, at about a quarter to one, he called up the newspaper where he was sub-editor to cite the difficulties he was having in uploading a story. The person who answered said it was Sunday and that tech support wasn’t around to help.

That didn’t stop “Maniam”, as everyone called him. Six decades of weathering every possible BS meant to stop a journalist hadn’t stopped him. This wouldn’t either.

Subramaniam Harihar at his typewriter

So, after a bit of wrangling, he managed to put the story up. But there was still a problem: He didn’t like how it looked. “The fonts aren’t right,” he told Selvam, his gardener — who was beside him that afternoon to listen about the optics of a published story.

A man who probably understood fountains better than fonts, Selvam paid keen attention anyway as his employer explained how the content management system had messed up the typeface on the story, and why it was important to fix that. 

As the gardener was beginning to enjoy his first masterclass on fonts, Maniam suddenly collapsed.

“I tried reviving him but he did not respond,” Selvam said. “It was the same after the ambulance arrived.”

“Fonts — that was the last thing I learned from him.”

It was 1:30 in the afternoon on August 21, 2022. The clock had finally stopped on Maniam — some 62 years after it began recording the triumphs and tribulations of one of Malaysia’s most storied journalists.

1960: A Teen Gets Into The News Business

Maniam at work in his AP office

It was a story that began in 1960, when a teen barely above the legal age for driving joined The Malayan Times, a newspaper founded prior to Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. There were no journalism or mass communication schools or degrees then. Fresh out of high school at 17, Maniam had two things though: the gift of gab and mastery of the Queen’s English — which were enough then to be a journalist. 

Within a few years, his reporting chops and news sense had become strong enough to land him at the UPI, or United Press International, one of the Big Four news wires then. 

But his real calling would come later, at The AP, or The Associated Press, where he virtually became the face and voice of American media in Malaysia (UPI’s coverage in later years barely matched Maniam’s work at the AP; Bloomberg, today’s gigantic US media brand, only arrived in Malaysia in the mid-90s, when financial markets reporting became an indispensable part of the daily news diet). 

When Hari Became Harry

A newswire’s telex room in operation (left); ‘Harry Maniam’ fields a call

Along the way, the native Tamil-speaking orthodox Brahmin Harihar also became “Harry”.

“I told them it’s Hari,” Maniam said, emphasizing the ‘Haa’ at the beginning and ‘Ree’ at the end, when he spoke to his AP colleagues on the other side of the globe. “They’d reply: ‘Yaa, we hear you. Harry, right?’ ”

So, Harry it became. To ensure no misinterpretation on stories, when transcribing stuff over the phone, he’d put on his best Yankee accent, which to his colleagues sounded as legitly American as hotdogs. 

Maniam with other journalists. Circa 1970s

Being fast and sharp with both the written and spoken word, Maniam trailblazed AP’s coverage over the next four decades on almost everything. This included the political fight within the International Natural Rubber Organization or INRO; his award-worthy one-man ten-day round-the-clock reporting of the US embassy siege in Kuala Lumpur in the mid-70s by the Japanese Red Army; and the explosion aboard the Nagasaki Spirit, an oil tanker laden with 40,000 tons of crude, that killed more than 40 crew members and led to the biggest environmental cleanup of the Strait of Malacca in the early 90s.

His Drama Was Only For The Story

Through it all, Maniam was unfazed by the actual events themselves. He reserved  all the drama for his headlines and narrative; top-notch, gripping stuff that often creamed the competition in terms of impact (i.e. the number of newspapers that would use his story when something big happened often amazed his competitors at rival wires). 

“I’ll never forget his coverage of the Nagasaki Spirit,” said Parameswaran Ponnudurai, who worked alongside me at the Kuala Lumpur bureau of the Agence France-Presse, or AFP. Param went on to become AFP’s Washington correspondent before retiring, while I moved on to Reuters in New York.

Back to the Nagasaki Spirit, it was the third day after the explosion aboard the tanker. The fire was still on but the intensity of the story wasn’t like it was on the first day. Those reporting from Port Klang, the nearest shore point to the stricken tanker southwest of Malaysia, were looking for leads that would keep them on top of the news file. 

None had the imagination of Maniam though.

“Burning oil was gushing out of a Japanese oil tanker listing perilously in the Strait of Malacca …” he began. And sure enough, the next day’s logs showed AP leading in almost every region on the story.

No One Saw It Like Him 

Param, who covered the tanker story himself from Port Klang, broke it down for me. “Maniam’s keywords were ‘burning oil’ and a tanker ‘listing perilously’ in the Strait. It was a powerful combination for an editor looking for a Top News headline and you could see why AP was sweeping the logs. We were all getting the same briefings and seeing the same aerial images. Yet, we couldn’t see the story the way he did. What’s more amazing is he wasn’t even at the briefings!”

And here’s where it’s easy to criticize Maniam’s style of work. Some of the less-flattering comments on his legacy were that he never set foot outside the office to cover a story. His best work was often the result of working the phones and in using “stringers” — the industry term for freelancers who string information together, even write whole stories, for different news outlets.

Param could understand Maniam’s strategy though. “He was a man operating on his own. He could venture to the scene of the crime or disaster. But the most important thing for him was filing the story as fast as possible, getting it right and beating the competition.” 

On that score, I had to agree Maniam was superior. He had excellent news judgment and carefully weeded out what to use and what not to, from what his stringers and sources gave him. He was street smart and his competitors hated him for that.

Great Judgment Calls

A year after the tanker explosion, I was privy to Maniam’s judgment call on another story.

Following the collapse of a residential tower in Malaysia in 1993 that killed 48 people, the police chief told the press that a tracker dog had apparently found a note from a survivor, who had scribbled on it “I’m still alive”. Maniam shot back: “Have you seen the note yourself? Do you have it here?” The police chief replied: “That’s what I was told and we’re trying to get the note.” Every news outlet went with the story, except the AP. “I will believe it when I see it,” Maniam told me. His point: How could someone buried under tons of concrete and rubble write a note and pass it to a tracker dog? And if the survivor had that much access to the outside, could the person have not crawled out or yelled for help? In the end, the story was denied and the police chief looked like a fool. Maniam instead was the AP’s hero.

Maniam’s working style was different for another reason.

Once the story was filed, he would shut the computer down and go home. He wouldn’t hang around to talk shop with other reporters who had been on the same story, their tendency often being to head to the nearest pub to revel the night away, or to argue on what might or might not have happened and what could happen next on the story. 

Not Maniam. His philosophy was that reporters had lives beyond their work, surprising for a man who practically lived and breathed the stories that he wrote. He would work at the oddest, craziest hours and circumstances. Param remembers Maniam going straight from prayers at a Hindu temple to his AP office, still dressed in his Indian dhoti, to file an INRO rubber story. 

Home Was His Paradise

A young Maniam and Radha – circa 1970s

Outside of work, Maniam’s paradise was his home. Nestled in a leafy part of the Petaling Jaya district neighboring the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, it was a modest but spacious house encircled by a large enough garden that typically qualified for what Malaysians called a “bungalow”. 

To Maniam, the soul of that home was Kamakshi, or Radha, as everyone knew her. Married in 1971 — he was 28 and she 23 — they both fulfilled what the other desired but couldn’t be. Maniam loved Indian classical music but he couldn’t sing to save his life. Radha taught carnatic singing and bharatanatyam dancing, two of the finest forms of South Indian arts, and her Rolodex of contacts included A-list celebrities in the two fields, right from those who performed in India to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the US. 

“Almost every major singer or dancer from South India who came to Malaysia had stopped over at that house for a visit or private performance,” Maniam’s eldest nephew Mohan told me as I was preparing this tribute. Multiple concerts were held on the gardens of that house by top male carnatic singer Sanjay Subrahmanyan and classical-singer-turned-Tamil-film-music-celebrity Unnikrishnan, Mohan told me. The great Hariharan, a legend in Urdu-based ghazal music, had even sat on the lawn, chewing betel leaves, Mohan noted amusedly.

Maniam’s home was thus an intersection between journalism and Indian fine arts.

