Who it takes to inspire a winning story

ST Senior Correspondent Radha Basu with her daughters Maya, seven, and Rhea, 16.
ST Senior Correspondent Radha Basu with her daughters Maya, seven, and Rhea, 16.ST PHOTO: RADHA BASU

IN LATE April last year, a Straits Times Forum page contribution by reader Lim Fah Kiong, 68, caught my eye. His wife had dementia and he exhorted readers to seek treatment early if a loved one showed symptoms of the debilitating disease. While the letter was penned in a measured, matter-of-fact tone, the last line left me concerned: Could the Ministry of Health get volunteer social workers to assist “lone caregivers” in distress, suggested Mr Lim, who is childless. Was he speaking from experience, I wondered. At the time, I was considering a feature on the needs and concerns of Singapore’s growing army of caregivers. I gave Mr Lim a call. Over three hours at his Bishan home a few days later, the ageing Straits Times reader reader proceeded to share with me a heartbreaking story of love and loss, of strength and sacrifice. For nearly five years, he had struggled to care by himself for a soulmate who had lost – part by painful part – the ability to remember, to reason and to love.

Thus began my journey to chronicle the lives of caregivers would take me into the homes and lives of almost 25 families. The two-part Special Report recently won a Feature of the Year at Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) annual awards ceremony. As with Mr Lim, readers sometimes form my eyes and ears. They help me feel the pulse of Singapore society. Some become friends. Their collective experiences and concerns – rather than press releases and public relations pitches – are vital sources for stories. In May, I will complete 13 years with SPH. These days, a key part of my work as a journalist with The Straits Times involves working on in-depth features that take time and energy. Many of these features focus on underdogs in Singapore society such as the elderly or the working poor, the disabled, single mothers or low-wage migrant workers. Most take between a month and six months to investigate and write and typically involve interviews with dozens of people. Once, I did not realise that I had interviewed more than 100 people for an article about the lack of beds and manpower in nursing homes until my supervising editor suggested a count.

Many of these stories that require in-depth reportage highlight gaps in policy or practice. We need multiple interviews to uncover trends, rather than isolated examples.  The efforts do pay off. For instance, five weeks after the nursing home special was published, the Government announced $120 million to build new homes to cater to the rapidly ageing population.

Given the energy and resources required, I must choose my topics carefully. There are two broad categories of issues that make the cut. The first must concern or be of direct relevance to a significant swathe of Singaporeans. Last September’s feature on singular caregivers would fit into this category. A new survey had revealed that Singapore already had 200,000 caregivers. All readers who cared for loved ones or needed care themselves would be interested.

The second criterion is that the report must be a riveting read about a little-known phenomenon, something that informs or illuminates even if it does not always directly affect their lives.  A Special Report on sex trafficking in Singapore, featuring interviews with seven trafficked women, squarely fell into this category. After my report was published in June 2011, many readers expressed surprise; some did not even know what sex trafficking was, much less that it existed in Singapore. 

In a society where privacy is a premium, it is hard to persuade interviewees to open up about difficult personal circumstances. But maintaining a work-life balance is tougher still. Like most people in this profession, I have had my fair share of 14-hour days and burnt countless evenings and weekends chasing or writing stories. One of the hardest parts in balancing work and home is that I am a mother to two girls – Rhea, 16 and Maya, 7. While I am not always around – I missed Rhea’s first day at Primary 1 as I was away covering the Asian tsunami, for instance – they know that I will be there when they need me most. There are two key people who have helped me juggle work and home. First, there is my supervising editor who gives me the flexibility to work from home whenever I require it and never once asked me to put my work before my family.

And then there is my husband who often bears the lion’s share of responsibility during family emergencies despite being the main breadwinner. The latest occurred just two weeks ago, when my domestic helper who sought four days’ emergency leave to return home to settle urgent family matters. I worked from home the day she left left on a two-part Special Report for that weekend. Work-related commitments kept me out of the house from 9 am till way past 10 pm over the next two days. My husband – who had planned to take a couple of days off since it was the school holidays – stepped in uncomplainingly as the “maid on demand”, cooking four-course meals, doing the laundry and catering to the relentless demands of an energetic seven-year-old. While my children are my biggest joy and reward, my work brings immense fulfilment. Recognition is always humbling and bound to spur anyone to go that the extra mile. 

But readers remain my richest source of inspiration. Over the years, I have received hundreds of e-mail responses to my stories. Some praise, others scold, yet others seek advice. Recently, a single mother who solicited my view five years ago on housing problems, e-mailed me to invite me to her housewarming party. The reason: She finally saved up enough to buy her own HDB flat. I was touched that she remembered.I have two favourite types of feedback. The first is from readers who sent thank you notes for my stories despite their busy schedules. And then there are the smaller group who feel compelled to react to stories that move them through action, not just words.

Once, an elderly widow donated $5,000 to a migrant worker whose family had been rendered homeless by the Asian tsunami. I had visited the family in Tamil Nadu while covering the disaster more than a decade ago. In another more recent incident, a family of four saved a few dollars every day during Advent – the 40-day period of prayer and abstinence before Christmas – and surprised an impoverished elderly couple I had featured in another of my stories. The couple of hundred dollars – delivered in person – no doubt brought plenty of cheer to two people who had little to look forward to that Christmas. There have been countless others quietly stepping forth to help or write a line of encouragement when they need not have. They make me do what I do. I thank them all.