Ng Poh Tip: The Star Editor Who Towered Over Her Paper, Like None Other

Ng Poh Tip: The Star Editor Who Towered Over Her Paper, Like None Other

“I am not the editor of a newspaper and shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one,” American humorist Mark Twain wrote, before winding up with just that job. 

Similarly, Ng Poh Tip took the reins at her paper through events not of her making, helping create a large and strange organization unrecognizable with its old virtues and reporting glory, though she herself stood tall all along (literally) with infinite charm and grace.

To understand how that happened, a time travel is needed — to 1988.

A 1990s news planning meeting at The Star. On the far left is Mike Aeria with Poh Tip seated in the center.

Bringing A Paper Back … From The Dead

1988 wasn’t just the year of the Seoul Olympics. Across the globe, watershed moments were occurring. The World Wide Web was being discussed as a concept for the first time. The Soviet Union had begun deconstructing, towards a mixed economy and eventual dissolution. Global warming had also emerged as a significant concern, with an inaugural hearing in the US senate.

In Malaysia, The Star reopened from a five-month publishing ban, with loyal readers grabbing the first copy they saw on the streets of a tabloid revered by the ordinary people for its fearless reporting and quietly admired by establishment types for its critique of the government they served.

The Star resuming publication after a five-month ban

On the cover of the March 26, 1988 issue headlined “We’re Back”, Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman resurrected the weekly column he had been writing for years at The Star. He thanked readers for their unwavering support and recounted the hardship endured by all due to the paper’s ban — which came after a period of intense political tensions in the multiracial country that culminated in the detention without trial of a host of rivals and critics of incumbent prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. 

The October 1987 clamp down on free speech and the media — dubbed Operasi Lalang (Weeding Operation) — remains one of the gravest assaults on civil liberties in Malaysia and The Star had led coverage on this, ending up with the ban which was also imposed on a few other papers.

The Tunku’s March 26 column would have been little more than an attempt by the country’s elder statesman to reconnect with readers and share his musings on the state of affairs in his nation had he not gone on to pledge — on behalf of The Star — that “we’ll do our best not to offend the government again”. 

The Malaysian Chinese Association, majority owner of The Star and an ally in Mahathir’s UMNO party, weighed in on the same front page, “thanking” the prime minister for reinstating the paper’s printing license. Like the Tunku, the MCA didn’t stop there. Its president Ling Liong Sik expressed confidence that here on, The Star “would play its role as a responsible paper”.

With that, the die was cast on the sort of paper The Star would be in the post-Lalang days.

In analyzing the triggers for Mahathir’s media clampdown, The Rocket publication owned by the Democratic Action Party said the Tunku was accused of “propagating and pushing liberal agendas into the Malaysian political atmosphere” through his writings. To compensate for his indiscretion and to never bait the government again, “The Star practiced heavy self-censorship and lost its liberal flavor”, observed the DAP-owned publication.

An Editor Coming Into Her Own

It was in that fraught age that Poh Tip rose from relative obscurity to become the most influential woman in the Malaysian news scene.

Poh Tip in an undated picture.

Abandoning its pro-opposition coverage and criticism of the government, The Star needed new things to champion, and eventually found them in education, technology and the environment.

The transition worked largely because of Poh Tip — who became everyone’s favorite person at the paper, even when she was just third in The Star’s editorial pecking order. In an era of uncertainty, when ideas alternating between good and bad were aired in a mix of emotions and logic, her voice of reason and ear for people’s problems made all the difference.

“She was really calm and cool; and that’s how she won people over,” Mike Aeria, a long-time confidant and Poh Tip ally in The Star’s editing pit, told justneverforget after her passing on May 25, 2024, at the age of 81.

A Canadian-trained political scientist, Poh Tip began her reporting career at the New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur, emerging as one of Malaysia’s best-known female writers in the 1970s and 80s, along with NST colleagues such as Adibah Amin and Millicent Danker. 

The Scoop, the internal publication of The Star, announcing Poh Tip’s arrival in the Penang newsroom in July 1982.

