Learning > Inspiration

Merdeka Generation: The big stories in the life of an ex-journalist

Rahimah Rashith on 22 May 2019

The Straits Times


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While the pioneer leaders were the architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story of our Merdeka Generation, those born in the 1950s who lived and persevered through a tumultuous period.


Newspapers may take up just part of the day for many people, but they have pretty much been former journalist Salim Osman's whole life - including helping him find his lifelong love.


Born in 1951 to a labourer and his housewife wife, Mr Salim had a simple childhood. He lived in a stilted kampung house in Geylang Serai with eight other siblings, while his father toiled, first as a pump attendant for Shell, then as a trishaw rider.


"We were poor, but we found a way to survive," he said.


After completing his pre-university education in 1970, Mr Salim started looking for work and took on an "underpaid" role as a clerical assistant almost a year later.


"My grades were not good enough for university. So I started applying for office jobs, but I could not get anything," he said. "I was earning $250. It was lower than average for even back then. But because I needed a job badly, I just took it up."


In 1971, through an old friend and sports journalist at Malay daily Berita Harian, he started working as a reporter in the newspaper.


"Back then, there was also no school of journalism or formal training - we learnt on the job," he said.


At the newsroom, adventure was always around the corner, recalled Mr Salim. In 1974, he was part of a team that reported on the Laju ferry hijacking incident.


On Jan 31 that year, four armed terrorists attacked the Shell oil refinery on Pulau Bukom, planning to blow it up. When their plot failed, the terrorists hijacked the ferryboat Laju and took its five crew members hostage.


Over the course of seven days, there were intense negotiations between the terrorists and the Singapore Government.


"It was a big story. I was there every day." he said.


"We (the journalists) could not go near the island, so we took a bumboat and went close to the Laju ferry to capture the incident."


The crisis was resolved after the Singapore Government provided the terrorists safe passage to Kuwait in exchange for the release of the hostages. "It was a thrilling episode," recalled Mr Salim.


In 1973, while covering a story at the University of Singapore, Mr Salim met his future wife Jamaliah Abdul Rahim.


"She was then a student at the university. And her close friend happened to be someone I knew from my kampung. From there, sparks flew and we started dating," he said.


Encouraged by his then girlfriend, Mr Salim took the A-level exams as a private candidate and, in 1975, enrolled at the University of Singapore, where he studied political science for four years. On weekends, he returned to the newsroom to work as a part-time reporter.


"I was the only one in my family to go to university, so this was for them, too. I wanted to do well in life," he said.


During the university semester break in 1975, he got married.


"To get married that year as a student was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "I married the girl I loved. She inspired me. If she could go through university, I knew I could do it, too.


After graduation, he returned to the paper full time in 1979, first as a writer and then as an editor. He also started contributing stories to The Straits Times.


Mr Salim's senior years in the newsroom were just as thrilling as his earlier ones.


He recalled a trip taken by local newspaper editors to report on founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's second visit to China in 1985.


"After an event in Shanghai, we were supposed to fly with the whole entourage to Qufu, the home town of Confucius," he said.


But a miscommunication with the Chinese officials left Mr Salim and former Business Times editor Mano Sabnani stranded at an airport in Shanghai.


"Eventually, we found an 18-hour overnight train to Qufu," he said. "But there was only one sleeping bunker in first class, so we took turns sleeping in first class and then being wedged between Chinese workers in third class.


"We did not speak Mandarin, so it was quite an experience," he laughed. The duo were finally reunited with their group the next morning.


In 1987, Mr Salim moved to The Straits Times, where he became a foreign correspondent, first in the Kuala Lumpur office and then in Jakarta.


He retired in 2013, to look after his wife, a former teacher, who now has dementia. His days are now spent between caring for the 67-year-old and his three grandchildren.


Mr Salim also enjoys cycling and taking part in community programmes. Over the years, he has contributed memories of his childhood, including a photo of his childhood home, to the Geylang Serai Heritage Gallery and the Oral History Centre.


Mr Salim even learnt the guitar to sing to his wife, as a form of musical therapy.


"She needs more care now. She cannot speak, most of her vocabulary is gone," said Mr Salim.


"It was with words in a newspaper that I pursued my career. And that led me to my wife. Today, it is her words, even if just a few, that will still continue to give me hope."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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