 A Point-Man For Indian Arts 

Thanks to Radha’s connections, Maniam would learn in advance of the Indian artists, including movie stars, who were coming to Malaysia to perform and made sure to share the dates with those whom he knew would enjoy such shows or benefit from meeting the performers at his home. Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok weren’t around then, not even phone texting (think of the 1970s and 80s). Maniam virtually kept a diary on Indian artistic performances, which he readily shared with music lovers in his circle through phone calls and word of mouth. 

Radha, meanwhile, loved more than just Indian arts, with English literature and theater being her other passions. She was a voracious reader, who sometimes wished she was a writer too. But she knew that she could never do that as well as Maniam. Hence, she became his No. 1 fan and even compiled in 2012 her own book on Maniam’s greatest scoops as a reporter, in which he left his competitors in the dust. “GIVE ‘EM HELL, HARI!” bellowed the title. The preface on the cover read: “A compilation of selected articles by Hari S. Maniam in the course of his prolific career as a journalist, with special emphasis on his days at the Associated Press”. The footnote added: “A labor of love by Radha”.

GIVE ‘EM HELL, HARI! — Radha’s labor of love for Maniam

Thus, when she was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993, Maniam’s world fell apart.

“But she took it incredibly well,” said Mohan. “I remember she got the results from her tests just before her afternoon walk that day. After reading them, she asked, “Are we going?’ He looked aghast at her, like ‘You really want to go out after hearing this?’ She replied as though she had read his mind: ‘Look, we have to do what we have to do. And now, we have to go for a walk.’ ”

Radha in her later years with Maniam

Coping With — And Without — His Radha

And so, Maniam accompanied her — not just on her walk, but over the next 20 years, as he criss-crossed the world, trying to find a cure for her. Even after he quit the AP and joined The Star, he had one condition: That he be allowed to travel for his wife’s medical condition, whenever necessary. 

Much of their travels were to Singapore, where a new treatment was being developed for leukemia.

But nearly two decades into her diagnosis, Radha’s condition worsened progressively. On February 21, 2014, she breathed her last. 

Looking back, Wong Sulong, a former group editor at The Star and one of Maniam’s closest friends, says Maniam’s devotion to Radha exemplified any marital vow there could be.

In a tribute carried by The Star, he also described Maniam as “a journalist’s journalist, because of his experience in different fields and his willingness to pass on his wisdom to young journalists.”

The Embassy Siege And His Greatest Scoop Ever

Maniam’s greatest glory as a journalist without doubt was his coverage of the 1975 siege of the American embassy by the Japanese Red Army. Some who still remember his reporting from then would describe it as a textbook approach to handling a breaking story. 

A crowd gathered in front of the AIA Building in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 4, 1975 as the hostage drama unfolded. Journalist Subramaniam Harihar had a direct view from his office. – Picture: Tham Choon Fatt/The Star

The Star chronicled his work over those ten days in a 2015 retelling of the saga. Marking the 40th anniversary of the siege, The Star said the day began like any for Maniam, only that it happened to be his day off. He had popped into the office for some reason with Radha and his two grand nephews in tow. The AP at that time occupied the penthouse of the long-demolished China Insurance Building in central Kuala Lumpur. Right across was the target of the siege — the AIA, or American International Assurance, building which housed the US embassy.

The two young boys suddenly shouted out to their grand uncle that many police cars were approaching the AIA building. Maniam went out to look and saw a crowd gathering below. He first thought the bank below the building was getting robbed. He called the bank to ask if there was indeed a robbery. No, a staff there said. But something seemed to be happening on a higher floor, the person added. Maniam’s instincts told him that it could be the embassy and he put a call through to the consulate’s general number. Someone who answered told him that gunmen were holding some of the embassy staff hostage. In today’s world, that would have been enough to send out a news flash or tweet that would have gone viral in seconds. But AP’s old school of reporting had more rigorous standards. A named source was needed and Maniam pressed to get someone on the record. He finally got the embassy’s political chief Frank Bennett on the line. Bennett said he couldn’t speak right away. 