After a 14-month stint in public relations at Hong Kong’s Hill and Knowlton, she joined The Star in 1982 in Malaysia’s northern Penang island. Penang was birthplace for both her and The Star, which was founded the same year that she began in journalism — 1971. While she reveled in those coincidences, The Star’s aim to be a national paper meant that its headquarters had to be closer to the Malaysian capital — the Petaling Jaya suburb proved ideal — and Poh Tip relocated there.

Poh Tip with MCA president Ling Liong Sik (far left). She had strong cables with him but rarely pulled them.

In a newsroom filled with chain-smoking and hard-drinking journalists — many of them men — Poh Tip often kept her head down. This was in spite of  her six-foot height and strong cables even then with MCA president Ling, which she rarely pulled.

The Lalang episode, however, changed everything. 

Changing Not Just A Paper But A Culture

In its heyday, the popular joke about The Star was that it was “owned by the MCA, run by the MIC, for the DAP”. 

The MIC was in reference to the ethnic Indians who ran The Star’s newsdesk and their presumed alliance with the Malaysian Indian Congress, another government party (the reality was almost all Indians at the paper loathed the MIC). The DAP refers to the aforementioned Democratic Action Party, the biggest opposition party then (and, interestingly, government ally at the time of this obituary).

Post-Lalang changes came fast to The Star’s leadership, with VK Chin, a journalist backed by the MCA, appointed group chief editor.   

“VK didn’t know much about running a paper,” recalled Mike. “He was more of a writer than a boss. He needed an administrator.” 

Enter Poh Tip, as his deputy managing editor.

“After Lalang, we had to call VK every night to report to him what the next day’s front page would be,” said Mike. “VK didn’t sit in the morning and evening news meetings. Poh Tip did all that. The Star needed somebody with a cool head to make decisions. The previous editorial leadership was emotionally-charged when it came to stories. They were also perceived to be anti-government; whether it was true or not, that was the perception. Whereas Poh Tip was perceived to be a calm person.”

With Nizam Mohamed, an editor previously with state news agency Bernama taking charge of The Star’s newsdesk, Poh Tip and Mike got to work.

The team produced some excellent scoops that beat the competition. It also took some admirable risks. One of them was rewriting VK’s story on the 1989 laying down of arms by the Communist Party of Malaya that ended a 40-year insurgency in the country. 

The Star's front-page on Dec 2, 1989, about the Communist Party of Malaya's surrender.

Egos in the newspaper business aren’t very different from those in other industries — fragile — and touching the top boss’ work required guts. What Mike and Nizam dared, Poh Tip enabled. Nizam made the changes and VK was praised the next morning by those who read his story in the Thai city of Haadyai where the communist rebels surrendered. Poh Tip took no credit despite being aware of what was going on.

But the Mike-Nizam alliance that attempted to inject some of the “old school” Star into the new didn’t get far.

By early 1991, within three years of The Star’s return, a rebellion began against their alliance, led by reporters unhappy with the stories they were assigned or envious of the opportunities and front pages landed by those who were harder working. Another newsdesk consolidation followed, with Poh Tip being told by VK to find a way to grow that will keep everyone happy. And no more risks, she was reminded.

Fighting Over Stories To Personalities: A Little Char Kway Teow Makes It “Lively” 

In wishing for risk-aversion and a conflictless newsroom — a near impossibility in journalism — VK was, in effect, busting the work done by his team to lift The Star’s already watered-down standards.

Was that fair to the paper’s faithful readers, one might ask. Wasn’t it The Star’s responsibility to tell the truth as it saw it (which, incidentally was the title of the Tunku’s column) and also without fear or favor? (the tagline used by Tan Chee Koon, another columnist at the paper)

Within the newsroom, some reporters bemoaned about the CKT-like standards of a few subeditors. The letters stand for char kway teow, a popular friend noodle dish, and were a dig at how those individuals sometimes sent stories they got from reporters to page makers with undesirable rewrites, grammar and, even, typos — all tossed together like CKT. 

Mike has answers for all these.

First, on the post-Lalang editorial slant, he said The Star simply had no options. “We were so heavily watched, I don’t think we could have survived a day had we taken any other way. There was no room for dissent. Some accuse us of sugarcoating the truth to please the government. I think what’s important is that we didn’t lie. We reported what we could.”

Those who have followed the Malaysian media landscape long enough will agree that press freedom isn’t something that makes comfortable discussion in the country. Reporters Without Borders places Malaysia at the 107th position out of 180 countries for press freedom. 

