Staying true to self in 'ultimate mixtape': Why Ignatius Low bares his soul in his columns

Being a columnist is like being on American Idol, says former editor Ignatius Low

A columnist cannot be locked into one style, says Mr Ignatius Low. Like on American Idol, "you have your voice but people want to see it applied to different genres". Life Is A Mixtape contains over 70 of his columns. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

A couple of years ago, Mr Ignatius Low wrote a column in The Sunday Times about Sim Lim Square and the many happy hours he spent within its confines, hunting down computer parts, games and optical interconnect cables.

It prompted a writer in a marketing magazine to pen a snarky takedown.

Mr Low recalls: "He said: 'The world is falling apart and the deputy editor of The Straits Times is writing a column about a mall.'"

It didn't upset the former journalist who is now head of integrated sales at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

"I did my job as an editor well. But I wrote that in my capacity as a personal columnist, and that was my voice. If he felt the two were incompatible, then he has a strange view of human beings."

A columnist cannot be locked into one style, says Mr Ignatius Low. Like on American Idol, "you have your voice but people want to see it applied to different genres". Life Is A Mixtape contains over 70 of his columns. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

He adds: "It's totally conceivable and perfectly natural that a person like this can hold office. Behind every name card, big title and suit is a real person with idiosyncrasies and you have got to accept it."

Indeed, the 44-year-old has been wearing his heart on his sleeve on many a Sunday for this paper for the last 12 years.

Some of his topics? His penchant for melodramatically sad Chinese love songs. His struggle with body image. His pain over love lost. His exhilaration at discovering designer underwear.

He has also aired views on contentious issues. Is Annabel Chong - the Singapore-born-and-bred woman who gained infamy for having sex with 251 men in 10 hours in 1995 - a national icon? Should trees along Orchard Road be cut down to make the area more vibrant?

More than 70 of these columns have now been compiled into the book, Life Is A Mixtape, published by Straits Times Press and released a couple of days ago.

Mr Low, who used to gift friends with cassettes containing songs he personally curated, calls this collection his "ultimate mixtape".

Some have earned him brickbats and others, bouquets, but each column, he says, "has been a bittersweet memory, a unique point of view or a prayer for the future".

Those who do not know Mr Low will find him a bundle of contradictions. He can squeal giddily over a Club 21 sale one moment, and incisively analyse the merits of the Singapore Budget the next.

A stocky man with a buzz cut, moustache and goatee, Mr Low has a loud voice, a quick brain, a toothy grin and an easy manner which makes him rather likeable.

The beefy frame, broad shoulders and sizeable biceps, he candidly admits in one column, were cultivated through manic eating, weightlifting and supplements.

He has, he reckons, muscle dysmorphia, probably because he used to be slight and effeminate and came in for a fair bit of bullying when he was a kid.

It did not help that he was the eldest son of the eldest son in a Peranakan household.

His parents and paternal grandmother, who helped to raise him, were protective and preferred him docile, not active. "In the ideal Peranakan world, the eldest son must be senonoh," he says, using the Malay word for proper.

"You should be fair-skinned, refined, you hair has to be parted a certain way, your glasses must be correct," adds Mr Low, who has a younger sister.

Health issues - he had a blood disorder in which the immune system destroys blood platelets - made things worse. "I had to take steroids, go for monthly check-ups and couldn't play sports at all."

    By Ignatius Low

    Available at $25 (including GST) at major bookstores and

Fortunately, the disease cleared up after a few years.

Although his experiences gave him a bit of a complex, he grew up happy.

From his father, a former paralegal at Donaldson & Burkinshaw, he says he inherited his love for language and order.

"I used to go with him to his office on Saturdays, and watch him work. He would just stand there and dictate letters he drafted in his head to his secretary. He was very good at explaining things," he says.

His creativity is from his mother, a gregarious soul with an enterprising bent. A former sales supervisor at Tangs, she once set up a dress shop which counted the Sultanah of Johor as a client, and still produces a line of kebayas retailing at department store OG.

"She instilled in me the sense of being who you want to be instead of fitting into a role which society has dictated for you," he says.

Mr Low breezed through St Michael's Primary and Catholic High and found himself doing triple science - usually favoured by students wishing to pursue medicine - at Hwa Chong Junior College.

Not by choice, mind you, because he loved literature and language, but because it was what all his classmates did. It did not take long for him to realise he was out of his depth.

"There was a chemistry spot test one day and I couldn't answer any of the questions. So I copied from my partner who ended up getting one mark out of 10. I had half a mark. I realised I could be in the wrong course and that I could fail.

"It taught me to listen to my instincts. It's not always about taking what you think is the best option in life," says Mr Low, who switched to humanities and did so well that he won a government scholarship to read philosophy and economics at Oxford University in 1991.

He breaks into a sheepish grin when asked if his three years in Oxford helped to shape him.

