Tony Francis: The Malaysian Champ in the Ring of Heavyweight Journalism

Tony Francis: The Malaysian Champ in the Ring of Heavyweight Journalism

Among Tony Francis’ prized possessions was a pair of boxing gloves from Muhammad Ali, which when he put on, made him a very unlikely looking champ. 

It was a perfect foil for his unassuming demeanor though. In the newsrooms that served as his ring for nearly five decades, Francis never pranced or gloated like “The Greatest” whom he adored. Yet, those who traded linguistic jabs with him, either for fun or to tempt his ire, seldom recovered from his one-liner punchlines delivered with the unkind power of a boxer’s uppercut.

The fight metaphor could have been subbed out with any sports analogy when describing Francis.

Golf, for instance. His template gait was that of an observant golfer, hand sometimes couching chin — like as though he was working out the permutations of a swing or putt — as he wrote his insightful pieces on Malaysian sports.

Even weight-lifting wasn’t beyond him. Francis never broke under the immense weight of his newsroom, absorbing all the crap his tyrannical superiors threw at him, without letting any hit his direct reports. He was the consummate lifter, absorbing both internal and external pressure, and holding it all up as long as needed. And when he did put it down, he made sure it landed on no one. 

Driven To Perform, Like An Athlete 

For as long as he lived — seventy-three years until his passing of a lung ailment four days to Christmas 2020 — Francis was driven to perform, like an athlete. Through that performance, he held up the twin passions of his life: journalism and sports. And for 35 years, he found a place to sync the two: the news floor of the New Straits Times, Malaysia’s oldest print newspaper group.

Tony Francis (middle) was a big byline in his younger days as a sports reporter. (Tony Francis pic, Reproduced from Free Malaysia Today)

Following in the trail of his two elder brothers, Francis joined NST as a cadet reporter at the age of 20 in 1967, and benefited, as I learnt, from two of the greatest names then in Malaysian sportswriting — Norman Siebel and Mansoor Rahman. Siebel inspired him, while Mansoor mentored Francis to eventually take over from his spot as sports editor. Both these luminaries were among the first journalists to be inducted to the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Hall of Fame — an honor extended in later years to Francis as well.

Francis learned well from his masters. He also taught — and defended — his prodigies well.

By the time I arrived at the paper in 1987, two decades after Francis, he was somewhat a legend in his own right after Siebel and Rahman.

He Had His Reporters’ Backs — Like No Else

Francis was respected not just for his craft and dedication, but also for his defense of the NST’s virtues and best assets — the latter being its reporters.

He had his reporters’ backs like no one else. I remember him sticking his neck out once for a wayward journalist, even when the management called for the guy’s head.

More amusingly, he used to coddle a sub-editor on the sports desk who cavorted with his guitar during work, sported flowing locks just shorter than Rapunzel’s, and dressed like a forgotten flower child of the 60s.

“He might look different but his work is first rate,” Francis told me in his overt defense of the time-locked hippie. 

“Besides, he doesn’t claim overtime … , ” he added as an afterthought. 

That ought to have pacified any scrooge in management, I thought, joining him in chuckle.

Quiet, With Wry Humor

Besides a wry sense of humor, Francis often displayed an ice-cool and transcendently calm exterior. His emotions were seldom discernible and he showed no penchant for excitable gesticulations, except when it came to “Sweet Caroline” — his favorite karaoke song.

“He was a quiet guy and never talked much in the office,” recalls Fauzi Omar, who attained celebrity-status as a sports columnist under Francis, and who — like his mentor — became editor-in-chief of the NST’s tabloid paper, The Malay Mail, in later years.

Others who spent years working with Francis also attest to his taciturn side.

“Tony was a boss of few words but the consummate journo in speech who expected you to get it … just like that subtle humor of his,” says Sulochini Nair, former news editor at NST. “I would many times only get it later.” 

Indeed, on the sprawling NST editorial floor, where he spent his formative and guiding years, Tony was never heard pounding the table.  Neither did he try being a ventriloquist, like other hard-boiled editors who routinely threw their voice — and weight — across the room.