At around the time of Poh Tip’s passing, the National Press Club called on the government to abolish — not expand — the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (the same one that was used to shut down The Star). Yet, all of Malaysia’s mainstream media looked away when the country’s sixth prime minister Najib Razak was linked to the greatest kleptocracy ever by the Wall Street Journal in 2016, while he was still in office. Only one journalist — the group editor of the NST — protested the media blackout and made his disgust known by publicly announcing his resignation on Facebook.  

At The Star, things were more complicated, said Mike. While journalistic ideals were important, the paper needed to be fair to its non-editorial employees, he said. “We were made up of not just journalists but also people in the admin, HR, advertising and circulation departments. We had drivers and security guards too. All of them had families. For the welfare of everyone, we had to keep the paper open.”

As for the criticism over the CKT-types, it was again a reflection of The Star’s diversity, he said. “A newspaper has many types of people. To have only one type would be boring. I guess some CKT was needed to make us lively,” he added, with a chuckle.

Humor aside, the explanation underscored the challenges faced by Poh Tip in reinventing her paper.

But reinvent she did.

Like The Phoenix, The Star Too Rises

In 1993, VK retired and Poh Tip moved up to fill the group chief editor’s spot.

Almost all at once, a new energy was palpable in the newsroom of The Star, with Poh Tip allowing decisions to be made more freely. Her style was simple: Endorse what she was consulted on and tacitly allow the well-intentioned plans of those who did not come to her.

The Star’s front page on Dec 12, 1993, a day after the collapse of the Highland Towers. It was the only paper with helicopter shots of the carnage.

The coverage of the Highland Towers saga late that year was a textbook example of her dual-style management. The collapse of a luxury tower block that trapped 48 people, all of whom were killed, could be spectacularly told with aerial pictures. But a helicopter was needed and that would cost 5,000 ringgit — the equivalent of US$2,000 then and a ransom by The Star’s standards.  Mike was keen to hire the chopper. But he worried that Poh Tip, if consulted, would balk at the bill. Time was running out and it would soon be dusk. He needed to make a decision. 

It turned out to be one of his best calls. The Star trounced the competition with aerial shots of the disaster, with even world news service AFP keen to buy the pictures the next day. The 5,000 ringgit had been more than justified. Poh Tip signed the check and glowed in her praise of Mike and the team for the spectacular job. 

Reflecting on his decision, Mike said he took the gamble because he knew Poh Tip would have his back. 

“Of course, everything went well and we made her proud,” he said. “But even if not, she wasn’t exactly the type of person to chew your head off. She was kind in forgiving mistakes and giving you the opportunity to learn from them. Her idea was to encourage quietly and take pride in watching from a distance at how you grow.”  

Poh Tip with Steven Tan (middle), who was managing director before becoming CEO of Star Publications

Business began booming under the editorial led by Poh Tip and the broader leadership of The Star under managing director — and later CEO — Steven Tan. The paper was practically bursting at its seams from gigantic advertising pull-outs as millions in revenue poured in via supplemental ads to the classifieds once  dominated by The Malay Mail, the noon tabloid of rival NST.

Poh Tip with former Penang chief minister Koh Tsu Koon (left) in the early 1990s

“To put it in perspective, The Star grew in the 1970s and early 80s because the NST was only telling one side of the political story,” said Mike. “After Lalang, The Star had to take a different path. That path became IT and education. We started the online newsdesk. Poh Tip was very passionate and strong on education. It was also a money-spinner for The Star because at that time, private colleges were mushrooming in the country with twinning programs. We moved in at the right time and decided to hold education fairs and the sort. We focused on the environment too, to raise the consciousness of the people. The Star transformed from a political paper to a social issues paper and we boomed.”

So much so that by the mid 90s, money was rarely an issue at the company, which became a publicly-traded firm on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange.  At one point, it was doing so well that it paid out as much as six months in bonus as The Star became Malaysia’s best-selling paper.

Like the proverbial phoenix, The Star had also risen from its ashes.

And it was doing a lot more. 