So, Maniam let a few minutes pass. Then he rang again. This time, Bennett was told that if he did not comment, the AP would file a story saying that gunmen were holding US embassy hostage and officials contacted by telephone declined to confirm or deny the story. Bennett realized that it was better to acknowledge to the world that there was a crisis but the embassy was handling it. “Within two to three minutes he called me back and read a statement to me that the JRA had taken hostages and the highest-ranking officer was US Consul Robert Stebbins,” Maniam told The Star.

The final 15 hostages were swapped on the tarmac outside the waiting JAL DC-8 on Aug 8, 1975. The five in the middle facing the camera were the last five hostages. Robert Stebbins, the last to be released, was in the white shirt at the left with a loose tie. Swedish Charge d’Affaires Fredrik Bergenstrahle is in the business suit in the middle. Picture: The Star

The siege rocked the world. Many until then had no inkling that Japan had a militant communist Red Army that had risen from the ashes of its post-war ideological differences. Maniam’s story on the hostage-taking ended up “beating all the wires”, The Star’s Santha Oorjitham said in her 2015 recap of the saga. Maniam also told Santha that over the next few days, “I lived in the office. My wife brought me food and clothes. I bathed and slept there, but she didn’t grumble.”

It’s easy to see why Radha was his No. 1 fan. Her adrenalin probably flowed as fast as Maniam’s when news was breaking. 

From his office’s penthouse, Maniam said he had a “bird’s-eye view” of the siege. He had a pair of binoculars too, to ensure he didn’t miss a thing. “I would doze off and then get up and work.”

If the AP’s scoop of the siege itself had been sensational, even bigger was its wrapup of the event. After Stebbins was released and he returned home, Maniam called and asked to speak to him. The embassy’s public affairs chief told Maniam that Stebbins was “very distraught and couldn’t talk now”. Maniam, in cold, classic-reporter mode asked: “Are you deciding for him that he’s tired? Ask him if he will talk to me and if he will, you shouldn’t deny him.”

The Police Field Force heading up the AIA Building escalator on Aug 4, 1975 to take up positions after the Japanese Red Army seized the 9th floor. – The Star

Stebbins agreed to talk, and Maniam bagged the first interview with him, typing it up as they spoke. “AP was very, very happy,” he said.

A Doubly Sweet Ending

But it wasn’t over yet. Another moment of vindication awaited Maniam. 

Since the crisis broke, his bosses at the AP had not sent in any back-up for Maniam, thinking the whole thing would be over in a day or two. On the 10th day, Denis Gray, the AP’s bureau chief for Bangkok and back-up designate for Maniam, walked into the office and said he was there to help. “They just took off for Libya’,” Maniam told Gray, referring to the insurgents who were airborne. “You can take over. I’m going home to sleep.”

Stebbins pictured in 2015, then aged now 81 and retired in Califonia, He was concerned about security in his section of the US Embassy, two weeks before the 1975 Japanese Red Army invasion.

That Maniam comeback — delivered matter-of-factly, with a slight edge of sarcasm — was a riposte that never failed to crack me up.

I still remember my first meeting with him. It was 1992 and I had just joined AFP and was covering the appeal of an Australian drug trafficker, originally apprehended in Malaysia in the late 1980s. Maniam was there for the AP. After the hearing, we ended up in Bangsar, a suburb minutes away from the Kuala Lumpur city center, for thosai, a spicy Indian crepe popular with most Malaysians. I learned that Maniam was an Iyer, who belonged to the orthodox Hindu Brahmin caste. That made him a strict vegetarian. I also realized something else: He was the only member of the wire correspondents community who did not drink — alcohol that is.

As odd as he was from the rest of us chain-smoking, hard-boozing lot, what really made Maniam stand out was his decades in the news business. He had amazing experiences and brushes with history that most of us had only read about. 

The ‘Forrest Gump’ of News?

In a way, he was like the Forrest Gump of the news business — without the awkwardness, of course.

One of his most endearing qualities was his ability to make you laugh with how he told the simplest stories. But, just as unexpectedly, he’d move into a powerful narrative, like the hostage situation at the embassy. He switched gears smoothly throughout a night, holding your rapt attention.

