It Changed My Life

Good grief, veteran ST editor's life stories could fill a book

And ex-Straits Times deputy editor Alan John has done just that, sharing on life, love and loss

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Mr Alan John, the former Deputy Editor at The Straits Times, talks about his 40-year journalistic career. From his beginnings in Kuala Lumpur to spending 35 years at The Straits Times.
Mr John started out as a sub-editor in The Straits Times and moved up the ranks to become the paper's deputy editor. This photo was taken in 1989. Mr John is married to Hedwig Alfred, a former ST journalist. They have two children: Nicola, now 27, an
Mr Alan John in Orchard Road, which is one of his favourite places in Singapore. Eschewing politics and economics, his latest book Good Grief! deals instead with the human condition, and lays bare lessons about living, hurting and losing. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
For three years after his father died, young Alan (above) lived with one of his uncles in Jinjang North, outside Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALAN JOHN
Mr John started out as a sub-editor in The Straits Times and moved up the ranks to become the paper's deputy editor. This photo was taken in 1989. Mr John is married to Hedwig Alfred, a former ST journalist. They have two children: Nicola, now 27, an
Mr John is married to Hedwig Alfred, a former ST journalist. They have two children: Nicola, now 27, and Zachary, now 23. This is an old photo of Nicola and Zachary (above). ST FILE PHOTO

A rundown on Alan John could go like this.

He is 62, and the former deputy editor of The Straits Times. Over an illustrious 40-year career, he has mentored scores of journalists and either covered or edited some of the biggest stories in Singapore and the region, among them the 1987 Marxist conspiracy, the 2003 Sars outbreak, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2009 Aware saga.

A man with a social conscience, he has volunteered and worked with the depressed and the suicidal, HIV patients, abused women as well as men who use violence.

He auditioned for a national singing competition in Malaysia at 18, had a heart attack at 50 and ran his first full marathon at 58.

He can cook up a storm and is adept at ikebana; he is also nuts about his wife, loves his two children and has not talked to his mother for the last couple of years.

Mr John started out as a sub-editor in The Straits Times and moved up the ranks to become the paper's deputy editor. This photo was taken in 1989. ST FILE PHOTO

Good grief, sounds like he can write a book.

Which is exactly what he has done and how he has titled it.

Good Grief! Everything I Know About Love, Life And Loss I Wish Someone Had Told Me Sooner is a collection of some 40 columns he wrote over the last four decades, and some new ones after he retired from The Straits Times last year.

Eschewing politics and economics, Good Grief! deals instead with the human condition, and lays bare lessons about living, hurting and losing.

The stories - from fat loss futility to fashion fiascos and family feuds - are, in the words of playwright and research fellow Tan Tarn How, "at times sweet, occasionally sad, often very funny, wise, honest and deeply human".

Clad in bermudas and loafers, the lanky man is cheerily making light work of a slice of chocolate pie slathered with mint cream and salted cookie crumble in a quiet Thomson cafe.

Asked what prompted him to publish Good Grief!, Mr John says jocularly: "Vanity lah."

Turning serious, he says: "I didn't write those columns with a view to a book."

But while clearing out his office last year, he reread some of the pieces which, unknown to him, had been clipped and filed by his personal assistant.

Besides his wife and two children, he sent them out to several friends including journalism professor and media critic Cherian George who encouraged him to turn them into a book.

It is not his first book. In 1989, he wrote Unholy Trinity which chronicled the case of medium Adrian Lim who, together with his wife and mistress, was sent to the gallows in 1988 for the ritual murders of two children seven years earlier.

The book will be re-released next month, with proceeds going to Pave - a charity which tackles family violence - where Mr John is vice-president.

Animated and expressive, Mr John was born in Kuala Lumpur, the younger of two children of a railway accounts inspector and a housewife.

His parents adopted his maternal uncle's two children - a boy and a girl - when the uncle died.

Just before Mr John turned three, his father died of a heart attack.

"It was chaos. My mother was 26, had four children and hadn't worked a day in her life," he says.

She coped by becoming a telephone operator in a law firm, putting the two girls in a convent with boarding facilities in Malacca and taking the two boys to live with her youngest brother.

Three years later, she married her late husband's colleague and best friend, a divorcee called Henry Taylor.

Her daughters came home and life got a lot better because Mr Taylor, being a senior employee with Malayan Railways, drew a decent pay and was given a rent-free house near a golf course in Jalan Sentul in Kuala Lumpur.

Since both his father and stepfather attended schools headed by the De La Salle Christian Brothers Order, Mr John was enrolled in St John's Institution (SJI), one of the city's oldest schools.

He ranked SJI - where he started Primary 1 and continued until he completed the equivalent of Malaysia's A levels - as the No. 1 game changer in his life. "It's the stability, the exposure and the opportunities," says the former head prefect.

It is at the school - which has a rich cultural and sporting tradition - that he honed his oratorical and editing skills, picked up flower arrangement, learnt how to set up an aquarium and developed a soft spot for the less fortunate and marginalised.

The University Of Malaya (UM) was next, although this chapter of his life could have turned out differently.

After he had accepted an offer from the university's Arts faculty and paid the fees, a letter came from the University of Singapore informing him his application to enrol in its law faculty was successful.

He turned down the offer because his family lacked the resources and stayed back to major in Geography in UM, a decision he melodramatically describes as "stoopid" and led to a near meltdown.

