A veteran sports writer from India who works in Singapore recounted an exchange he had with a taxi driver; it seems the man was astounded that the journalist had not read Sumiko Tan’s column that had appeared in The Sunday Times the day before.
“How can you not have read it?” asked the taxi driver, who came to pick up sports writer Rohit Brijnath at the ST office.
It was then that it dawned on Rohit just how widespread the appeal of Tan’s column was, he recounted in an ST write-up last year about the columnist, whose compilation of articles titled Sundays With Sumiko is now available in Malaysia.
Tan’s fortnightly column in ST, which started in 1994, lasted 22 years. She wrote candidly about her family, career, dogs and explored topics like death, even sleeping arrangements with her husband.
“One of the nicest things about being married is that I’m no longer on a hunt. On a hunt for a husband, that is. What a relief it is to have settled down,” she once wrote.
Such a frank admission is quite ironic for someone who confesses to being shy.
“Not sure why I’m not so shy when I write the column, though. But I’m definitely not the life-of-the-party sort of person. I’m more likely to be the one listening when others talk and wondering when I can make an exit and go home,” she says in a e-mail interview.
She acknowledges that her writing on singlehood drew a lot of feedback from readers.
Back then, bloggers called her Singapore’s Carrie Bradshaw (the lead character in TV series Sex And The City who wrote a column for a New York newspaper).
Asked about this description of her, Tan seems to shrug it off.
“That was when I was single and writing about singlehood. Long time ago.”
What advice would she give to young people about dating today?
“Gosh, times have changed a lot from the time I was dating. Social media wasn’t that prevalent. Neither were smartphones. When I was getting to know H, the guy I eventually married, the most high-tech thing we did was Skype. We didn’t even have smartphones then. We had to go home to our computers to Skype.
“But in the end, whether it’s dating in the 19th, 20th or 21st century, it all boils down to chemistry, doesn’t it? I’ve also realised it’s very important to also like the person you love (if that makes sense).”
Tan’s views on love and dating are so widely read that when she got married at the age of 46 to someone she had known in her junior college days, one news posting reported that “Singapore’s most well-known single lady is finally tying the knot”.
But Tan’s scope is not just confined to writing about relationships and love.
She joined ST in 1985, covering beats like politics and crime.
When the six-storey Hotel New World collapsed in 1986, killing 33 people, Tan was among those who covered the tragedy.
“I was a rookie so I didn’t do any of the major stories but I was put on duty to be one of those at the scene reporting.”
The tragedy, she says, really affected her.
“I kept long hours at the site. Even today I can still picture the scene – the old woman who went there burning joss sticks because one of her relatives was trapped, the sickly sweet smell of death in the air, the policemen at the scene, the soldiers who were helping with the rescue.”
After that, she asked for a transfer to the crime desk. “At that time, there weren’t many women who did crime.” She even wrote two books on real-life crime, True Crime and Sisters In Crime.
She covered the beat for about two years before she went on to the political desk where spent eight years.
“I’ve been involved in covering all the general elections and by-elections in Singapore since 1988. Working at the political desk also involved a lot of travelling because that was the time Singapore was embarking on its regionalisation efforts, and I reported on ministers on overseas trips. In some memorable places – Jordan, Israel, India, China, Myanmar (before it opened up), Vietnam (it was just opening up), Hungary.”
She also co-wrote the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas in 1998.
“His far-sightedness was very inspiring. Also how receptive he was to feedback, even from a young journalist,” Tan says.
She had always wanted to be a journalist, even from her teenage years. “I was very influenced by the TV show Lou Grant. Also, I wasn’t too bad at writing in school, and kept a diary for many years. Maybe that was the start of my personal column.”
Tan, whose mother is Japanese, has had her share of naysayers.
“I try not to get affected by criticisms as that’s part of the territory of public writing.”
Once, a blogger commented that Singaporeans love to “hate-read” her personal columns – you can’t stand her, but neither can you stand not reading or talking about her.
“I am glad people do read me,” is all that Tan has to say about this.
The touching part, for her, is that many readers have told her that “what I’ve lived through reflect their own experiences”.
Now an executive editor of ST, she helps to oversee what the paper puts out daily in its print and online operations.
“The last few years I’ve also been involved in getting the newsroom’s digital and print operations to integrate, and right now one of my focuses is how we can do more in our digital operations.”
She is also busy with writing the fortnightly “Lunch With Sumiko” column where she has lunch interviews with top personalities – a concept Tan borrowed from “Lunch with FT” which appears in Financial Times.
“The difference, though, is it’s all written by me, so it’s my views on different people and how different each interaction is.”
The column came about because ST was tweaking The Sunday Times and, “I offered to do a profile series as I wanted to go back to writing about people.” (She had done profiles earlier in her career.)
Share some gossip, we ask, and she obliges:
“Tony Fernandes (of AirAsia) was one of my favourite interviewees. When we started the interview, we did it at, like, 5pm as that was the only time he had available. I think he wasn’t quite in the mood to talk because it had been a long day, but he warmed up and was really funny – and what great quotes!”
“Some people I thought I would like turned out to be rather boring, whereas others whom I thought weren’t so interesting proved otherwise. I guess it’s down to chemistry in the end.”
Who else would she like to interview?
“I was thinking the other day that I’ve been interviewing so many Malaysians, or people born there – fashion designers Han Chong and Priscilla Shunmugam, May Schooling (the Ipoh-born mother of Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist, Joseph Schooling), artist Sonny Liew, and Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling. Tash Aw is also coming up.
“And I’ve only done, like, 24 lunches so far,” she quips.
She would love to interview US President Donald Trump. “And your former PM, Mahathir.”
Asked about the good and bad in her three decades in journalism, she says:
“The best thing about journalism is how every day is a new day, every story a fresh start.
“You never feel bored because you don’t know what a new day will bring. And if you write a bad story, you always have a chance to prove yourself again in your next story.
“The worst would be the long hours, I guess. But if you love your job, long hours don’t feel long.
“You’ve got to love the job or why bother to be in it. You’ve got to feel excited by news, by the thrill of creating a well-told story, and that feeling of satisatisfaction at seeing your byline.”
Journalists these days, she feels, should be a subject expert rather than a generalist, “because to stand out, you need to have areas of expertise where you can comment intelligently”.
“And you’d want to have digital skills. You need to understand how the world of digital journalism works and be au fait with trends.”
Tan, who has a degree in English, says the standard of English in Singapore is OK generally.
“But with digital devices and the Internet, though, I suspect young people don’t read enough good fiction, and I’m a firm believer that you need to read good fiction if you want to improve your English. The more you read, the more intuitive the language becomes to you.”
She has been reading a lot of Alice Munro in the past year. Ha Jin is another of her favourite authors.
Does she think about the “R” word?
“Funnily, I have been thinking a lot about retirement in recent times. I’m hoping I haven’t left it too late to start thinking about it. There are so many things one has to reconcile with – change in financial situation, what to do with your time, how to remain engaged with the world around you.”
“I am still sorting out in my mind what I’d like to do.”