Wong Sai Wan: Never Short of a Laugh or Witty Word

Wong Sai Wan: Never Short of a Laugh or Witty Word

As I approached the hotel room, the door was ajar and a boisterous voice could be heard inside. Someone was singing; it sounded like one of those patriotic anthems in North Korea, where the citizens are forced to “feel” for their leaders more than they really do.

I pushed the door open and there was Wong Sai Wan marching towards it, and I mean, really marching. He had one arm extended out, with the fist in my direction, while the other swung rhythmically by his side in typical military march fashion. 

I caught sight of Harpajan Singh, another stalwart of The Star, in a corner of the room, chuckling behind a laptop, clearly enjoying the moment.

I turned back to Sai Wan and heard him in full-throated cry: “UMNO terus mara … untuk Anwar sahaja!” 

The actual version was “UMNO terus mara … untuk rakyat Malaysia.”

It was 1993. UMNO, or United Malays National Organisation, was holding its annual convention and Anwar Ibrahim had just become its second most powerful man, and talk was he might become number one in a few years in what was then Malaysia’s ruling party. Not everyone liked that, of course, but not everyone had the guts to tell it to his face.

To the uninitiated, the original words in the party anthem parodied by Sai Wan meant “UMNO marches on … for the people of Malaysia”.

Sai Wan’s take was deliberately mischievous, that “UMNO marches on … but for Anwar only.” 

The truth was Sai Wan really didn’t care about Anwar’s political star. Yes, UMNO was the biggest story then for Malaysia’s newspapers, including The Star, where he and Harpajan were senior writers. But the gambit in the hotel room was purely to entertain me on my arrival for a few rounds of beers with the two.

The laughs we shared then came back to me after I found out on the morning of May 13, 2021 that Sai Wan was no more. 

A lot had happened in the 28 years since that afternoon in the hotel room. 

For one, Anwar and UMNO became estranged, with him tossed into political wilderness first and the party later. Harpajan had passed on too, to the anguish of everyone I knew in the Malaysian journalistic fraternity. I moved to New York, taking on an investment reporting job.  Sai Wan went big, leaving his news editing job at The Star to become editor-in-chief at The Malay Mail and earning a ‘Datuk’ title (the equivalent of a knighthood) in the process.  

Propensity To Make Others Laugh … or Be Laughed At

Those who knew about Sai Wan said despite the transformation of his fortunes, one thing never changed about him: his propensity to make others laugh … or be laughed at.

“My dad is all about humour,” daughter Wong Yik Pen said in one of the many tributes published after his death. 

“He’s a very serious man, don’t get me wrong. But he never takes himself too seriously, he’s always about having a good laugh. Everything about him is having a good laugh.”

Unfortunately, the joke was sometimes on Sai Wan, and in cruel ways too.

Back in the late 80s, when Sai Wan was covering the national palace for The Star, he had the misfortune of being chanced upon by Malaysia’s king then, Sultan Iskandar. What happened then was narrated to me by Harpajan. The clarity in his words, and the vision of a poor Sai Wan under royal torment, has stayed with me.

Out of the blue, the king had bellowed that day at the rotund man before him: “Hoi Gemuk, mari sini!” (“Hey fatso, come here!”)

A shocked Sai Wan approached the king, whose temper and reputation for bullying was well known. “Ampun, Tuanku,” (“Apologies, my Majesty”) he muttered, palms joined in prayer style.

Hey Gemuk, you reporter kan? Apasal you gemuk sangat?  (“Hey, fatso, you’re a reporter, right? How come you’re this fat?”),” the king demanded to know. 

Sai Wan was both dumbfounded and numb with fear over how to reply. 

You kena kurus sikit, kena jalan lebih,” (You need to lose some weight, need to walk more),” the king continued, eliciting uproarious laughter by now from his royal followers and the crowd, many responding from a mix of fealty and fear in a country where it’s taboo till today to disagree with his Majesty.

Nah, ambik air ni, ikut saya,” (Here, take my drink and follow me),” the king ordered, beckoning at Sai Wan to relieve one of his aides carrying a jug of his favorite black coffee.

According to Harpajan, for the next two hours or so, the king did his rounds of the palace, with Sai Wan and the coffee jug in tow. As awkward as the situation was, Sai Wan kept a smile on, Harpajan said. “He was thinking, ‘for all the jokes I used to make, I get this done to me today’,” Harpajan said.

Finally at one point, when the king was looking away, one of his aide-de-camps stepped up to Sai Wan, and said: “Hand that to me and leave before he spots you.” Sai Wan did just that and fled.

I never got to ask Sai Wan about this, though I’ve no doubt about the veracity of the tale told by Harpajan, one of his closest friends ever. 