And he had a way of making you sit to hear more of his tales, just as you were getting up to leave. It could be his encounter with Henry Kissinger or any other iconic statesmen; once he started a new yarn, I’d end up staying. And there was good reason to. He served his stories on top of an endless flow of crunchy groundnuts, chilled pineapple beverages and famous Madrasi coffee that Radha had trained their Filipina maid to brew to perfection. The combination made his home one of the most-addictive places you could lose yourself in, without fear of any sin.

Yet Maniam wondered aloud at times whether his “clean” way of life had been worth it. After he was diagnosed with his first heart problem in the late 90s and underwent surgery, he lamented to me: “You fellas smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish, and yet I’m the one who gets a heart problem for being an abstainer and vegetarian. Maybe I should have done all these and fucked a few women too.” He made that last remark in the presence of Radha, who threw her head back and laughed. “I never stopped him!” she said, matching his wit.  

His Vices Were Costly … But Clean

This did not mean that Maniam had no vices. 

Arguably Malaysia’s highest-paid journalist at one time, he indulged in luxuries such as a Rolex watch, a diamond ring and other jewelry worth the annual salary of many reporters. And no reporter I knew — at least in the early 90s — owned what Malaysians would call a “bungalow”.

Maniam also loved cars and had at least one vintage one in his driveway.

Maniam with Lakshmi, one of Radha’s friends. He spent his final years with those closest to his late wife.

“One of his biggest excitements was you getting a Mercedes,” Mohan, the nephew, told me. Indeed, that was the biggest purchase of my life and in my defense, it was to be used as a limousine for my sister’s bridal business. Of course, when it wasn’t ferrying brides, the car was mine to use and I reveled at being the only reporter in town then to drive a Mercedes. And Maniam was just as thrilled, calling up Mohan in Australia to tell him about it. Incidentally, it was Mohan who, during one of his visits home, had schooled us on the merits of buying a quality reconditioned Mercedes at half the price of a new one. Seeing me helped Maniam decide on his own Benz.

Still, it was his phone call about my purchase that really surprised Mohan. “He never calls me because he hates to use his phone to make what he thinks are unnecessary calls,” said Mohan, chuckling. “So I was surprised to hear from him. He said, ‘Hey, I wanted to tell you that Barani bought a Mercedes’. Actually, that was the only reason he called, and he hung up a little while after that.” 

The point of the story is that Maniam was genuinely happy for me and anyone else in the trade who “made it”.

I know of many journalists whom he had helped to get jobs or at least more money for the work they do. In my case, he personally coached me in negotiating for the right package when I moved from AFP to Reuters. 

Later, when I got the New York job, he seemed even more elated than me, inviting his entire relative circle to dinner to break the news.

Will We See Another Harry Maniam?

No good deed goes unreturned, as the Vedic law of this universe dictates. And it was true in Maniam’s case. 

Without Radha, his home was empty. But his life wasn’t. It was filled by those who once celebrated them as a couple. He continued to work remotely for The Star, but stayed in different places. It helped fill his loneliness and at the same time be useful to others. 

While he was alternating between the home of his sick sister and Lakshmi, one of Radha’s friends, his bungalow was, however, burgled repeatedly. Cherished keepsakes he had in the memory of Radha were carted away. The Star ran a story and the police were pressured to act. “Police caught two people as they entered my house this morning,” he texted me on Aug. 8, two weeks before his passing. “Wonderful! Finally,” I replied. That was our last exchange.

A week prior to that, we actually spoke on the phone. That was when he told me he had developed a condition called pulmonary fibrosis that made breathing extremely  difficult, even when doing even the simplest things like walking and bathing. In spite of that, he managed to tell me a few jokes before he hung up.

I remember holding the phone after that call, thinking about him. The Great Harry Maniam. Will I, in my lifetime, see another dhoti-clad, pineapple juice-loving Yankee-accented Iyer taking on the whole world when it came to breaking news? 

Probably not.

(With excerpts from Santha Oorjitham’s A journalist with a view, and a lesson not fully learned )     

– by Barani Krishnan, Founder & Americas Editor 

Maniam, one of Malaysia’s few reporters who has had many brushes with history, so much so that he can likened to a real life “Forrest Gump” — without the awkwardness, of course.

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