CHONG CHEE KIN died just when his life was starting over. He was 39. He was a good journalist who could have been a great one if time gave him a chance. It didn’t. So journalism lost a key player. And I lost a friend.
I’ve known Cheeks for 15 years, from the days he was a rookie crime reporter in The Straits Times. It was a beat which suited him. He had this uncanny ability to make friends with people on both sides of the law, over shared cigarettes and interminable cans of Coke which used to sustain him.
That he was a SAP school product helped. He switched languages easily, had a good grasp of dialects, a smattering of Malay and was fluent in Singlish. His favourite words were Wah lao eh…
But it was his personality and the way his face would break into a cheeky grin that drew people. His network of friends testify to this. Friends from his schooldays, ex-colleagues, newsmakers who became close to him, people he has interviewed. You wouldn’t think this short, stumpy man with black-rimmed glasses was a “scholar’’, yet he was among the first batches who signed on for the company’s scholarship programme. It was not something he mentioned.
Nor would you think he majored in English Literature, until he spouts Robert Frost. Just last week, he complained on Facebook that he had too many books at home. I told him to give them to me.
That he also majored in theatre studies was believable. He had a sense of the dramatic, watched plays, took to the stage easily and had even acted in a Singapore-produced book-turned- movie The Teenage Textbook in his much younger days. I have never seen the movie. On Friday, some friends demanded that he give a screening. Now, it won’t happen.
I loved the way he brought in the weirdest stories, on ghost busters in Singapore and the antics of mediums. But the scoop that garnered him Story of the Year in 2000 was no rib-tickler. He got wind that SingTel was scanning people’s computers and actually got the ISP to confirm this late at night. It caused a ruckus with questions raised about the privacy of information, earned a mention from the Prime Minister and was a topic in Parliament. He became the company’s Young Journalist of the Year. He went on to be a court reporter; the most competent court reporter I know. He could cut to the chase, reported efficiently, wrote clearly and in good time. Error-free. I think this stint also made him complacent; he could do so much better, his superiors thought.
And he did.
I had never thought he harboured ambitions of being a news editor. I was his boss and he was not on my radar for the job – until he was seconded to news edit My Paper. I realised that I could have lost a gem. Back in The Straits Times, he was put in charge of the beat he loved, building a team which swore that it would give The New Paper a run for its money. He was reliable and his performance at the daily morning meetings in the newsroom was an eye-opener for fellow supervisors and editors. He was not that typical journalist who saunters into the newsroom at all hours. He arrived for work early, before 8am, before his required start-time. He organised all the reporters on the massive newsdesk, he took care to know what stories were in the pipeline, he articulated them clearly. He was every bit the super-driven thinking news editor who asked for more, and had no problems picking up the phone to get his own contacts to help his reporters or to go out into the field with them. He led them. He made friends with them.
It was a side of Cheekin we had never seen. This was the man with the nervous tick, a habit of scratching his head and a Wanted poster of himself a la Mas Selamat….This was Cheeks. No one had a problem promoting him up the management ranks.
Then he got sick.
He was out of action for more than a year. His diabetes condition had him confined in a wheelchair for a while, and then reliant on crutches before he finally got on his feet again. He was a good enough journalist for the company to look kindly on his medical condition, affording him what help it could. Through that period he kept in touch with the workplace, with the news, never mind the many times he was in and out of hospital. He told me that he found out who his friends were.
By the time he returned to the newsroom, things had changed. His mentors and some good friends had left. He was no longer in charge of the crime team; he felt cut out of the news loop. He was in a job where his main interaction was with the computer. He wanted to be at the cutting edge of news editing, he said, so he asked out. To some people’s horror, he decided to join the competitor as news editor. He knew he would be ostracised – “a pariah’’ was how he described the way he felt he was being treated in his last week at work. He was asked to leave early, before his notice period ran out.
I can’t tell you how much he was looking forward to joining Today, to be given a position that could exploit his talent and skills as a news journalist. He lived for the news. It was his lifeblood. We talked almost everyday about the news; the two of us. Whether the stories could have been written better or about the critical questions that hadn’t been asked. He critiqued this blog, sometimes warning me against stepping on too many toes. He cared about journalism. He cared about me.
He has died. Alone in his apartment that he was so proud to move into a few years ago. Ironic. In the past, he could have been assigned to go to the scene for such people-who-die-alone stories. But he had friends, who found him before he could suffer the indignity of remaining undiscovered for too long a time.
Yes, he had friends. I would like to think he saw me as one of them.