Desmond Leong with his Golden Handshake Award by Kenyalang Press Awards in 2016.

THE year was 1967. How many newspaper editors in the world would have entrusted a young 17-year-old budding journalist/writer with an entire page of his broadsheet English daily in filling it with vibrant content to attract the interest of teens and young adults on the various topics of entertainment – music, movies, books and hobbies?

Not just on a one-off, but on a regular and weekly basis?

Desmond Leong, the then-editor of The Vanguard newspaper had invited me earlier that year to become a columnist for his English daily on a weekly basis – every Thursday, I’d have to fill up one entire page (broadsheet) with local and international news, views, reviews and photos of topics under the sun pertaining to the world of entertainment – under the name and pseudonym of ‘Pop Art’. (Yes – that was ME!)

My experience up to that stage had been writing and editing for my school periodical The Square and annual magazine Thomian (at St Thomas’ Secondary School).

I had also been self-publishing a bulletin called The Aron, a cyclostyled bulletin of the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club of Malaysia of which I was President from 1966 to 1970.

My sister Edrea had earlier on that year taken on the penmanship of a column called ‘Teena’s Page’ at The Sarawak Tribune, writing about the joys and angst of typical teenage feminist issues. It had been quite the success and I had suspected that the Tribune’s rival paper The Vanguard had been on the lookout for a similar column to counter it and give its readers ‘an alternative viewpoint’.

How fortuitous that it happened to be a sibling’s!

It had apparently worked because within a short period of time, I was informed that both our columns were gaining popularity especially among the youngsters who had, prior to that time, been dependent on what the various news agencies had churned out – standard releases with no local input in these fields.

Family Leong with patriarch Leong Ho Yuen seated centre, (from left) sons Raymond, Desmond and Richard, in the Board of Directors of Sarawak Vanguard in the 1960s.

Desmond Leong himself had started at a very early age, helping out in his family newspaper business; at around the age of 17, he was already involved in many aspects of learning the trade. Father and family patriarch who had founded The Vanguard was Leong Ho Yuen, who was most politically active and had also been a co-founder of Sarawak’s first really multi-racial party called ‘Machinda’ – named after the first syllable of the three main races: Malay, Chinese and Dayak.

Leong’s entire family was involved in the newspaper (and printing press) business – all the sons, Richard, Raymond and Desmond sat on the Board of Directors of The Sarawak Vanguard (1952-1974) with the patriarch himself as the Chairman.

Desmond himself had started as a press photographer in 1957, at age 17, and had six years later in 1963 became its Chief Editor. A year later, in 1964, he had founded the English edition called The Vanguard. I was then just 14 and my father had started subscribing to The Vanguard as it was only the second English daily after The Sarawak Tribune (which had been viewed as the establishment paper – where all the government advertisements and points of views had held sway).

The Vanguard had appealed to those who had wanted a more independent voice – especially with Sarawak having merged with the federated states of Malaya, Sabah and Singapore to become Malaysia in September 1963.

I was all of 17 years old, in Form 5 at St Thomas’ Secondary School, studying for my Cambridge O Levels when Desmond gave me a job as a columnist in 1967. Every week without fail, I would fill up an entire broadsheet page of The Vanguard with news, views and reviews of pop, rock, jazz, folk music; on books and magazines; shows and concerts; and any other topics covered under ‘the arts and culture’ of the day – for local and international.

I would also cover interviews with visiting musicians, artistes and shows, and also be invited to quite a number of events and functions.

By the end of 1969, I had finished my Cambridge A Levels exams and I had then joined The Vanguard as a sub-editor cum reporter from November that year for four months till early March 1970 when I was successful in my interview with the Borneo Company and had started work with them as an Executive Cadet on March 7, 1970.

A young Desmond Leong – Era 1960s, at Niagara Falls.