"There are actually two types of Singaporean students who go abroad. The first type, suddenly free from the shackles of Singapore society, would mix with all the ang mohs, go punting and rowing, drink beer and sit on the lawn.

"The other type becomes mildly disturbed by the foreign environment and rushes into the arms of fellow Singaporeans. That was me," he says with a guffaw.

He became the president of the Malaysian and Singaporean Students' Association and his room became a social hub where members would hang out.

Turning serious, he says reading philosophy did him a lot of good.

"It taught me to have an opinion on life. I am also able to carry through an argument on anything. It has helped me a lot, both as a journalist and columnist," says the gregarious man whose contemporaries at Oxford include Associate Professor Donald Low at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and well-known Malaysian opposition politician Tony Pua.

As a member of the Administrative Service, his first posting was to the Ministry of Finance (MOF) where he was involved in crafting policy. At that time, there were six statutory boards under the MOF, including the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) and the Commercial Affairs Department.

"Anything which required the minister's approval had to come through my department. It made me realise the length and breadth of the world we live in. I was a philosophy student suddenly confronted with real issues like company and financial security."

Two years later, he was posted to the MAS where he was involved in, among other things, the liberalisation of the stockbroking industry and the sale of POSB to DBS.

"There is one moment I will always remember," he says, leaning forward to play raconteur.

It happened, he says, during the meeting when the sale of POSB was finalised. "DBS had all its bankers there; the POSB and MOF had theirs too. Then all the POSB staff started crying. I realised then that making policy is not just winning the argument; there's a very human element involved as well."

Although he was doing well, a restlessness gnawed at him. He wanted to explore other career options including journalism.

It came to a head when he attended a workshop where the participants were asked to draw something which would represent themselves 10 years down the road.

"I drew a man hanging himself. The trainer then told me: 'Wah, you have something serious to think about.'"

He talked it over with his sister, an artist, when he attended her graduation in England. "She said: 'Why care what others think? Why do you want to hang on like that?'"

Upon his return to Singapore, the former intern at The Business Times applied to SPH. Just a few months later, the then 26-year-old started work as a financial journalist at The Straits Times.

His ascent was rapid. In four years, he was made deputy editor of the Money Desk.

In 2004, he went to SingHealth to be its head of organisational planning. He lasted just four months.

"A former boss at MOF asked me to join her. It was the wrong move," he says simply.

He came back to SPH. Since then, he has held several positions at The Straits Times: Money Desk editor, Sunday Times editor, managing editor and, before his move to marketing last year, Straits Times deputy editor.

His first column for The Sunday Times in 2005 was about buzzwords and whether Singapore was a land of opportunity. It took him a long time to write and he thought it did not pass muster although his editor liked it.

"Lo and behold, people wrote in and said what a good piece it was, and that it was not the normal thing they expected to see in ST."

He did not set out to emulate them but says he looked up to Sumiko Tan and Richard Lim, both of whom used to helm personal columns for The Straits Times.

"I really like Sumiko's confessional style of writing. Some of her columns really moved me. She wrote one about her phone and why it was so important to her. She's kept all her SMSes and occasionally goes through them to remember what it felt like.

"I was in the middle of a break-up and it was so true," says Mr Low who has been in a relationship for more than a decade.

His decision to adopt a light and personal tone to talk about issues is a deliberate one.

"Going into heavy analyses about geopolitical or political trends is not me, not my voice. Slowly, I introduced more of myself... but I always made sure I had a point."

For instance, a piece about his donation to the natural history museum's purchase of dinosaur skeletons became a platform to talk about how this country lacks experiences which give Singaporeans a sense of their place not just in the world but in time.

In reminiscing about his past, he sometimes incurred the displeasure and unhappiness of friends.

In one column, he wrote about a high school reunion and sitting next to his former girlfriend, imagining what life would have been like if he had married her. "She was very unhappy about it, her husband was unhappy. Readers wrote in and said: 'How can you say that? Imagine how the hubby would feel.'

"I realised yes, you can be personal, yes, you can say what you think but you also have to be careful about what other people may think."

Being a columnist is like being on American Idol, he says. "You have your voice but people want to see it applied to different genres. You cannot be locked into one style, it will become very boring."

The music buff does not bat an eyelid when asked which song best describes his feelings as a columnist. "Somebody by Depeche Mode," he says, referring to a hit by the British electronic band.

He then reels off the lyrics: "She will listen to me when I want to speak about the world we live in and life in general. Though my views may be wrong, they may even be perverted, she'll hear me out and won't easily be converted to my way of thinking. In fact she'll often disagree but at the end of it all, she will understand me."

Putting together Life Is A Mixtape, he says, has been an interesting exercise. "What struck me was that the same themes recur over 12 years. That comforted me because it shows I have a consistent identity, and am true to myself.

"The malls may have changed, so have the fashion brands and the music, but I have not."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline Staying true to self in 'ultimate mixtape': Why Ignatius Low bares his soul in his columns. Subscribe