A 'timid' woman's courage to stay true to her voice

Despite brickbats, ST columnist Sumiko Tan will not be who others want her to be

On her computer, the cursor winks. It waits. People wait. They wait for every second Sunday. Waiting to see what will she write next.

Waiting for another column so that they can send her notes in gratitude or religious pamphlets to comfort her (if she wrote on death) or hate mail in derision.

Sumiko Tan is also waiting. For an idea. She's sitting straight and still and patient, one leg tucked underneath her bottom, a shawl draped on the back of her chair, fingernails unpainted.

Her first idea comes in July 1994. Anorexia. About a woman who is 38kg, skinny, sickly, vomiting.


And so it starts.

Dogs. Dating. Discos.

Biological clocks. Breaking up.

Ms Sumiko Tan's personal column, which ended last year after a 22-year run, has been distilled into the book Sundays With Sumiko. Her column lasted for so long because she found a way to connect with readers, from taxi drivers to housewives. ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Separate bedrooms. Singledom.

Tiger wives. Exes. Not in the same column.

Columns often don't last, they're conceived every day in newspapers worldwide and then expire quietly. Only discipline, ideas, devotion, originality sustain them.

Herb Caen, the legendary San Francisco columnist, wrote 1,000 words a day, six days a week, for over 40 years, while Leonard Barden kept a chess column running in The Guardian for over 60 years.

Sumiko was given a blank space in 1994, told to write 800 words about a young woman's life and turned it into a 22-year habit.

This personal column which ended in 2016 - now distilled into a book called Sundays With Sumiko - lasted because she found a way to connect.

"How did you know I was feeling that?" readers would say to her.

  • Sumiko Tan will give a talk and do a book signing on July 28 from 7pm at the Central Public Library at 100 Victoria Street. Please go to str.sg/sumikoNLB to register.

    There will also be a meet-the-author session on Aug 26 at 4pm at Kinokuniya Main Store, Ngee Ann City, and on Sept 16 at 4pm at Popular Bookstore at Jurong Point.

Her landscape as a columnist was unusual for she did not examine the behaviour of governments like the political pundit, or scrutinise human rights like the social commentator, but instead had to strip mine her own life for material. Crawl into the crevices of her daily life and find something interesting in ordinariness.

It helped that as a teenager she was a diarist, from the beginning a collector of stories, an accumulator of feelings, a hoarder of thoughts and things. All of it useful, for anything personal is fodder for a column. Well, maybe not the baby teeth she still has in a box somewhere, but certainly one day the bus ticket from her first date with H in 1980.

Him, yes, Hurricane and Husband, real name Quek Suan Shiau, man of strong self-esteem (you have to be when your wife is telling tales of separate bedrooms) and easy cool, who says of his wife writing about him: "She had something to write, so I left her to it."

Sumiko is not a complex writer but, as her friend Sally Lam, an executive artist at The Straits Times, says, is "light and easy" and unaffected. Clarity was her purpose and part of it was because she wanted her Japanese mother, Kimie, "to understand" what she wrote.

But it was this simplicity, this ability to engage a housewife in Bedok about a fear of ageing, that fastened her to people and made her so famous that when visitors wandered into The Straits Times office, they wanted to know only where she sat. "Where is Sumiko?" they asked, and if her name means "clear water", then it is precisely what her writing was. Transparent.

I did not understand the reach of Sumiko when I moved to Singapore till a taxi driver picked me up outside The Straits Times office one Monday night.

His first subject of discussion was Sumiko's column from the previous day and when I confessed to not having read it, he verbally assailed me. How can you not have read it? I kept a cowardly silence.

He loved her but not everybody did, and there's no insult she hasn't heard. Columnists, of course, are fair game, for they deal in opinion and must hear it in return. Criticism from readers - people have derided her topics, scorned her style, scoffed at her perceived narcissism - is expected, but in modern times it has also become a camouflage for cruelty. Abuse is evidently more fun than simply turning the page.

But she's a slim, sensitive woman whose physical delicacy and gentle tone conceal a resoluteness. Ask her about the abuse and she says, not an eyelash flickering, "I don't give a damn."

Her column was her voice, a timid woman - by her own account - speaking out, a sentimentalist who cries during sad movies on planes who found it easier to confess in print what she would never say in person to a friend. What Sumiko - a kind, workaholic pessimist - was rarely credited for is courage, for a willingness to reveal herself, to show the vulnerable territory beneath her skin, to write columns you may not like, or feminists disagree with, or traditionalists rail against, but columns that are honest to who she was. She would not be who others wanted her to be.

As Warren Fernandez, The Straits Times editor and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media group, said: "She has many fans, as well as detractors. Some people can get uncomfortable with her writing, how personal she gets, and sometimes they say to me 'please stop her writing'. But just about every readers' survey we have done shows she remains one of our most read columnists, with a big and loyal following."

Sumiko was unusual in a conservative nation, a private woman holding up a mirror to herself in public, talking about love, life, loss and the Day I Had To Take Off All My Clothes. Look if you wish. And people did at her column.

Success as a columnist is not about Likes, or Facebook shares, or letters. It is to be The Conversation and this is what Sumiko became. Candace Bushnell, who wrote the Sex And The City columns for the New York Observer, revealed last year that "people were buying the Observer for my column. They were reading it on the Hampton Jitney, they were reading it to each other, they were faxing it" .

With Sumiko, it was somewhat similar. Twice a month she became, for many, a Sunday routine. Read, texted about, talked about, fumed about (by critics who, of course, first read her column). As The Guardian once noted: "The best 'me' columns are retold by their readers as though they are gossiping about friends."

What do columnists do anyway: They, in various measure, analyse, entertain, provoke, educate, empathise. But they are also, unseen to many of us, enablers who bring people to the written word. Of the numerous mail Sumiko receives, some are powerful in their plainness: Thank you, they say, for turning me into a reader.

Sumiko, to a reading world, was only a columnist, but those 800 words were almost her sideshow, paragraphs written late at night, in early mornings, at lunch breaks as she built a career in journalism, reporting on crime, editing the Life section, travelling with leaders, writing political commentaries, taking charge of Digital and now working as the executive editor.

This book is her history in a high-heeled cover, an enduring proof of a writer's belief in herself. She currently writes a Lunch With Sumiko column, but you never know where she might travel next.

A column on middle-age blues? The married life? The angst of ageing? She'll find something. She always does. Shawl on shoulder. Leg under bottom. Typing a tale.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'A 'timid' woman's courage to stay true to her voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe