Unapologetic, liberal, loud, loyal, patriotic, brave, passionate…. There are many ways that friends and foes can describe June HL Wong. The journalist has spent her entire news career at The Star, going all the way to the top as its group chief editor, spearheading changes to its lifestyle content and video division. There’s one thing no one can deny: She’s a darn good storyteller and a damn fine writer.
Over the last seven years, her column So Aunty, So What has been one of the more progressive voices to rise above the din. Clear, concise, sometimes controversial, she has used her series to speak about politics, social issues, world affairs, entertainment and technology, what it means to be Malaysian, life and death, and many more topics that are of concern to the rest of us.
Her opinions, sharpness and her wit have now been compiled into a 400-plus page anthology, her first book aptly titled So Aunty, So What? And Some More. “I write about what I feel strongly about,” she says in an interview earlier this year. “There are things I don’t have enough knowledge to write about, unless I get so worked up about it, and there were times I didn’t want to write about politics. But I chose topics I was confident about.
“You want people to see you as a voice of reason. You don’t want to be too negative. You’re not adding anything. Yes, I’m a woman, I’m not Malay, I’m a citizen of Malaysia, and I’m not going to apologise for that. I don’t think I’m completely free of prejudice, but I try very hard not to let it influence my work.”
In our hour-long conversation, Wong is an open book herself, unabashedly sharing how proud she is of her accomplishment (“This book will never be a bestseller but it’s something I can pass on to my children, like a legacy.”), her fears (“ So many young Malaysians are so radicalised nowadays, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”), her vulnerability (“I still cry when I read what I wrote about my Dad.”) and her regrets (“I would say sorry to young June for not properly recording my history because there are such huge gaps in those 40 years and details I don’t remember.”).
Those stories are among the 100-plus stories in her book. Though the chapters jump across time and space, there is a precise narrative that comes through in each section. In ‘Politics And Politicos’, she not only takes on the establishment and the people in office, she also questions her fellow citizens. Even now she’s still searching for answers.
“You know, I don’t know what’s going to come after this change,” she says, referring to the historic election last year that put a new government in place after 61 years. “But can we achieve acceptance instead of tolerance? Tolerance is such an ugly word, but honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Her opinions have won her a fair share of praise and brickbats, she admits. When readers agree with her, they are effusive in commending her bravery, though she takes the pats with a grain of salt.
“Whenever I talk about racial issues, it’s always so popular. I get people saying, ‘Thank you for speaking up.’ But I feel so sad because it’s nothing new. But there’s this desperation among Malaysians.”
Equally swift as the applause is the backlash. “Whenever I talk about non-Malay problems, I always get a lot angry Malays complaining I’m not inclusive of their point of view. Sometimes I think my ideas just don’t get through.”
When we skirt back to her statement of “It’s nothing new”, Wong says that’s why she believes her words have stood the test of time. “I think most of the stuff is still relevant. Even though they have changed the government, some things are still the same. So that doesn’t mean I can stop writing about racism and discrimination.”
Of all the issues covered in her column, the one she feels she failed at was the gay issue. “I was told the timing was bad for my first piece about the LGBT (community). The article was published a year later, but I had changed it by then. I approached it very gingerly and I don’t think I did it justice. I was too careful, so it wasn’t useful to keep it in the book.”
But the book does contain more than just her column. ‘The Mahathirs’ and ‘Tales From The Grave’ both feature long-form articles originally published in the paper.
“My stories on the Mahathirs are very important to me because I had access to the whole family,” she says, “and by coincidence, he’s Prime Minister again. So I thought people might want to read about him, and those interviews give a good insight into their lives.”
Meanwhile, ‘Tales From The Grave’ now lies among her most personal work, a story motivated by her desire to chronicle her father’s family history following reports that Singapore was going to dig up an old cemetery where her grandparents were buried.
Being personal, Wong discovered, was less challenging than she thought.
“Columnists in the old days were very formal. I enjoy personalising my columns because it’s easier to write. And people like it because I humanise myself and they can relate to it, though sometimes I’m surprised how people think my articles are so personal when I don’t think they are. You know, especially in this day and age when people are so open about everything on social media.”
Being vulnerable, however, as she is in her pieces for ‘About Dad’, was a lot more painful.
“I started writing about my father because of his illness. It was so shocking to me, it all just poured out of me. I still cry when I read what I wrote. That’s why I don’t want to read from my book in public. But I’m glad my sisters liked what I did. They are my harshest critics, you know.”
Her father, Wong Heck Ming, was and still is her hero. The book is dedicated to him and in her author’s note, she explains exactly why. “Originally, I didn’t want to put him at the back,” she reveals in our chat.
“I thought he should be under the ‘That’s Life’ section. But as I went through the articles, I thought he deserved his own spot because he was the most popular subject I ever wrote about. Whenever it was about him, I had such great response. Even now, people are moved by his story. Those stories were definitely the hardest to write but also the most cathartic.”
As we reach the end of the interview, I ask her what advice she would give 18-year-old June in retrospect.
“Record your own legacy!” she says with a laugh. “Don’t be ashamed to put yourself in there because it’s your story as well. I wish I was braver. I wish I had pushed harder and challenged myself more. I wish I had taken more pictures. I had access to all these great people and I didn’t take enough photographs. And I regret not being an award-winner! There’s nothing in my cupboard to say I did something great.”
This is something anyone with her book in their hands will disagree with.