My four-month full-time spent with The Vanguard was a real eye-opener! Up till that point in my life, I could say that I had lived a rather sheltered life as most teenagers had in those days (remember this was the 1960s) when the idea of having fun had meant picnic trips to Santubong, Matang or Ranchan Pool in Serian; when showings of big movies like ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Cleopatra’ set the town abuzz; when fans lined up to buy the latest Elvis and Cliff records; and fun fairs with appearances by Rose Iwanaga, The Blue Rebels, Jimmy Kueh and Janice Wee were jam-packed with pop fans!

One of the very first real life interviews that Desmond had sent me out to cover was a new stage show act at the popular Borneo Room in the Borneo Hotel, Tabuan Road – it was acclaimed as having a live albino python together with a French showgirl on stage!

I really had the shock of my life when the gorgeous blonde French woman appeared in the interview room, totally naked with just a huge white python around her neck! There I was, with my assigned photographer, the ‘infamous’ Cyrus Chong (who became a good friend) and another reporter from the Chinese edition of The Sarawak Vanguard.

To say I was lost for words was an understatement!

But I think I did submit a pretty good interview for the next day’s edition. Oh yes – I did eventually find out that it was a rather sexy striptease stage show, as the Borneo Hotel was then well known for such antics.

As a junior cub reporter, sometimes I’d be sent off to follow certain stories as they broke – it could be a nasty road accident, once it was a suicide, and then there were the regular political functions, company dinners and association anniversaries and other events.

Reporters would quickly reach a stage when the sight of ‘mass produced’ food would simply turn them off and how they’d long for a simple bowl of porridge or just a quick burger.

Since those days, I really do empathise with our news-gathering fraternity in the way they have been treated as well as the lack of esteem and concern that’s due to them. I don’t think that these attitudes have changed at all since the 1960s, and that’s over half a century ago!

However, I have also seen reporters and news people being given their dues – in the many awards and accolades being given to them; the respect and honour that many writers, journalists and editors have accumulated over the years. Most people do not realise that they are more than just mere messengers and news-gatherers and opinion-makers; the really great reporters and editors can make a real difference throughout the world – in all fields, at all times and at unexpected periods and moments – and many have changed the course of history.

Some of my heroes, besides Desmond Leong who is forever my ‘Guru’ in the field of editing a daily newspaper, would include such famous names like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward whose book in 1974, All the President’s Men, had brought down Richard Nixon; Christopher Hitchens; Ben Bradlee; Jann Wenner; Tina Brown; and a host of others.

Front page of The Vanguard, with the exclusive headline news on May 14, 1969.

Desmond, my mentor, had started work at his family business of The Sarawak Vanguard at age 17 in 1957 as a press photographer; in that capacity he had travelled the world to most of Europe and the United States; he’s even been to see the Niagara Falls between the borders of Canada and the USA, and to have his photo op at the White House.

He has been friends with the most famous people, from the ‘Bapa Malaysia’ the Tunku, to our first Chief Minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan; to my others personal heroes like Datuk Amar James Wong and my uncle Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui… and other famous photographers like KF Wong and Ho Ah Chon too.

Although he has written, edited and reported on politics, he has never been directly involved in politics himself, probably having personally seen how his father had fared in ‘this dirty game’; although his own political leanings are well known.

He is a strong advocate of a really independent and sovereign state of Sarawak; among his published writings is a book called ‘The White Rajahs – Myths Retold’, subtitled ‘The Massacre of the Bau Hakkas’ – his alternative revisionist history of the rule of the Brookes in Sarawak.

Cover of Desmond Leong’s alternative Sarawak history book on the White Rajahs.

It’s now out of print, but he is contemplating a second edition.

Desmond is 82 years old this year. He has retired from public life and lives in Kuching happily with his wife and family, and goes on social media regularly to voice his views and share his experiences.

(His Facebook account is https://www.facebook.com/desmond.leong.125)

I wish him well – long life, peace, love and serenity, and I thank him for the many years of his mentorship, guidance and most of all, for giving me my first chance in writing for a public forum. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Be safe, keep well and may God continue to bless you, my ‘Guru’!

Desmond Leong with the late Ho Ah Chon, famous Kuching photographer/historian.