in the hit TV series Sex and the City.
Two years ago (around December 2006), I tried to apply for a distant columnist position with The Star Malaysia, exploring political and social issues in Malaysia. Initially, the editor for Star Mag was very keen after I presented her with some samples of my work. For some reason, I think we had a misunderstanding in regards to each other's expectations (mainly on my part because I should not have been so "idealistic" - as she put it).
After she expressed her decision not to accept my ideas, I shot her a "retaliatory" response (which unfortunately was not wise from my part - but resulted in a lot of self-gratification). Like many of our leaders, she chose not to respond back.
Her email to me:
You have a soul of an idealist and quite frankly, I am afraid to disappoint you. The Star is pretty conservative and your views may be too strong for us.
Another issue is that you are based overseas. Generally, we prefer to have our columnists based within the country so that we are sure they are very grounded in the issues and concerns of the day affecting Malaysians. I know the internet makes the world very connected over but we feel it is not quite the same still as being in the country.
Also, you seem to want to write on quite hard issues and I am not sure StarMag is the right platform since we are more of a lifestyle section.
Here's what I suggest, if you are game:Send me a fresh article of about 600-700 words on a topic that is well, more lifestyle, about keeping one's head above water; about making choices in ... men, handphones, apartments, jobs, something like that. Do I make sense?
My response (not quite as short as hers):
Thank you for your response. I appreciate your frankness and I understand your concern. I agree that The Star is a conservative paper and not ready to support writers with strong sociopolitical views.
However, I don't agree that my distance should be an obstacle. The Star does have columnists who are living abroad such as Huzir Sulaiman, Mary Scheider and more. They may not write about local flavours per se but if an opportunity avails for them to express a thought or two about things which affect Malaysians, I believe The Star is not going to tell them, "I'm sorry. You don't live in Malaysia and hence you don't have the mandate to write about them." Many writers in fact write about global issues but it doesn't correlate that they are living in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, America, Thailand, etc.
As for writing hard issues, you also have columnist like Marina Mahathir in her Musing column, who have occasionally practiced her right as a writer to express her concerns and thoughts over hard topics. Dato' Wong Chun Wai has often written articles which can be critical of the government, but I also sense that those subjects are always tackled with much caution as well as in accordance with the climate of the situation. Sometimes, his writings will indirectly sanction other columnists to follow the same path, if I am not wrong. I'm saddened to know that a writer needs to ascertain the general temperament of mainstream thinking before bracing themselves in expressing their real thoughts and opinions.
In a way, this is where my concerns are, as an aspiring writer. I'm afraid that such an orthodox policy, inevitably as a result of our unfavourable national publication laws, will and has, hampered many potential writers from writing about the truth. I stand by my conviction that we are essentially shaped by a society which tends to shy away from unpleasant topics and also the fact that we tend to behave like sheep (following the herd blindly without exercising our right to think as individuals).
I dream of the days when a local paper would tell me, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it", once told by Voltaire in the 18th century and we're now in the 21st century.
I am not idealistic. I'm just progressive. Idealism is a concept which our government fights so hard to protect, thinking that censorship will create a utopian nation, citizens that don't think or question, but just being happy at where they are and what they have. There is a fundamental difference between hatred speech and one which abhors racial discrimination and this is where Malaysians need to understand and acknowledge. Maybe being a product of a new generation has an implication on my naiveté towards the May 13 riot but let's face it, we are the new generation and May 13 and Islam are tools used by our politicians to mar our visions of truth and progression.
On the other hand, I don't believe that I have always opted for hard issues. Some of my articles have been about life styles and choices but my concern is, what will be my limitations? Do I want to be a writer that only writes about safe topics or one who dares to speak the truth?
Please understand that what I've written above is not targeted at you. By all means, I am very grateful for your time and attention. By being the editor of Star Mag, I'm sure you have the responsibilities to uphold the paper's policies, in which I have to respect.
I appreciate your suggestions but if I may allow myself to suggest that perhaps I may be of better value if I can write about my travel experiences rather than material things. As I have mentioned in my first email to you, I have traveled extensively and with this, I'm able to offer stories about different places and people, without compromising my own integrity as well as your paper's policy. Please advise.
So you see, I could have been the Malaysian version of Carrie Bradshaw but then again, would I be sanctioned to write the truth about sex and relationship which ultimately relate to Malaysian lifestyle in the 21st century? Instead of a version of Sex and the City, it will most likely be called Sins in the City.