The Star handing over the International Red Cross the money it collected for the North Korean famine

In the mid 1990s, after a big famine in North Korea, The Star collected some 20 million ringgit — the equivalent of US$8 million then — from its readers under a relief effort set up by the International Red Cross.

Recalled Mike:

“It was more than anything raised by any newspaper in Malaysia, so much so that the Finance Ministry came in and told us to stop, saying too much money was leaving the country. Here was a nation that until then had been a recipient of aid. Now, all of a sudden, we had become a substantial donor. I think these are some of the things that made The Star different.”

Vanessa Mae To Manchester United: The Star Did It All Under Poh Tip

Poh Tip with British violinist Vanessa Mae (center)

Event management became one a forte for The Star as well.  Staging its first musical in 1989 with My Fair Lady, it brought on bigger acts over the years, including sensational British violinist Vanessa Mae. Shaolin martial arts performers and a tour of the Manchester United soccer team were among other star attractions done under Poh Tip’s watch. 

In the newsroom, meanwhile, there was often a family-like atmosphere when she was around. One reason for that was Poh Tip’s preference to sit outside her office — mingling with the troops in the trenches, rather than behave like the general in her ivory tower. 

Having no kids of her own, she also regarded many of the youngsters around her like her children.

“Poh Tip gave me my first break in journalism in 1989 when she hired me as a teenaged intern,” said Chen May Yee, who went on to study writing at New York’s Columbia University before ending up with reporting stints at AFP and the Wall Street Journal.

In a tribute to Poh Tip on Facebook, May described her ex-boss “as understated and kind.” She also remembers the six-footer as “almost gliding around the newsroom”, with a hairstyle made up of “trademark bangs and bob (what they used to call a ‘pageboy’)” and a sense of fashion invariably featuring “voluminous midi skirts”.

Not everyone on the The Star’s editorial floor has flattering views of Poh Tip’s achievements though.

“I think she kept things going, but did not challenge the status quo” when it mattered, said a former senior reporter who worked under her.

Asohan Aryaduray, editor of The Star’s InTech desk, concurs somewhat.

For those who had the honor of working with Poh Tip over long periods, Asohan says “it was always in an environment of deep, mutual respect”.

But he adds: “To be honest, she had her detractors … both within and without The Star”

He likens Poh Tip to having “an iron fist covered in a velvet glove”, stressing it was “not in any duplicitous way”.

“She would hear me out, and if I proved my point, she would apologize for doubting me,” Asohan wrote in his tribute. “If I was wrong, she would admonish me to not do it again, and I wouldn’t.”

Brigitte Rozario, who worked under Asohan, says there was an occasion when the two inadvertently joined a signature campaign against the editorial department — to Poh Tip’s regret.

“We were not subjected to a shelling or any sort of humiliation,” recalled Brigitte in her eulogy of Poh Tip. “Instead, she politely asked us why we felt the need to do that. She reminded us we were now part of management and that if we felt strongly about anything, we should come into her office and talk to her. She told us more was expected of us and that there was a better way of doing things.”

A Halo That Will Live On Over The Star

Poh Tip retired as group chief editor in 2003. She did some consultancy work in Hong Kong later for the South China Morning Post, bringing Mike along. Over the next 20 years, she stayed in touch with The Star and its people, attending benefits held by the paper while catching up for coffee whenever possible with the likes of Mike to the youngest recruits of her time, such as Brigittte and Asohan. 

Mike Aeria handing over a memento celebrating Poh Tip’s “Datukship” — the equivalent of a knighthood in Malaysia.

In summation, Pana Janviroj, former executive director of the Asia News Network — a 22-nation media alliance which Poh Tip helped found — calls her “a quiet, unassuming, and yet a great chief editor … (who) can’t be denied her media legacy”.

Mike concurs.  “She will always be that towering, quiet force that lifted The Star like none other had, while somehow staying in the shadows at the same time.”

And her halo will likely live on over the paper.

* Barani Krishnan was a former reporter at The Star who went on to AFP and Reuters before becoming a freelance writer on  business and the economy. A New York resident since 2006, he launched justneverforget during the COVID-19 breakout as a way to remotely celebrate loved ones lost during the pandemic. With his Malaysian partner Francis Nantha, Barani uses the remembrance site to write celebrity-style obituaries on ordinary people with extraordinary lives.


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