"Malaysia was then planning many new towns and I thought town planning could be interesting, and settlement and human geography exciting," he says.

He hated it, and was crushed when the dean rejected his pleas to switch to English Literature in his second year.

"I was so happy to get out of uni," says Mr John who, upon graduation, applied for just two jobs, as a reporter with either The New Straits Times (NST) or Bernama news agency, and social worker with Malaysia's Welfare Ministry.

"I had written letters to NST and The Malay Mail and Fanfare before and there was something wonderful, a big thrill, in seeing your name in print," he says. The Malay Mail was an afternoon tabloid; Fanfare was a popular entertainment magazine.

Although he was convinced he messed up the writing test, NST offered him a job in 1976.

"I couldn't do the test because the questions were so hard and cheem," he says, using the Hokkien word for intellectual. "There was one question for people like me and it was called flowers. So I just wrote whatever I wanted to write and as there was still space, I drew a big bunch of flowers. I was saying to myself, 'Goodbye, I'm not going to get this job.'."

But he got not just a job but a 40-year career.

He cut his teeth trailing court reporters and by the time he left NST four years later, he was already a well-rounded journalist, one adept not just in writing but copy-editing too.

He owes Adibah Amin, he says, big time. An editor at the paper then, she is best known for her hugely popular As I Was Passing columns, which looked wryly and affectionately at Malaysian life.

"I was barely two years at the papers when I got to sub-edit her columns. She would come by and say 'Thank you for what you did'," says Mr John, adding that she gave him his break in writing columns.

In 1980 when he was 26, he came to work for The Straits Times in Singapore.

He started as a sub-editor but moved quickly up the ranks, eventually becoming the paper's deputy editor. In between, there were various other stints in the newsroom, including features writer, newsdesk and political desk supervisor and Sunday Times editor. From the mid-1990s, he also started training and mentoring editors.

Journalism, he says, has given him "a wife, a new country and a most exciting life".

Mr John, who became a Singaporean citizen in 1989, is married to Hedwig Alfred, a former ST journalist now teaching journalism in Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They have two children: Nicola, 27, a junior curator at The National Gallery, and Zachary, 23, who is starting university in the United Kingdom this year.

"You cannot get bored with journalism. If you do, there's something wrong with you, not the paper, the country or whoever is shoving things down your throat. Something is wrong with you, it is not right for you," he says.

Not that he is saying his career was painless.

"There was plenty to not like: hassles from government, obstacles put in the way of reporters trying to do their work, being accused of having agendas. But I could take all the crap because one good story made up for all of it. I think I never lost the excitement for the story," he says.

And he has been in the thick of many a big one, both as writer and editor. "The thing about this profession is the best times are the worst times. The times which stand out for me are the horrible periods: tsunami, Sars, earthquakes. It's during these periods when it does not matter that you don't get to sleep, when you're working seven days straight," he says.

So why retire and reject an offer of re-employment when he turned 62 last year?

"It just felt right to leave at this point in time," says Mr John, who is taking his time to mull over a couple of offers in journalism training.

Not that he is done with the profession. He is the director of Asia Journalism Fellowship, an initiative of Temasek Foundation and Wee Kim Wee School Of Communication and Information which brings journalists from across Asia to Singapore for three months of learning and exchange.

Meanwhile, he is busy with his other passion: social work.

An active volunteer with the likes of Befrienders and Samaritans since his undergraduate days, Mr John - who has a post-graduate diploma in social work from NUS - has given his time to several causes.

He was one of the first to work with HIV patients in Singapore in the 1990s.

When asked what prompted him to do so, the Catholic refers to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible where Jesus says "whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me".

"And HIV patients were then modern-day lepers; they received the worst kind of stigmatisation and rejection from society. The people they were closest to would turn away from them," he says.

"I discovered I was quite cheerful with people who were dying. I'm not morbid, I don't know where it comes from. But the Samaritans provided very good training because you're not shocked by anything," he adds with a grin.

For the last few years, he has been actively involved in Pave, the first family violence specialist centre (FVSC) in Singapore.

"Sometimes, when the social workers tell you about the terrible things that men do to their wives, you are just stunned into silence," says Mr John.

Since his retirement, he has been busy putting together Good Grief!

"I picked the columns that I felt for," he says, adding that some of them made him tear up.

Personal columns, he says, are not easy to do.

"The newsroom attitude is a putdown. Many editors feel you should be doing something more important," he says.

The Straits Times' Editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang says that the collection shows his former colleague's fearlessness in confronting life honestly.

One of the most poignant pieces in the book deals with Mr John's less than happy relationship with his mother and the family he left in Kuala Lumpur. The estrangement, he explains, came not from deep-seated ugly issues but a failure to address and resolve misunderstandings speedily.

"The plain truth is that for some of us, the Happy Family does not exist. Children fall out with their mothers and fathers. Siblings cut off and never speak to each other again," writes Mr John, who has not talked to his mother in the last couple of years.

"So here I am. Into my 60s, still not speaking to my mother and living with the likelihood that she may pass on and we would not have made up in time for me to attend the funeral. It sounds pretty horrible, I know. But for some of us, that's life."

Some readers will probably judge him, he acknowledges with a shrug.

"But if God looks into my heart, does he see me hating my mother? He won't. I will trust that he can see what's in there."


Alan John talks about the thrill of being a newsman

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline Good grief, veteran ST editor's life stories could fill a book. Subscribe