Never Yells, But …

Tony Francis (right) speaking to foreign counterparts at a sports event in Kuala Lumpur in 1987. (Picture reproduced from New Straits Times)

But invoke his ire or skew his equilibrium, and you’d experience pointedly sharp and animatedly salty lashings spew from his mouth like lava. What rolled off his tongue was the prototypical linguistic somersault of seasoned journalists. But he never yelled. Instead, he emitted low, basso growls — which were more terrifying than any shout. It was like Bill Bixby beaming at you with the sweet-face of Dr. Bruce Banner while sounding like The Hulk.

Some who’ve experienced that “other side” of Francis have vivid memories of the choice phrases he grunted in those transformational moments.

Ashraf Abdullah, who rose from a reporter to become desk editor and later boss of NST’s broadcast media alliance Media Prima, is among them.

“Dey pundek …”, Francis would begin with Ashraf, using a term in Tamil that wasn’t exactly known for its politeness, before going on to add, “… remind me to buy you a dictionary for your birthday!” It was a vintage Francis volley that surfaced whenever Ashraf spelled a word wrongly during the days when auto-correct wasn’t a standard yet in writing software.

Textbook Sarcasm

In his most savage avatar, Francis was like Jonah Jameson, the fictitious publisher of the Daily Bugle newspaper in the Spider-Man movies. Jameson’s character was textbook sarcasm, which Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons elevated to a different cinematic level altogether from its comic book origin.

Vijesh Rai, who trained under Francis before becoming a sports editor himself, remembers that side of his ex-boss. 

Rai triggered a Jameson moment in Francis when he added a “weepy” touch to a story about Malaysia’s victory over Singapore at the ASEAN Football Federation Cup in Thailand in 2000. The tears in the narrative belonged to the Malaysian team coach.

The cynicism in Francis’ response was stinging enough that it was seared into Rai’s brain forever. “There was a time when we used to beat Singapore for fun,” Francis shot back, referring to the rivalry between the two old neighbors that covered everything from politics to culture and sports. “Now, we shed tears when we do.” 

Even in moments of true camaraderie, Francis used the few words he uttered to good effect, often mixing goodwill with acerbity.

“I remember, after one of our first drinking sessions, he had to drive some rookie reporters home, sloshed after one session,” said NST senior news editor Sharanjit Singh, who was one of the inebriated.

“During the drive, he was just going on and on with good cuss words on how he’d ended having to drive us home. It was all good vibes though.”

Malay Mail article that appeared after Muhammad Ali’s death in June 2016. Francis is seen here with Ali’s training gloves, which “The Greatest” handed him after the fight with Joe Bugner in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. Ian Pereira, another sports icon of NST pictured here, got Ali’s Everlast trunks.

The Sifu: A World-Class Sports Scribe

But if there was one overarching assessment of Francis, it was his standing as a world class sports scribe. 

While he wore the different hats of news editor and editor-in-chief at different times during his five-decade long career, Francis spent 33 of his 35 years at NST as a sports reporter and editor. During this time, he covered two Olympics (Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992), three World Cups (1974 Germany, 2006 Germany and 2010 South Africa). He also reported on a host of international and regional events like badminton’s Thomas Cup, the Southeast Asian Games and the Asian Games.

Frankie DCruz, one of The Malay Mail’s foremost editors, has a one-word reverence for Francis: “Sifu”.

It’s Cantonese for master or guru.

Francis (centre) never took credit for the achievements of his reporters. Here he is pictured with Fauzi Omar (extreme right) and other journalists who set the tone for sports writing in the ‘80s and ‘90s (Picture reproduced from Free Malaysia Today)

Mourning the death of what he called the “exemplar of an intelligent, ambitious and uncompromising brand of journalism”, DCruz listed Francis’ many accomplishments in a tribute that ran on the Free Malaysia Today news portal. The deeds include:

* Exposing the match-fixing in Malaysian soccer that led to the arrests of more than 200 players including big names. The scandal almost destroyed the Malaysian Football Association during the 1993-94 season.

* Leading a1986 NST-driven campaign to raise 3.25 million ringgit (then the equivalent of $1.5 million U.S.) for the Perak Cycling Association to build “Velodrome Rakyat” (The People’s Velodrome) in Ipoh city in northern Perak state. It was the first such arena in Malaysia for cycling.

* Broke what was Malaysia’s most-politically charged sports story in the early 1990s, involving Douglas Gomez, a school hockey coach who was assaulted by a sultan. The incident was a watershed moment in government-monarchy relations, prompting Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to intervene and set up a special court for misbehaving royals. While running the Gomez story was obviously a major political decision for NST’s leadership, the story broke under Francis’ watch and he was diligently on top of it.   

* Pioneering the NST Timesport Man of the Year Award, modeled along the lines of TIME magazine Person (Man then) of the Year.

Other than that, there was, of course, the Ali heavyweight title defense against Briton Joe Bugner in 1975. Francis managed to get up close to The Greatest, and earned what was the equivalent of pure gold in sports memorabilia: Ali’s trainer gloves. Ian Pereira, another NST sports desk icon, meanwhile, got Ali’s trunks.

Francis also ghost-wrote columns for Indonesia’s badminton great Rudy Hartono in run-ups to Thomas Cup finals and even convinced English football legend Kevin Keegan to write a column for the NST when he was in Malaysia in 1982.

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like Him Anymore

Always having his reporters’ backs: Francis all the way behind NST’s sports team of the 80s. From right: Lazarus Rokk, Richard Velu, Bill Tegjeu, George Das, Fauzi Omar and R.D. Selva. (Picture: New Straits Times)

Summing it up, Fauzi —  the celebrated former sports columnist at NST — says this of Francis:  They just don’t make sportswriters like him anymore.

“He was in the same mould as Norman Siebel,” Fauzi says, comparing Francis to the late giant in Malaysian sports coverage.  “Tony was a very versatile sportswriter. He covered everything: football, badminton, hockey, bowling, swimming, tennis, cycling, motor racing etc.” 

“As far I’m concerned, my best years in the NST were working at the sports desk under Tony Francis in the 80s,” he adds.

But Francis himself laughed off suggestions that he was on par with Siebel.

He once told Tony Mariadass, a NST/Malay Mail sports veteran he mentored in the 80s, what he thought of such comparisons:

“Norman was a legend. Nobody can attain the standards he had set. I had not even achieved ankle deep of what he had achieved.”

Modesty and  Magnanimity

Indeed, modesty and magnanimity were two ingrained traits of Francis.

Despite having a taciturn persona, Fauzi says his ex-boss “somehow got the best out of his reporters”. 

“For me, it was my sheer respect for him, both as a professional and a friend that I always gave my best to him,” he adds.

Francis’ imprint on Fauzi was profound: He assigned him his biggest break, the “Fauzi Omar on Tuesday” column that began in the late 1980s. In those days, Fauzi’s column was a must-read to anyone who appreciated the intersection of choice sports commentary and fine writing.

Francis, being Francis, took no credit for Fauzi’s success, even as he high-fived his star reporter’s fame among readers at a time when there was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — or even Google — for people to follow their favorite games. 

And while was averse to taking credit, Francis was quick to give.

Accepting the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Hall of Fame award in 2015, Francis dedicated the honor to a legion of NST sportswriters he worked with in the ‘70s, ‘80s and in the early ‘90s.

“They changed the complexion of sports reporting, from straightforward news stories to commentaries and inside and behind the scene stories. They campaigned for what was right and necessary,” Francis said, leaving out his own achievements.  

Francis toned Malaysian sports through his writings, radical approach to sports pages and guidance of sportswriters. (Tony Francis pic, Reproduced from New Straits Times)

He Had The Biggest “Fan” Of Them All

And while many of his star reporters had their own fan base, Francis had an admirer that none of them could boast of: the Malaysian King.   

Learning of Francis’ death, the national palace issued a tribute, conferring on him honor rare for a journalist.

“His Majesty recognizes the immense contribution by this journalist to the media fraternity and to the nation and appreciates Francis’ passion, dedication and talent,” the palace said in a statement.

“His Majesty pays tribute to the veteran newsman who loved sports, journalism and above all, telling a story,” it added.

It was befitting end to what Francis often said of himself: “Sports took me on a high like a drug. You get so much joy in telling a happy story to your readers or a sad one when you have to tell them what happened in defeat.”

Enjoy the game in the afterlife, my friend.

* Adapted partly from Frankie DCruz’s tribute in Free Malaysia Today and Tony Mariadass’s jottings on Facebook, with contribution of by Azmi Anshar, Southeast Asian Editor 

Tony Francis with partner Chan Cheng Tuan (left)

Tony Francis

May 22, 1947 – December 21, 2020


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