To digress a little, here’s a story about the two: Sai Wan missed Harpajan’s funeral in 1999 as he was a correspondent in Hong Kong then for The Star. Over a teary phone call, he told the editors on the desk: “Do not touch a word in my story today. This one is for Harp.” The story was about the state of affairs in Hong Kong. But the first letter of every paragraph was devoted to Harpajan. There were 11 paragraphs in all, and the first letters put together read: H-A-R-P  I-S  A-L-I-V-E. Such was their bond. And such was the friend Sai Wan could be.

Not A Silver Lining He Couldn’t Rough Draft In His Darkest Days

Azmi M. Anshar, who’s Southeast Asian editor at neverforget.cloud, remembers Sai Wan for those qualities.

“The most distinctive character trait in Sai Wan’s good-natured soul was, there wasn’t a silver lining he couldn’t rough draft during dark and dire moments,” says Azmi.

The two got to know each other when they were cub reporters at The Star, and hit it off right away.

Azmi even remembers the day they met for the first time —  March 1, 1986 — when he was brought back to The Star’s headquarters from his regular post as correspondent for eastern state of Kelantan.

They had, of course, spoken over the phone earlier, when Sai Wan was assigned the menial task of typing down dictations of Azmi’s news reports. These were days before the cellphone, when one had to painfully cradle the receiver of landline telephones while hammering what was being narrated on a typewriter that predated the desktop publishing computer. 

Azmi says Sai Wan greeted him with a “big, warm smile and a jolly hello”. 

“He was short and rolling in the pounds, but he walked in quick steps and energy, and nattered confidently, being from Seremban, also in fluent Negeri Sembilan Malay parlance,” Azmi recalls. 

Boisterous Banter; Natural Storyteller

Malay Mail Picture by Miera Zulyana

He says Sai Wan always engaged in “boisterous banter” – boisterous seems to be a description that doesn’t escape Sai Wan; I’ve used it here, and so did Ho Kay Tat, another veteran of the news game in Malaysia, in his own tribute to Sai Wan. 

Kay Tat, who started as a reporter with The Malay Mail in the 1980s and now runs The Edge business publication, says if there’s one word to describe Sai Wan, “it would be boisterous”.

“Which was why he fitted into the newsroom like a tee,” added Kay Tat. “He was a true blue newsman.”

Azmi remembers Sai Wan as being hip and connected; “his nose, ears and senses permanently probing fertile ground on not only the national political shenanigans but also juicy internal office scuttlebutt, gossip and intelligence”.

“He was a natural story-teller: he spun enthralling tales on who’s romancing who, who got into the news desk’s black book, petty scandals, personality flaws of each news desk editor, or who was about to be promoted.”

Sai Wan thus became a priceless lifeline to Azmi, a loner on Malaysia’s east coast who would otherwise be cut off from the grapevine at The Star’s headquarters.

“He became the closest buddy and confidant I could have then,” said Azmi in summation.

A Different Man To Different People: Golfer, Dad, Superman

Sai Wan (in foreground) with the staff of The Malay Mail. Picture: The Malay Mail

Sai Wan meant different things to different people.

To those in the journalistic trade — young reporters, especially — he was like a beacon, guiding those who may have lost their way.

To establishment types, he was a valuable source that informed them of the goings-on on the ground, even dispensing advice at times on how to respond to a particular situation. 

To his kids, he tried to be a regular Dad. “It feels almost like he is living a double life; it’s like he’s Clark Kent at home, and Superman outside,” says daughter Yik Pen.

It’s no surprise then that the tributes that flowed in for Sai Wan came from all and sundry: from the present Malaysian King, Sultan Abdullah, to the golfing buddies whom he yearned to be with whenever work and family didn’t intervene.

He was actually so much into golf that he practically forced his son, Chee Mun, an avid footballer, to learn to putt and swing from young, and go for golf lessons too.  While this was no Earl Woods-Tiger Woods father-son combination that made golfing history, the game brought the two of them closer, Chee Mun admits. 

“I think it’s the one thing that we had in common, we really enjoyed playing golf together,” he says, remembering Sai Wan as a Dad who only intervened to help when his kids had tried and couldn’t. Indeed, Sai Wan’s motto was: Prepare your children for the road. Don’t prepare the road for them.

I conclude with Jahabar Sadiq, a former stalwart of the Malay Mail and now editor at The Malaysian Insight, who tells Sai Wan to enjoy “the golf links in the sky” and “the great newsroom there” — played and run by the journos who departed before him.

Sai Wan and his golfing buddies

  • by Barani Krishnan, Founder/America’s Editor

  • Banner picture of Sai Wan by Choo Choy May, The Malay Mail
Picture by Hari Anggara, The Malay Mail

Wong Sai Wan June 15 1962 – May 13, 2021


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